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Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution

Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution - David Carter The Indian independence movement had the Salt March; the Civil Rights movement had the Birmingham bus boycott; and the gay rights movement had the Stonewall riots. I’m not saying these very different events achieved the same things for their respective enterprises, but they were historical milestones one can point to, which show that an empowerment/liberation movement had achieved a certain “critical mass” or “tipping point” recognizable outside the dedicated core.The Stonewall riots occurred over June 18-21, 1969, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The fighting was precipitated by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, the city’s largest gay bar. David Carter does a nice job describing the backgrounds of some of the key characters, as well as of the Stonewall Inn itself, and the surrounding neighborhood. I’m tempted to dump a lot of information here, about the Inn, and all the previous owners dating back to the mid 1800’s, and all the colorful and surprisingly liberal history of Greenwich Village. This book is filled with interesting tidbits and tangents of that nature, so reading it really did give me the sense I was being told a story. Well, and I was; this is the nonfictional lore of an oppressed minority who glimpsed that the future didn't need to be as bad as the past. The book starts in the Prohibition Era. Alcohol was illegal, but of course the demand for it remained. This only increased what establishments could charge if they undertook the risk of serving it. New York’s crime syndicate families ran highly-profitable “speakeasies” in this era, and turned a blind eye to other illegal activities the patrons wished to take part in, including gambling, prostitution, and homosexual activity -from as innocent as handholding and close dancing to actual sex. Yeah, homosexuality was illegal. You probably had a general sense of that, but Carter furnishes some details about those laws, and how they were enforced, which may blow your mind. Close dancing between same-gender partners was classified as “disturbing the peace”... even if it occurred in a private room, in a private club. Same-sex kissing was ruled public indecency, also regardless of how private the setting. Wearing more than three articles of “gender-inappropriate” clothing was… I forget, but something like disturbing the peace too. Sodomy was criminalized by specific laws. Etc. So you get the picture- essentially most elements of the gay lifestyle were criminalized.Back to the bars: so during Prohibition, these old mafia families didn’t care what happened in their establishments, as long as the profits kept rolling in. Thus, the idea of a “gay bar” was born, and the convenience, the sense of community and whatever other advantages of the arrangement were so attractive, that even when Prohibition was repealed, the mafia continued operating gay bars at amazing profit: at one point in 1968, the Stonewall is noted to be regularly hitting $5000 profit per night! If the owners had cops on the payroll, they could avoid most police raids, so these bars had a sense of relative safety to gay men, who had few other options. On the downside, the men paid excessive prices for watered down drinks, and occasionally, the cops could be forced with political pressure to raid and shut down gay bars. Most of this pressure came from moralizing politicians, especially around election time. Gay men caught in raids frequently had their lives ruined… losing employment, being disowned by family, etc. Another risk of the gay bars is that they were an easy place for blackmailers to target. Carter goes into detail about all that, but you can pretty much imagine.So fast forward to 1961. Mafioso Tony Lauria buys a diner with fire damage on Christopher Street for a bargain price, and opens it as the Stonewall. It is a modest building, but nevertheless its square footage makes it the largest gay bar in the city. Its Greenwich Village location also puts it close to the epicenter of New York gay culture. Soon it's the most popular and most profitable gay bar in town. For whatever reason, the Stonewall has a much different character too. Most of the other bars in town persist in the very dark, low key way gay bars had traditionally been… concerned with not attracting too much attention. The Stonewall, in contrast –all parties seem to agree- was actually FUN! It had music, dancing (with by far the largest dance floor) and a spirited, positive mood. Its capacity, decor and inviting character made it a mixing place for a lot of different subgroups within the gay community… and there are a ton of ‘em. Carter catalogs these different stripes of gay, and these distinctions don't seem like they should be very important from the vantage of an outsider looking in from 2012, but these differences meant a lot to the men at the time: closeted gay men, openly gay men, transvestites, transgendered at different stages, tough gay guys, effeminate gay guys, guys into the "leather scene", etc. A lot of these groups didn’t mix well previously, but the universal appeal of the Stonewall made them overlook this and coexist (sometimes uneasily). This is definitely one of the important and unique qualities of the Stonewall: it fostered or at least greatly strengthened a sense of community and later solidarity within the New York gay society, which hadn’t existed before.Beyond being a place to socialize, a lot of gay intellectuals, politically-minded activists and writers also met at the Stonewall, so the place was really a de facto base of operations for certain empowerment activities. The big one in the late-60’s was the successful gay protest against police entrapment techniques. When police decided, for whatever reasons, it was time to arrest a bunch of gay men, their favored techniques were raids or entrapment. Entrapment would entail a plainclothes cop entering the bar, posing as a customer, and trying to get somebody to commit an arrestable offense. Some of the real-life examples in here are just outrageous: one cop follows a man from gay bar to gay bar, pleading all the while that “all he wants to do is buy [him] a drink”. When the target breaks down and allows the cop to buy him a drink- as soon as he takes the first sip, he gets handcuffed. By some reading of the law, one man allowing another man to buy him a drink “in a place of known homosexual activity” is itself a crime. In another crazy example, a plainclothes cop enters a gay bar and proceeds to MASTURBATE IN AN OPEN TOILET STALL, asking other patrons who come in to use the facilities whether they’d like to “join him”. If anybody accepts the invitation, they are immediately arrested for lewd conduct!! Your tax dollars hard *ahem* at work.So anyhow, with all the other rights and empowerment movements afoot in the mid/late 60’s, a group of determined gay men decide to fight the entrapment techniques. By challenging the charges they are brought up on, appealing guilty judgments, and creating as much media attention around the absurdity of it all, they manage to shame the Mayor and Chief of Police into agreeing that assigning cops on the beat (heh) to masturbate in gay bars is not an appropriate use of taxpayer money. This success is one of the big early triumphs of the movement. It’s one of those classic “Speaking Truth to Power” moments, where it doesn’t matter how massive the machinery against these men; the simple truth is so powerful and compelling, City Hall is shamed into doing the right thing. It’s also a big deal, because actively creating publicity around an arrest was such a departure from the norm for these men. Previously, they had always meekly pleaded “guilty” to all charges, and asked for court leniency... anything to get the legal process over as soon as possible, while calling minimal attention to themselvesOh. This is going to be another of my super-long reviews isn’t it? And I haven’t even gotten to the riots. Well, maybe that’s appropriate, because the background is more fascinating than the riots themselves. It all starts when decorated detective (and legitimate World War II combat hero) Seymour Pine is made head of the city “Morals Squad”… the unit tasked with “cleaning up” (i.e. shutting down) gay bars. He comes across as a guy with no particular ill will towards homosexuals, but determined to enforce the laws. We can have a conversation about that in the review thread maybe. Pine does not have a good relation with the Stonewall’s mafia owners, and is not himself on their payroll, so he targets the bar for an aggressive raid. He not only wants to arrest all the patrons (standard procedure), he also wants to take the cash register and the management’s books (VERY non-standard procedure). He also suspects the upstairs is running a prostitution ring (it is, actually), which he’d also like to bust.Expecting the patrons to meekly submit to arrest, he shows up with just a few other police as backup… a grossly inadequate force, it happens. It is the first big raid on the Stonewall, and the patrons sense that something valuable is being taken from them. Without any central organizing figure, they resist arrest. Then they start to fight the cops, and actually trap the cops in a back room, where they are unable to call for backup. More interesting still, instead of running from the establishment, the patrons call other members of the community to join them. Pretty soon the neighborhood is filled with hundreds, and eventually more than 1000 Stonewall patrons and friends are protesting the raid. It gets more violent, and this is where the story really loses any resemblance to MLK/Gandhi nonviolent ideals, but that’s the history here: police cars get flipped, and some bricks and Molotov cocktails are thrown. Eventually one of the cops (a police woman posing as a lesbian) escapes through an air duct to the roof (I thought climbing through air ducts was only the stuff of movies!), and calls for backup from the local fire station. The riot cops show up, and there is more violence. Notably, the crowd's ire is really inflamed when a cop starts abusing a lesbian patron who resists getting loaded into the paddy wagon. This results in the worst of the fighting and damage, as well as a lot of cat-and-mouse chasing of the crowd, and occasionally the crowd chasing the police. Amazingly, there is only one fatality, and it is not a cop or a Stonewall patron; it’s an elderly taxicab driver who was tragically and quite unintentionally in the wrong place at the wrong time. The confrontation ebbs and flows for three days. Looking back on it after the fact, it’s such a giant mess, it’s hard to sift through and say what all the different moving parts meant. It was definitely a very visible turning point for gay power, because the days immediately after the riots was the first time many of the men interviewed felt comfortable walking out in public (if only in the very gay-friendly neighborhood immediately around the Stonewall) openly gay (i.e. holding hands with partners, etc.) The riots, despite the destruction, the injuries, and the one fatality- did give the men involved a sense of their own power. This comes across very clearly in a lot of the interviews; over and over, various participants say they “simply had enough”, or they “weren’t going to take any more”, "they weren't going to be pushed around any more" or “[the police] had crossed a line, and it was time to stand and fight.” Over the longer term, the riots were also significant for getting the more politically-minded members of the community energized about channeling their anger into more productive social and legal activities aimed at promoting gay rights and dignity- like the efforts of the Gay Activism Alliance, detailed in the final chapters. The riots at Stonewall showed organizers how populous and engaged their base was. It’s sort of like that moment in The Matrix, when Neo realizes he can stop bullets. That’s a good thing, because it’s hard to imagine a peaceful movement arising from a person or group before they have a sense of their own power and dignity. In fact, a lot of the participants and witnesses cited here agree that the riots essentially fizzled out after three days, because the participants “felt they had made their point”. Also attesting to this, Carter records a sign which appeared on one of the Stonewall’s windows after the final night of chaos:WE HOMOSEXUALS PLEA WITHOUR PEOPLE TO PLEASE HELP MAINTAIN PEACEFUL AND QUIETCONDUCT ON THE STREETS OFTHE VILLAGE- MATTACHINE*(* the Mattachine Society being one of the gay pride groups active in the Village at that time)And that sets the tone for the ending. Stonewall is amazing as a history book. I would not call it particularly instructive; and by that I mean you would not want to try to recreate these events, despite whatever good may have come from them. It’s a very unique set of circumstances, and quite a lot of it was not ideal, but it was an important step towards empowerment of yet another oppressed minority, and as such, deserves a place in the public memory and study.