Saturday, August 1, 2009

Stonewall, A Brief History

The Stonewall Riots were a turning point in Gay History. Many Gay people, don't know their own history. I was telling someone the other day, that when I was 26 or 27 years old, I worked in a restaurant in a small southern town. A gay male couple walked into the restaurant. I had waited on them before. They were in their early 50's. One of them asked me if I knew what Stonewall was. I said yes and he asked me..."What is it?". This kind of shocked me, because I was expecting him to give me a lesson in gay history. Turns out, he didn't know, and was asking me if I knew. I find this sad, that people don't know about the history and organizations that have brought us where we are today. Some people have an idea about what Stonewall was, but are clueless on some of the details about why it was so important, and what effect it has on today's gay population.To understand the significance of Stonewall, we have to know a little about what times were like pre-Stonewall.

The movement towards gay and lesbian liberation, follows on the coattails of several other movements that were already in progress. Late in the summer of 1969, people were already acting up in ways that they hadn‘t before. The Civil Rights Movement, Women‘s Rights Movement, Protests against Vietnam and The Counterculture of the 1960‘s were already in full swing. Other than a handful of organizations at the time (Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis), gay and lesbian people had few outlets to meet others like themselves. The bar scene was the most obvious hang-out spot. Although, the bar scene came with it‘s own obstacles.

In the 1960‘s gay bars were under attack. Most gay bars had their liquor licenses revoked in an effort to "clean up the city" before the 1964 Worlds Fair. Bars suspected of being gay meeting places, were often frequented by undercover cops, pretending to be gay men, in order to entrap suspects and arrest them. At the time, there was no law against serving homosexuals, however the courts gave the SLA (New York State Liquor Authority) the sole discretion in revoking liquor licenses of those establishments that it deemed "disorderly". One of the things that the SLA deemed "disorderly" was any bar that allowed homosexuals to "congregate". None of the bars frequented by gay people, prior to the Stonewall riots, were owned by gay people. Most of them were owned by the Mafia and organized crime groups. These bars often operated with no liquor license and paid-off police officers to leave them alone. Those that didn‘t were subject to police raids. During a police raid, men in drag could be taken to the back of the bar to be searched to find out if they were indeed men, because of laws that prohibited cross-dressing. Women had to wear at least 3 articles of "feminine" clothing in order to escape prosecution during a raid. Many bars, had lights that would be turned up by the owners to let people in the bar know, that the bar was about to be raided. These lights warned their patrons to stop dancing and touching each other. A simple hand on another man‘s arm could be enough to get you arrested.

The Stonewall riots are named after the bar where they occurred (The Stonewall Inn). It was owned by the Genovese Mafia family and was subject to many raids. In the wee hours of the morning on June 28th, 1969, the bar became the subject of one such raid. It‘s said that the bar contained around 200 patrons that night and the police lined people up to check their ID‘s. Eventually, some of the drag queens refused to go to the back of the bar to be identified as men, and eventually, other patrons started refusing to show their ID‘s. The police then decided to take everyone downtown and sort them out there. Some of the patrons who were not arrested were allowed to leave, but they stood outside and watched the proceedings. Eventually, a crowd began to form. No one is quite sure who threw the first punch, but random scuffling between the police officers and the patrons being dragged out of the bar to the police wagons, began to infuriate onlookers (straight and gay alike). Crowds shouted anti-police sentiment. There were rumors of police beating patrons inside the bar. Eventually, pennies started being thrown because it was said that the bar was under attack because they had not paid-off the police that month. People started shouting " Let‘s pay them off now!" and people started throwing pennies at the police cars and vans. All of the sudden, pennies turned into beer cans and trash, and the trash turned into bricks. Reports say that the police were outnumbered by 500 to 600 people. Also police officers had barricaded themselves into the bar, along with detainees, for their own safety. People began throwing bricks into the bar windows, uprooting parking meters, and overturning police vehicles. Crowds began hurling lit garbage and spraying lighter fluid to burn the building down. Eventually, the Tactical Police force had to be called in, to clear the streets.

The next night, Christopher St. was in riot again, when people from the first night were joined by others who turned out to support the cause. Cars and busses arriving onto Christopher St. were harassed unless they admitted their support. All of Christopher St. was blocked and the Tactical Police Force had to be called in again.

The importance of the Stonewall riots, was that for the first time in modern history, gay people had taken a stand against their oppressors. Gay people began to realize that there is strength in numbers. Stonewall was not a "planned" event. It was the same spark that had incited other modern movements. They had simply had enough. Although a few other pro-gay groups had existed since the 50‘s, between 1969 and 1975, New York began to see an onslaught of new radical gay groups emerging. At the forefront was the Gay Liberation Front. Unlike earlier gay groups (Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis), Gay Liberation Front proposed a more radical way of bringing gays and lesbians into the mainstream. They thought that groups like The Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis were too soft and even accused them of using names that were obscure, in order to mask their intentions, instead of using the word "gay" in their namesake. They thought that earlier gay groups were too subtle and subdued. Inspired, by the riots, they did things never thought of before. They held all gay dances and public demonstrations., that were similar to anti-war demonstrations of the time, unlike their quiet predecessors before them. The problem with Gay Liberation Front was that their meetings lacked organization. Soon enough, because of their outspoken attitude, other groups started to emerge, like Gay Activists Alliance and Salsa Soul Sistas.

The greatest impact of the Stonewall riots, is that it took being gay out of dark alleys and shameful closets. It brought about a generation that would no longer put up with archaic stereotypes and old moral codes. It brought about a change that would allow us to live our lives in public, without the harassment of police. We found that we did not have to put up with other people‘s opinions about how to live our lives. Thank God for Stonewall!

Did you know….

Most Gay Pride parades and celebrations are held towards the end of June, to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

The most liberal newspaper at the time „The Village Voice" refused to print the word „gay" in Gay Liberation Front advertisements seeking new members.

Early gay bars were run in the same fashion that most speakeasies did, during prohibition. Having to know someone or using a password to get in, was common practice for owners of so-called „gay bars".

The FBI kept a list of known homosexuals in the 1950‘s and 1960‘s and the US Post Office tracked addresses to which homosexual publications were sent.

Those who got caught during police raids on gay bars, would have their names and pictures printed in the newspaper. Many lost their jobs after being discovered in the newspaper by their employers, even if they were not prosecuted.


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