Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Remembering Stonewall, Forty Years Hence
"It's time to laugh, it's time to cry
It's time to be what you need to be!
It won't be long 'til they are gone
And we can be what we want to be!
I wanna run from everything,
Everything that holds me down!
Nothing to win, nothing to lose." — Free, V.A.S.T.
This is rearranged transcript from "Remembering Stonewall" which premiered July 1, 1989. The show itself interviewed both people at the scene of Stonewall as well as others who related how they felt hearing about Stonewall and what it meant to their lives. Rather than simply reposting, I took the liberty of culling the portions of it that had specific relevance to what happened in the early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. Those relevant to the riot were left in and organized a bit better, rather than the cut and paste snippets of the original in order to give more of a feel for the sentiment of the night, especially from Dep. Inspector Seymour Pine and Sylvia Rivera – the nights two main players in this documentary.
COMMENTATOR: On Friday evening, June 27, 1969, at about 11:45, eight officers from New York City's public morals squad loaded into four unmarked police cars and headed to the Stonewall Inn here at 7th Avenue and Christopher Street. The local precinct had just received a new commanding officer, who kicked off his tenure by initiating a series of raids on gay bars. The Stonewall was an inviting target – operated by the Gambino crime family without a liquor license, the dance bar drew a crowd of drag queens, hustlers, and minors. A number of the bar's patrons had spent the early part of the day outside the Frank Campbell Funeral Home, where Judy Garland's funeral was held. She had died the Sunday before. It was almost precisely at midnight that the morals squad pulled up to the Stonewall Inn, led by Deputy Inspector, Seymour Pine.
SEYMOUR PINE: My name is Seymour Pine. In 1968, I was assigned as Deputy Inspector in charge of public morals in the first division in the police department, which covered the Greenwich Village area. It was the duty of Public Morals to enforce all laws concerning vice and gambling, including prostitution, narcotics, and laws and regulations concerning homosexuality. The part of the penal code which applied to drag queens was Section 240.35, section 4: "Being masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration; loiters, remains, or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked . . ."
You felt, well, two guys -- and that's very often all we sent in would be two men -- could handle two hundred people. I mean, you tell them to leave and they leave, and you say show me your identification and they all take out their identification and file out and that's it. And you say, okay, you're not a man, you're a woman, or you're vice versa and you wait over there. I mean, this was a kind of power that you have and you never gave it a second thought.
There was never any reason to feel that anything of any unusual situation would occur that night.
For some reason, things were different this night. As we were bringing the prisoners out, they were resisting. One drag queen, as we put her in the car, opened the door on the other side and jumped out. At which time we had to chase that person and he was caught, put back into the car, he made another attempt to get out the same door, the other door, and at that point we had to handcuff the person. From this point on, things really began to get crazy. [T]hat's when all hell broke loose at that point. And then we had to get back into Stonewall.
We noticed a group of persons attempting to uproot one of the parking meters, at which they did succeed. And they then used that parking meter as a battering ram to break down the door. And they did in fact open the door -- they crashed it in -- and at that point was when they began throwing Molotov cocktails into the place. It was a situation that we didn't know how we were going to be able control.
Remember these were pros, but everybody was frightened. There's no question about that. I know I was frightened, and I'd been in combat situations, and there was never any time that I felt more scared than I felt that night. And, I mean, you know there was no place to run.
For those of us in Public Morals, after the Stonewall incident things were completely changed from what they had previously been. They suddenly were not submissive anymore. They now suddenly had gained a new type of courage. And it seemed as if they didn't care anymore about whether their identities were made known. We were now dealing with human beings.
RED MAHONEY: My name is Red Mahoney. I've been hanging out drinking, partying, and working in the gay bars for the last thirty years. In the era before Stonewall, all of the bars, 90% of the bars, were Mafia controlled. There wasn't that many gay bars. You'd have maybe one, two uptown on the Upper East Side. They would get closed down. Then there'd be one or two on the west side, they'd get closed down. In midtown there'd be one, two, three, maybe open. As they would get closed down they would move around. And they were dumps.
The Stonewall? Oh, that was a good bar. That was. Just to get into the Stonewall, you'd walk up and you'd knock on the front door. You'd knock and the little door would open and "What do you want?" "A Mary sent me." "Good, come on in girls." You know. The Stonewall, like all gay bars at that time, were painted black. Charcoal black. And what was the funny part, the place would be so dimly lit -- but as soon as the cops were gonna come in to collect their percentage or whatever they were coming in for, from it being a nice, dimly-lit dump, the place was lit up like Luna Park.
SYLVIA RIVERA: My name is Sylvia Rivera. My name before that was Ray Rivera, until I started dressing in drag in 1961.
The era before Stonewall was a hard era. There was always the gay bashings on the drag queens by heterosexual men, women, and the police. We learned to live with it because it was part of the lifestyle at that time, I guess, but none of us were very happy about it.
At that time we lived at the Arista Hotel. We used to sit around, just try to figure out when this harassment would come to an end. And we would always dream that one day it would come to an end. And we prayed and we looked for it. We wanted to be human beings.
The drag queens took a lot of oppression and we had to . . . we were at a point where I guess nothing would have stopped us. I guess, as they say, or as Shakespeare says, we were ladies in waiting, just waiting for the thing to happen. And when it did happen, we were there.
You could actually feel it in the air. You really could. I guess Judy Garland's death just really helped us really hit the fan. People started gathering in front of the Sheridan Square Park right across the street from Stonewall. People were upset -- "No, we're not going to go!" and people started screaming and hollering.
"Call out the instigators
Because there's something in the air.
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right." — Something In The Air, Thunderclap Newman
SYLVIA RIVERA: I remember someone throwing a Molotov cocktail. I don't know who the person was, but I mean I saw that and I just said to myself in Spanish, I said. oh my God, the revolution is finally here! And I just like started screaming "Freedom! We're free at last!" You know. It felt really good.
Once the tactical police force showed up, I think that really incited us a little bit more.
BIRDY RIVERA: My name is Robert Rivera and my nickname is Birdy, and I've been cross-dressing all of my life. I remember the night of the riots, the police were escorting queens out of the bar and into the paddy wagon and there was this one particularly outrageously beautiful queen, with stacks and stacks of Elizabeth style, Elizabeth Taylor style hair, and she was asking them not to push her. And they continued to push her, and she turned around and she mashed the cop with her high heel. She knocked him down and then she proceeded to frisk him for the keys to the handcuffs that were on her. She got them and she undid herself and passed them to another queen that was behind her.
HOWARD SMITH: My name is Howard Smith. On the night of the Stonewall riots I was a reporter for the Village Voice, locked inside with the police, covering it for my column. It really did appear that that crowd – because we could look through little peepholes in the plywood windows, we could look out and we could see that the crowd – well, my guess was within five, ten minutes it was probably several thousand people. Two thousand easy. And they were yelling "Kill the cops! Police brutality! Let's get 'em! We're not going to take this anymore! Let's get 'em!"
There were a couple of cops stationed on either side of the door with their pistols, like in combat stance, aimed in the door area. A couple of others were stationed in other places, behind like a pole, another one behind the bar. All of them with their guns ready. I don't think up to that point I had ever seen cops that scared.
"Hand out the arms and ammo
We're going to blast our way through here
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right." — Something In The Air, Thunderclap Newman
MISS MARTIN BOYCE: My name is Martin Boyce and in 1969 I was a drag queen known as Miss Martin. I remember on that night when we saw the riot police, all of us drag queens, we linked arms, like the Rockettes, and sang this song we used to sing. (singing) "We are the Village girls, we wear our hair in curls. We wear our dungarees above our nelly knees." And the police went crazy hearing that and they just immediately rushed us. We gave one kick and fled.
RUDY: My name is Rudy and the night of the Stonewall I was 18 and to tell you the truth, that night I was doing more running than fighting. I remember looking back from 10th Street, and there on Waverly Street there was a police, I believe on his . . . a cop and he is on his stomach in his tactical uniform and his helmet and everything else, with a drag queen straddling him. She was beating the hell out of him with her shoe. Whether it was a high heel or not, I don't know. But she was beating the hell out of him. It was hysterical.
SYLVIA RIVERA: Here this queen is going completely bananas, you know jumping on, hitting the windshield. The next thing you know, the taxicab was being turned over. The cars were being turned over, windows were shattering all over the place, fires were burning around the place. It was beautiful, it really was. It was really beautiful.
I wanted to do every destructive thing that I could think of at that time to hurt anyone that had hurt us through the years.
A lot of heads were bashed. But it didn't hurt their true feelings -- they all came back for more and more. Nothing -- that's when you could tell that nothing could stop us at that time or any time in the future.
MAMA JEAN: My name is Mama Jean. I'm a lesbian. I remember on that night I was in the gay bar, a woman's bar, called Cookies. We were coming out of the gay bar going toward 8th Street, and that's when we saw everything happening. Blasting away. People getting beat up. Police coming from every direction -- hitting women as well as men with their nightsticks. Gay men running down the street with blood all over their face. We decided right then and there, whether we're scared or not we didn't think about, we just jumped in.
I remember one cop coming at me, hitting me with the nightstick on the back of my legs. I broke loose and I went after him. I grabbed his nightstick. My girlfriend went behind him – she was a strong son of a gun. I wanted him to feel the same pain that I felt. And I kept saying to him, "How do you like the pain? Do you like it? Do you like it?" And I kept on hitting him and hitting him. I was angry. I wanted to kill him. At that particular minute I wanted to kill him.
COMMENTATOR: The riots were well covered in the media. The New York Daily News featured it on the front page. There were reports on all of the local television and radio stations. By the next day, graffiti calling for gay power had started to show up all over the West Village. The next night, thousands of men and women came back to the Stonewall to see what would happen next. While a couple of trashcans were set on fire and some stones were thrown, the four-hundred riot police milling around outside the bar ensured that the previous evening's violence would not be repeated. But on this night, gay couples could be spotted walking hand in hand and kissing in the streets. Just by being at the Stonewall -- surrounded by reporters, photographers, and onlookers -- thousands of men and women were proclaiming that they were gay. The crowds grew and came back the next night and for one more night the following week. What happened at the Stonewall on those nights helped to usher in a new era for gay men and lesbians.
SEYMOUR PINE: Well, I retired from the police department in 1976. Twenty years have passed. I'm going to be 70 in a few months. I still don't know the answers. I would still like to know the answers. I would like to know whether I was wrong or whether I was right in ever thinking that there was a difference, in ever thinking that maybe you shouldn't trust a homosexual because something is missing in his personality.
MAMA JEAN: It's like just when you see a man protecting his own life. They weren't the "queens" that people call them, they were men fighting for their lives. And I'd fight along side them any day, no matter how old I was.
SYLVIA RIVERA: Today I'm a 38-year-old drag queen. I can keep my long hair, I can pluck my eyebrows, and I can work wherever the hell I want. And I'm not going to change for anybody. If I changed, then I feel that I'm losing what 1969 brought into my life, and that was to be totally free.
"We have got to get it together now" — Something In The Air, Thunderclap Newman
"You can't tell me what to do anymore
Now I'm free, now I'm free, now I'm free!" — Free, V.A.S.T.