Twenty-five years ago, the New York Public Library presented the exhibition Becoming Visible: The Legacy of Stonewall
, cu- rated by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, as well as an accompanying catalog. Planned to commemorate Stonewall 25, it was the first exhibition devoted to LGBTQ history by a major New York cultural institution. It had the highest atten- dance of any NYPL exhibition except the Dead Sea Scrolls. In my years working on LGBTQ collections at the library, I have had countless people tell me that the exhibition changed their lives because it was the first time they felt that their history was publicly embraced and treated with the seriousness it deserved. The exhibition was an opportunity to show the riches of the library’s LGBTQ archives, which had then recently been ac- quired by farsighted curators in partnership with grassroots activists. Now with the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, the library is able to open those archives through this anthology to give contemporary readers insight into this pivotal era in LGBTQ history through firsthand accounts of the actual participants.
The Stonewall Inn, located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City, began as a teahouse, Bonnie’s Stone Wall, in 1930, and later evolved into a restaurant. After a fire destroyed the interior in the early 1960s, the Stonewall was reopened by Fat Tony Lauria as a gay bar in 1967. Part of a network of Mafia-controlled, illegal gay clubs and after-hours joints in the Village (like the Bon Soir, the Tenth of Always, and Kooky’s), the Stonewall was operated as a private club, rather than a pub- licly open bar, to evade the control of the State Liquor Author- ity. Every weekend patrons paid three dollars and signed the club register—often as Judy Garland or Donald Duck—to get into the Stonewall, drink watered-down liquor, and dance to the music of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las. Despite the burnt interior, dirty glasses, and surly staff, the Stonewall— one of the few gay clubs in the Village where patrons could dance—drew a devoted young clientele. Many cross-dressed, wearing makeup or their own personal mix of men’s and women’s attire.
The police routinely raided the Stonewall, but the management, always mysteriously tipped off in advance, would turn up the lights to warn the crowd to stop any open displays of affection, slow dancing, or use of illicit drugs. According to most historians, the Stonewall’s management bribed the police for protection, and the raids were merely for show. But on Tuesday, June 24, 1969, there was another kind of raid, orga- nized by the NYPD’s First Division, rather than the usual and local Sixth Precinct. When the club was back up and running a few days later, the police decided to go in again on Friday, June 27, and shut it down for good.
The police were accustomed to handling a large gay crowd with only a handful of officers, but this night the raid went very differently. Rather than leave, a crowd of patrons and on- lookers gathered in front of the bar and waited for their friends held inside to be released. When the police van came to take away those who had been arrested, the crowd fought back, forcing the police into the bar. The riot gathered force from onlookers, who turned on the barricaded bar with garbage cans and fire. The drag queens were said to have given the po- lice both the fiercest resistance and a dose of humor, facing them down in a chorus line as they sang, “We are the Stone- wall Girls . . .” The crowd was controlled and dispersed in the early hours of Saturday morning, only to reemerge later that night as several thousand people took to the streets chanting, “Gay power!” and “Liberate Christopher Street!” Riots and demonstrations continued throughout the following week. In the end, the arrests and damage were minimal. What shocked both gays and the straight establishment was that queers had openly fought back.
That is the story in a nutshell. Everything else has become the stuff of queer legend and debate. First, we cannot agree on what to call this series of events. Was it a “riot” or an “uprising”? The activists and reporters at the time called it a riot, eager to compare it to the many other historic riots of the 1960s, such as those against racial oppression in Watts, New- ark, Detroit, and Harlem. Many later historians and critics have preferred to call it an uprising, insisting either that the level of violence and the size of the crowd did not warrant the use of the term riot
or, conversely, that calling it a riot denigrated the importance of the events. Stonewall is often marked as the beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, but that is of course not true. LGBTQ people had been organizing politically since at least the 1950s, with the emergence of organizations such as the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Janus Society, the Society for Individual Rights, and the Erickson Educational Foundation. Although these organizations were small, there were chapters of the fledgling groups across the United States by the mid-1960s. These organizations had magazines and conventions, and even staged demonstrations at the Pentagon, the White House, and Philadelphia’s In- dependence Hall. Some say that Stonewall was the first time LGBTQ people fought back, which is also not true. Stonewall was preceded by earlier queer revolts such as the Cooper Do- nuts Riot in Los Angeles in 1959, the Dewey’s restaurant sit-in in Philadelphia in 1965, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966, and the protests against the raid of the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles in 1967, among many others. Scholars, participants, and the interested public also debate how many days the uprising lasted and who threw the first brick, the first bottle, or the first punch. And more, beyond any of these questions we wonder what these events that transpired fifty years ago mean to us today.
With all these contradictions, scholars and documentarians have struggled to sort out the truth. In his pioneering account, Stonewall
, historian Martin Duberman provides an inside view of the lead-up to and impact of the uprising through the lives of six LGBTQ activists. David Carter, in his thorough history, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution
, painstakingly compares the testimony of eyewitnesses in order to reconstruct the events. They have been followed by numerous documentarians and everyday people who have tried to piece together what happened, why, and what it ulti- mately means for LGBTQ people and the world. Rather than provide another closed narrative of these tumultuous events, my purpose with this anthology has been to allow the reader to sort these mysteries out for themselves by reading the memoirs and testimony of the participants and those immediately touched by these historic events.
The anthology has been organized into three main sections: before, during, and after the Stonewall uprising. In the “Before Stonewall” section, I have attempted to provide a range of narratives that give insight into what it felt like to be LGBTQ in the 1950s and ’60s, as well as give an inkling of the range of activism that was emerging across the country before the up- rising. We have focused on but not limited ourselves to New York City. Given the tremendous range of stories, this selection cannot be representative, but only hopes to demonstrate a breadth of experiences and introduce some key LGBTQ politi- cal figures of the time, such as Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and Del Martin, as well as some possibly less well-known figures such as Ernestine Eckstein and Mario Martino. There are many challenges to producing an anthology like this one, the first being copyright. So many LGBTQ texts of the midtwentieth century are in publishing limbo. The texts are protected by copyright but have no clear representation that can authorize republishing them. This is particularly true of LGBTQ magazines, which were the main avenue for commu- nication and community building. But an even greater challenge has been the way the LGBTQ archives we have inherited have already been structured by the exclusion from the record of the voices of people of color. The movement’s own choice of the Stonewall uprising as a symbol for LGBTQ struggles for liberation has in many ways skewed the story to focus on the experiences of urban gay white men. In this anthology, I have endeavored to shift the narrative to a wider context and to ex- pand what does and doesn’t count as a Stonewall memory.
In order to understand this era, we have to understand that the history of sexuality and gender does not follow an even and upward march of progress toward freedom. Throughout history there have been cycles of freedom and repression. Same-sex relationships were discreetly tolerated in nineteenth-century America in the form of romantic friendships, but the twentieth century brought increasing legal and medical regulation of homosexuality, which was considered a dangerous illness. At the same time, there was increasing societal awareness of and anxiety about transgender and gender-nonconforming people as it became medically possible for people to transition. This change in attitude was accompanied by pockets of resis- tance, spaces that gays, lesbians, and trans people carved out for their self-expression. Sometimes these spaces were hidden, like the bars in Greenwich Village and Harlem that were frequented only by those in the know. Sometimes they were in plain sight, like the homoerotic subtexts and in-jokes of Hollywood movies. The repression of homosexuality reached its peak in the 1950s with the McCarthy era. During the paranoia of the Cold War, gay men and lesbians were seen as a corrupt lurking menace, easily used as pawns by communists.
Gays and lesbians began to organize during the 1950s with the homophile movement but were hampered by the lack of a political language with which to express their experience, as they were neither a class nor an ethnicity but instead were con- sidered victims of a moral and medical defect. The activists of this era fought for civil rights framed as inclusion in the society at large, focusing on employment rights and military service. As LGBTQ people struggled to organize and represent them- selves, the United States was torn by a succession of political struggles—the African American civil rights movement, the women’s movement, protests against the Vietnam War, and the emergence of the hippie youth subculture—that trans- formed the possibilities of political organizing in the United States. The narratives in this first section speak to this mix of repression and resistance, as well the growing range of politi- cal forces inspiring LGBTQ communities.
In the second section, I attempt to provide the wide range of memories of the Stonewall uprising itself. Who exactly was and was not at the Stonewall uprising is probably the most debated question in both the scholarship and popular opinion. Even the eyewitnesses disagree about who was there. Given that the event took place over more than five days and involved thousands of people, we will probably never know definitively who was there. For this reason, I have not attempted to police these narratives. I have taken witnesses at their word that they were there. The section begins with the news reportage of the events: Mattachine activist Dick Leitsch’s account, “The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World,” which ran in the New York Mattachine Newsletter
; and the reportage by Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV, which ran in the Village Voice
. These articles were key in framing the events for the public and appear to have structured participants’ memories as well. There then follows a wide range of testimony about the upris- ing from possibly familiar figures such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Martin Boyce, and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, as well as LGBTQ figures we might not realize were personally touched by the Stonewall uprising, such as Holly Woodlawn and Jayne County. In order to preserve the voices of the sub- jects, transcriptions remain faithful to the original interviews as much as possible, only correcting errors in spelling or punc- tuation in the transcriptions.
If the Stonewall uprising was not the beginning of LGBTQ political activism and not the first time LGBTQ people fought back against police repression, then why was it singled out as a defining moment in our history? The stories of the partici- pants make it clear that it marked the convergence of homophile-era activism with the energy and vision of the civil rights, antiwar, and counterculture movements that were transforming the country. The patrons at the Stonewall weren’t card-carrying Mattachine members. They were inspired by the many resistances to accepted authority that were taking place in the culture at large. Although the Stonewall uprising was spontaneous, it was used by both seasoned and new LGBTQ activists as a symbol of a new revolution. The small flames of resistance that LGBTQ activists had been tending and fanning for decades finally erupted into a mass political movement.
In the final section of this book, I provide a selection of personal accounts of the years following Stonewall and the tremendous explosion of activist energy that resulted from the uprising. I have included memoirs and manifestos by LGBTQ activists in New York City as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Today’s LGBTQ movement grew out of the activist organizations that emerged in the fertile and tumultu- ous year that followed Stonewall. Organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and the Radicalesbians quickly sprang up in the wake of the uprising and tackled LGBTQ activism in a whole new way. Rather than struggle merely for societal acceptance, they called for a com- plete transformation of the society as a whole, demanding not just equality but liberation. Veteran activists pursued their work with a renewed courage and tenacity, tackling oppressive insti- tutions such as the psychiatric profession. The emerging political movements all sent small groups of activists on road trips to spread the word. Activists around the country were inspired by the emerging revolutionary vision in LGBTQ politics and quickly adopted its new language. Chapters sprang up across the country, and many outlived the original groups in New York City. These groups in turn fought for civil rights and lib- eration in their home communities. The 1970s became a gay and lesbian renaissance with its own literature, music, poli- tics, and erotic presence. LGBTQ activists won major political victories, such as the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of mental disorders, and began to apply public pressure to combat nega- tive stereotypes.
The excitement and energy of the times are clear in these narratives, but it is also clear that the differences among LGBTQ experiences quickly became apparent in these new movements. Lesbian activists soon tired of the sexism of their gay male political colleagues. Transgender activists were in- spired by the gay liberation movement, but many gender- essentialist lesbians and gay men attempted to silence them and push them out of the movement. African American, Latina/ Latino, and Asian American activists critiqued the racism of the movement and sought to create new cultural spaces for LGBTQ people of color. Because the post-Stonewall political movements were inspired by anti-racist, feminist, and anti- imperialist politics, it was natural that these critical lenses would be used to analyze LGBTQ politics themselves. This era gave birth to political strategies, frameworks, critiques, and disagreements that continue to inform LGBTQ politics today. Clearly understanding that they were making history, these activists also recognized the need to recover the hidden history of LGBTQ people. Among the many activist groups that worked to archive this history was the International Gay Infor- mation Center (IGIC), which grew out of the History Commit- tee of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). The IGIC archives operated as a community-based repository until 1988, when the organization’s directors gave the collection to the New York Public Library. These archives, along with other archives and collections subsequently donated to the library, comprehen- sively document the political struggles in New York City since the 1950s and have made NYPL’s one of the most important archives of LGBT history in the United States.
These NYPL archives have grown in the ensuing years to include the papers of pioneering activists such as Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin Lahusen, Vito Russo, and Joseph Beam; the manuscripts of LGBTQ writers including Walt Whitman, May Sarton, and James Baldwin; as well as drag performers includ- ing Charles Pierce, Charles Busch, and Sylvester. The materials for this anthology, with two notable exceptions, have been drawn from this rich archive. The oral history archives of Eric Marcus have been an important resource for the anthology, providing the transcripts of interviews with Marsha P. John- son, Sylvia Rivera, Martin Boyce, Randy Wicker, and Morty Manford. Marcus’s archive of interviews was assembled to support the writing of his book Making Gay History
and lives on as the Making Gay History
podcast. The library is currently partnering with the NYC Trans Oral History Project to document the lives of trans people in New York, which has made it possible to preserve and present the stories of Jay Lon- don Toole and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. The archives of Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen provided the narratives of Gittings, as well as of Craig Rodwell. The rich research files of Martin Duberman supplied the narrative of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, as well as many pointers. Lastly, the extensive book collection in the IGIC and the LGBT periodical collection provided the bulk of the materials.
When I first started working with the LGBTQ collections of the library, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was an early-career librarian who had chanced to be a part of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP, as well as the gay liberation movement the Radical Faeries. The library was beginning a fund-raising initiative to help promote and pre- serve these LGBTQ history collections and needed someone who could speak to their importance. In the ensuing years it has been my tremendous privilege to meet and work with several generations of pioneering LGBTQ activists, historians, and artists, some of whom are included in this book. I have been continually humbled and awed by their visionary courage. These are people who have literally changed our world. The most important lesson that I have hopefully learned work- ing with these archives is that they are people’s lives. They are not just boxes of papers and magazines; they are people’s memories, hopes, and dreams that have been entrusted to us. It is my sincere hope that reading these stories will bring you closer to the generations of LGBTQ activists who precede us and that it will help to fuel future struggles for liberation.
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