The Revolution Started Here

The Stonewall Inn was a down-at-heel gay bar run by the mob, but when the cops raised it on June 28th 1969 it kicked off a revolution in LGBTQ politics. Brian and Nathan hear from scholars and participants in the Stonewall Uprising.


Motown Man by Eric Bolvin

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Announcer: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Speaker 2: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

Nathan: We’re going to start today’s show in the wee hours of the 28th of June 1969 with a police raid on a gay bar. A raid which would set off an earthquake that is still being registered today.

Lillian F.: From all accounts it was a shabby place with watered down drinks, much too expensive. But I think that gay men, in particular, and a few lesbians, loved the place because of the dance floor, which I have heard from a number of people who habituated the place that it was the best dance floor in all of New York for gay people.

Nathan: That’s the LGBTQ scholar, Lillian Faderman. The name of the bar she’s describing has entered the iconography of gay life.

Lillian F.: Officially, it wasn’t even a bar. They did not have a liquor license. It was supposed to be a private club and when you came you were supposed to sign in. People signed in with names such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. And that was the way the mob supposedly got around getting a liquor license.

Nathan: Run by the mob, the shabby Stonewall Inn was about to become a flash point in the battle over gay rights.

Speaker 2: Christopher Mitchell is researching New York City’s queer economic and cultural history from the 1940s to the 1970s. What was Greenwich Village like in the late 1960s?

Christopher M.: One of the things that’s happening in the 1960s is you see more and more businesses and more and more economic activity that’s geared towards queer consumers. Stonewall has opened a couple of years before the riots. And it’s written about in gay guides that are published in the late 1960s as a place that is fun to go to because you can dance and you can find cute people to hook up with.

Christopher M.: But there’s also this idea that you should beware of the Stonewall Bar and beware of the people that work there. There’s a warning in one of the Mattachine guides about blackmail and the fact that Ed Murphy the Skull, the infamous enforcer, is taking people’s personal information and then blackmailing them with it.

Speaker 2: One of the gay men living in Greenwich Village 50 years ago was the novelist, Edmund White.

Edmund White: At the time of the Stonewall rioter uprising, I was 29. I was working for Time Life. Not for Time Magazine but for their book division, and I was living in the village, and I was sort of a office worker by day and a beatnik by night, and going out to discos a lot. I would come home from work, go right to bed, then wake up after my disco nap around midnight and then go out on the prowl.

Edmund White: Stonewall was two big rooms, people think of it as a disco but it really just had a jukebox. It had a lot of gay favorites on the jukebox. When you entered. It had a long bar on the right. In order to enter, it had a small door. It was a mafia bar, so you had to go past a kind of big, fat, mafia guard who had a dead cigar in his mouth, and who would sort of, if you looked gay enough, would let you in. And then you’d go to the bar, which was horribly unhygienic, because they didn’t have running water. And they would wash out their glasses in dirty water. It was really pretty awful, and they charged more than people ordinarily would. But you could buy a beer, which was, I guess, safe enough.

Edmund White: In the first room, people danced around the jukebox, but never more than 20 people. And then in the next room, it was dark. They did just sit quietly on banquets along the wall and talk, and kiss maybe, I don’t know. When I first started going, it was mainly just white boys who lived in the village. But by the time of the Stonewall uprising, it was mainly kids who were coming down from Harlem. Black and Puerto Rican kids who were a different population, really. And probably much fiercer than the silly white boys would have been. I mean, when there was an actual uprising, they were kids who were used to confronting the cops and fighting back.

Lillian F.: In the wee hours of June 28th, the police raided nothing unusual. They often did that. They would come in, ask to see people’s IDs. If the ID didn’t suggest that they were a minor, or that they were trying to, quote, pass by disguising themselves as the other gender, quote, unquote. People would then be released and those that there was any suspicion about would be arrested.

Lillian F.: But this time, when people were released, what would usually happen if somebody was released in a raid is they would just run off. They would just be so happy to have gotten away without being arrested and taken down to the police station. But this time, people got out of the Stonewall and didn’t run off. They stayed around waiting for their friends and eventually a crowd accumulated.

Nathan: The writer and his story of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, David Carter, agreed to meet BackStory outside the Stonewall Inn in New York.

David Carter: Well essentially people collected in the street outside, and the crowd grew and grew mainly from passersby, and the feeling of the crowd went back and forth between humor and anger. And when the first patrol wagon came up to take prisoners away, the mood of the crowd darkened. And then they saw some people who were exiting being treated roughly by the cops, so that what made them angrier. And what really turned it was there was a lesbian, who was in handcuffs, apparently been hit on the head inside, was being brought out, and she was struggling with the police. They put her in a patrol car, she escaped.

David Carter: She tried to get back inside the Stonewall Inn. They put her back in. She escaped again, and she fought them ferociously and was being treated roughly by the police. And she said to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” And so the third time they heaved her body into the patrol car. And that’s when thing erupted. And then when the police retreated inside the bar, that made the crowd even … how can I say, that really unleashed the full fury because they thought we have the upper hand. They retreated.

Edmund White: Well being a little middle class twerp, I of course didn’t like the idea of people being violent and protesting the sacred police, so my first reaction was to try to say, “Oh, come on guys, let’s calm down, just calm down. Run away.” But then the excitement of the protest unleashed all these feelings even in me. People began to chant, “Gay is good,” which was supposed to be a parody of black is beautiful. So right away, I think people began to see themselves as an oppressed minority. In their way you could say the most important thing that happened at the Stonewall uprising was that gays went from feeling that they were a diagnosis to feeling that they were a minority.

Edmund White: The cops had a big paddy wagon, a black [inaudible 00:08:48] out front. And they hauled off. There were like maybe 20 people who worked in the bar and they were all hauled … or half of them were hauled off. And then the cops stayed barricaded inside the bar with the rest of them and the truck would come back and pick them up too.

Edmund White: But we all started protesting. I mean some customers were also arrested, the more flamboyant ones. But it was mainly the staffs. So anyway, while the cops were away and the other cops were barricaded inside the bar, people began to use battering rams. They pulled up parking meters and began to ram the doors, which were very heavy, thick, wood doors with these battering rams. They would take waste paper out of waste baskets and throw it against the door and light it with a lighter. That was a period when people were pretty violent and even in protests. And then the cops sent reinforcements and pretty soon the whole area was a war zone.

David Carter: People were just grabbing anything they could grab, that they could throw. There was some construction going on up here at the corner, they … a pile of bricks. So they were able to access to bricks there. Because there was a trench cut in the street, it was easier to get … called a cobblestones at this time, the street was not asphalt, but cobblestones.

David Carter: There were Belgian Blocks in the pits around the trees here, now as then. So there was a parking meter that had been hit by a vehicle that was loose, and that was uprooted to attack the doors to the Stonewall. And the wooden backing behind the two windows … people went to this cigar store right there and got lighter fluid, tried to set the place on fire. A trash can was set on fire and thrown through the window. Before that just a trash can had been thrown the window, it was one of the first things, is to break the glass, on this side with a trash can that was right next to … now you see the trash cans around containers. Back then they were just sitting out in the street.

David Carter: Everybody after the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and ’65, every minority was standing up for itself. Everybody that had a grievance was standing up and complaining, and demanding change and getting in the news, so I think that was part of what it was too, well if everybody else is standing up and demanding their rights, why shouldn’t we?

Nathan: Martin Boyce was a patron of the Stonewall who took part in the riot. This is how he remembers that night.

Martin Boyce: It was a huge riot and the loudest thing in a riot is silence. The whole street was silent. and the most important thing for us was to provoke the police to attack us because then we had time to run. Had they attacked us unprovoked, we didn’t have any time to get ready for what they were going to do. And there’s a thumping, and the crowd parted, and here comes the tactical police patrol. Like testeronic dread, shields, face shields, gas, clubs, guns, everything.

Martin Boyce: They’re made to put down a major riot in a major way. And they came … we just looked, and they looked, and I could not believe. They were called in to fight a bunch of yelly queers. But they didn’t attack right away, so we had to provoke them and it’s uncanny the way a herd can think. Sometimes so properly, so rationally. I would have never thought that. But this was right rational. We all grabbed each other and they a form a kick line, did a Rockette kick and sang one of our ditties, Throughout the Village Girls.

Martin Boyce: We were our era, and the police attacked. That was the first time they attacked, and you could see that if we kept this going and kept them chasing. And we knew the village like the Indians do the forest. We could wear them down because their drag was too heavy. Sure enough they were worn out very quickly. Well it was a feeling of valor, comradeship, something we never felt. We always felt like we got out of something. We were the victims that got out of something. Here we were the perpetrators that got into something. That was a good feeling because queens didn’t feel that way much.

Lillian F.: It was so dramatic, it was the first time that gay people fought back in huge numbers. Not the first time that they protested, there had been significant protests of police raids in Los Angeles in a bar called The Black Cat, another one at a bar called The Patch. There had been protests in San Francisco of police raids in the Compton’s Cafeteria. But it was the first time, I think, that huge crowds gathered, and were angry enough to throw things and to fight back. And the raids went on for several nights.

Nathan: But the violent clashes with the cops were motivated by more than just a botched police raid on a single gay bar. It took place at a time when civil rights struggle of all kinds were daily in the news, and political activism was increasingly direct and confrontational. Lillian Faderman.

Lillian F.: This was at the very end of the 1960s. This was June in 1969. An entire decade of activism and angry responses to authority. There was the black civil rights movement. There was the anti-Vietnam War movement. There was the women’s movement. There was a Puerto Rican movement. And New York was so much the center of all of these things and so young people on the nightly news would see that there was a lot of anger out there. And the anger was often demonstrated by riots or angry protests. And I think that the young people who were at the Stonewall that night were very angry too. The Stonewall had recently been raided and this was another raid. And other gay bars in Greenwich Village were raided. And so I think the mood of anger had been brewing throughout the decade.

Lillian F.: But it came to a head that night. The media did not get it. The New York Times had a little article about the Stonewall raids, on page 33, talking about how policeman had been hurt in a melee at a Greenwich Village bar. And that was it. That was the emphasize about the policeman who were hurt. The Village Voice had articles that two reporters wrote, very detailed articles. But for the most part mocking about the gay people at the Stonewall Inn. Another New York paper had a headline that said that a nest of homosexuals was raided and quote, “The queen bees are stinging mad,” sort of mocking the anger of the gay kids at the Stonewall.

Lillian F.: Other newspapers elsewhere around the country, didn’t pay much attention to it. There was even at that time a new gay newspaper in Los Angeles called the Los Angeles Advocate, which became and still is the leading LGBTQ magazine now in the country. But they thought that it was something significant that kids at the Stonewall Inn fought back. But for the most part, not much attention was paid to it except in Greenwich Village. And I think Stonewall has become the icon that it’s become because, just a few days after the riots, young people gathered and started a new organization called the Gay Liberation Front.

Lillian F.: The radicality of that organization is indicated just by its name. It was named after the communist Vietnam National Liberation Front. This was after all the days of the protest against the war in Vietnam, and many of these young people had been involved in those protests. The Gay Liberation Front, just the name caught the imagination of gay people all over the country in various cities everywhere in Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Chicago, and Philadelphia. Groups propped up using that name or a name similar to the Gay Liberation Front.

Lillian F.: But I think the most important thing that the New York Gay Liberation Front did is they decided that the riots needed to be commemorated. And so one year after the riots they decided they wanted a big parade throughout New York to celebrate the fact that gay people finally fought back. And it was a pride parade and they asked other cities to join in. Los Angeles did, Los Angeles had a parade commemorating the riots at the same time.

Lillian F.: In June of 1970, there was a big parade down Hollywood Boulevard with about a 1000 people. San Francisco had a very small march, and Chicago had a small march, but that was the beginning of the pride parades that every year commemorated the riots. And of course now, the pride parades are all over the world to not only commemorate the Stonewall riots, but also to celebrate LGBTQ people as we call the community now and to demand LGBTQ rights.

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A History of Stonewall Lesson Set

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In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, police officers raided The Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in New York City. These types of raids occurred regularly and without incident at other gay bars and nightclubs in the city. However, on this night, patrons of the bar stayed outside and protested the police interference into their lives. Though this moment was not well-covered by the national media, it became a turning point in the fight for equal rights in the gay community. Many historians credit this demonstration as the spark that launched many different LGBTQ groups to form and start a more coordinated movement for equality. It also represents another challenge to the social and political status quo of the 1960s.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, focus the legacy of the uprising at Stonewall Inn. Because of the personal nature of many of the accounts presented, encourage students to focus on the events from a historical lens.