Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tear that Stonewall down!

The history of America is as varied as her people. The path that we have traveled to get us where we are today is long and has been pretty damn rocky. From the landing of the pilgrims to the re-election of our first African-American president, we have seen and accomplished more in our 390 some odd years then other countries have managed in their whole hallowed existences. (I’m including the stuff that happened all the way back to 1620 in that count by the way) But some of the potholes we hit on the road to get to right now may not be as well-known as they should be. So tonight we will talk about something that most of you probably have no idea ever happened. In fact, I had no idea what it was until I was watching an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race (I love drag queens. Glitter and spandex and bitchy attitudes. I love it!!) We are going to talk about The Stonewall Riots of 1969. The first real outcry for equality in the LGBT community and unfortunately 43 years later it was not the last.

On June 28, 1969 in New York City, police raided a known gay bar called Stonewall Inn. The bar was located in Greenwich Village at 51 and 53 Christopher Street. Owned by the Genovese family (yes the mafia Genoveses) Stonewall began its life as a restaurant and nightclub. However in 1966, three members of the family invested $3,500 to turn the place into a hangout for the LGBT community in the neighborhood. (Mostly likely this change occurred because the mafia realized the money to be made from such an establishment, mainly because the surrounding neighborhood at the time had a large Gay community) The battle had just begun for Stonewall and its visitors.

There was no running water, no fire exits, and the toilets overran consistently. Once a week the police showed up for their payoff – an envelope full of cash. But still people came. Stonewall was the only gay club in town that allowed dancing and that was a big draw for its clientele. Police raids were frequent, happening about once a month, sometimes more. When the bar was raided the lights were turned on, customers lined up against the wall – criminal style – and their IDs were inspected. Any man found in drag was arrested on the spot. Women not wearing at least three pieces of female clothing were arrested.

At about one in the morning of June 28th, four plainclothes officers, two unis, and a detective and a DI arrived at Stonewall and pushed open the doors, shouting “Police! We’re taking the place!” Earlier in the evening four undercover officers had entered Stonewall to “collect evidence.” The music was shut off and the lights turned on. Stonewall was packed that night with about 200 people enjoying their evenings. Everything was going according to the usual plan – i.e. line up for ID and gender check (I’m not kidding folks. Anyone dressed in drag was escorted to the women’s john where a female police officer checked her parts. Kind of degrading if you ask me.) The officers reportedly manhandled the patrons while doing searches in rough and degrading fashion. Now this is where it gets really ugly. No one exactly what caused the next part to happen…“There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just…a flash of group, of mass anger.”

Police ejected and herded the customers outside, forming separate groups for those that were free to go and those to be placed in paddy wagons and taking into to station houses for booking. The crowd of customers began to fight back, shouting at the officers and throwing coins at them. (The coins symbolizing the massive payoffs gay clubs around NY had to hand out to police. Soon bottles, rocks, and other larger items were lobbed. The police retreated back into the bar, trashing the place and fighting against the crowd. A folk singer who had the misfortune of passing by the doorway at that exact moment was savagely beaten by police.  

Riot police were called in and they advanced down the street a la Roman turtle style. The crowd retreated but would not be stopped. They shouted and yelled taunts at them. The rioting and protests went on for five days. By the end of the violence many ended up in the hospital, a teenager had lost two fingers, and others had countless broken bones and bruises. This was the beginning of the battle for equality for all sexualities.

Stonewall has become an icon to the LGBT community and to the activists who continue to fight for equality to this day. Whether you are gay or straight or omnisexual, the battles that have been fought in the name of unity cross gender and subculture lines.

I wrote this blog as a straight ally to the LGBT cause. Equal Rights and Gender Equality are my generations Civil Rights movement. With any Civil Rights movement, we must know our history – the good and the bad – so we can learn from it and never let it happen again.

Side note: PBS produced a great film for their American Expericence segment called "Stonewall Uprising" You can watch it online here

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