Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s balanced documentary about the watershed event that kick-started the Gay Liberation Movement should be required viewing for all citizens of good will. PBS, who produced it for American Experience, clearly felt the same way. Stonewall was the gay rights equivalent of Rosa Park’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus. It’s a story aching to be told.
On the hot summer night of June 28, 1968, the police raided the The Stonewall Inn, a typical low-rent mafia owned bar that offered gays a surreptitious meeting place. Repeated raids were par for the course. But on this night the clientele resisted. Years of frustration boiled over. In solidarity the party-ers fought back. As word spread of the standoff, crowds appeared to fight the police. Interviewers remember their defining moment with a pride that’s infectious.
The film’s linear survey of the repressed Eisenhower Era and the rebellious 60’s, remind us of the social turmoil that surfaced on that muggy night. Chilling archival footage paints the historical context, society’s institutionalized fear and repression of homosexuality.
In a 1966 CBS hour-long report “The Homosexuals“, Mike Wallace (who later repudiated his involvement intones, “Two out of three Americans look on homosexuals with disgust, discomfort or fear. The CBS Public Opinion Survey indicates that sentiment is against permitting homosexual relationships between consenting adults without legal punishment… The homosexual, bitterly aware of his rejection responds by going underground”. Showing secret footage of a local meeting place, Wallace continues, “It’s usually after the day of the beach that the real crime occurs, it’s interesting to note how many youngsters we see in these films.”
Detective John Sorenson, of the Dade County (FL) Morals and Juvenile Squad, lectures high school students. “They can be anywhere, they can be judges, lawyers, we ought to know, we’ve arrested all of them…One out of three of you will turn queer…and you will be caught. This is one thing you can’t get away with…the rest of your life will be a living hell.”
“Note how Albert delicately pats his hair and adjusts his collar,” narrates an educational film, “His movements are not characteristic of a real boy”. Martin Boyce, a Stonewall participant recalls his closeted childhood. “You had to be smart… You had to remember everything. I realized I was being trained as a straight person so I could fool people.” John O’Brien, another participant recalls, “I Learned very early that those horrible words were about me.”
Prior to Stonewall everyone was in the closet. “There was no out, there was just in” says writer Eric Marcus.
Later in the Wallace report activist Richard Inman, the president of the Florida Chapter of the homophile Mattachine Society explains that gays are “not in favor of the legalization of marriage between homosexuals and adoption of children. You might find some fringe characters someplace who says that that’s what he wants.” Wallace asks” “Are you a homosexual?” “I gave it up …over four years ago, it’s not my cup of tea” says Inman, flashing a satisfied smile.
In the conformist 50’s (think “Suddenly Last Summer”) gay people were often sent to insane asylums by family members: the victims of punitive cures: aversive electric shock therapy, lobotomies, sterilization even castration. California’s Atascadero State Hospital (known as the ‘Dachau for queers’) practiced a sort of experimental pharmacological water boarding. Confined homosexuals were driven mad in institutions.
Small town gays fled to New York or other big cites. In New York they clustered in Greenwich Village, where they found a refuge in the beat and emerging folk scene. With no political presence the “twilight people” frequented side street bats, with cloaked windows, fearing the constant police raids. Bar’s that allowed gays were raided. Only the mafia had the muscle and strategy for evading the vice laws. They profited, selling stolen booze for outrageous prices. Many laws were used to arrest homosexuals including solicitation and loitering. An 1845 statute made it a crime to masquerade. Drag was an arrest able offense. Cops in drag were used for entrapment. Plainclothes cops hide in subway bathrooms.
Violence against ‘queers’ was condoned or police looked the other way. One talking head describes the vigilantes who used walkie-talkies to coordinate attacks on gay men. “Men were strangled, shot, thrown in the river,” he claims.
Early activist groups like the Mattachine Society or Daughters of Bilitis attempted to fit into society as it was-to dress like straights and diffuse the threat of their otherness. But the Civil Rights movement, Anti-war civil disobedience and Woman’s Movement changed all that.
Bars that allowed gays were raided. The state liquor license stated that ‘one known homosexual’ in a licensed premise made a place ‘disorderly’. Only the mafia had the muscle and strategy for evading the vice laws. They profited, from their cigarette machine and Juke Boxes. They sold truck-high jacked liquor, for outrageous prices.
The filmmakers used personal accounts mixed with recreations (since photos were scant and footage unavailable) to play out the Uprising. Both sides get their moment. Along with a group of proud rioters and onlookers, we hear from then Councilman Ed Koch, and the wheel chair confined. 91 year-old, police Officer Seymour Pine, who led the raid that night. Pine remembers being trapped inside the Inn with his small detail of cops as the riot escalated outside.
Village Voice reporters Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott, IV, both barricaded inside, used their press cards as protection from the police and the rioters. “Afraid they would think I was a cop” Smith complements Pine on keeping control of his men. “You knew that the first shot that would be fired meant that all the shots would be fired…it was terrifying. As bad as any situation I had met in the army” recalls Pine.
“I wanted to kill those cops. They got that,” explains O’Brien, who finally put his experience in Anti-War demonstrations to a more personal cause.
It was getting getting bigger by the minute. People started throwing pennies, screaming “pigs and copper.” Lighter fluid was used to start fires, lobbed into the door anytime it opened. John O’Brien uprooted a parking meter to use as a battering ram. It was the first time the police seemed frightened. “We were winning” realized the celebratory crowd. Martin Boyce’s defiant kick line singing “We are the village girls, we wear our hair in curls ” had their heads smashed with billy clubs. The cops had never seen anything like it. “Gay people were supposed to be weak men.” Tactical cope arrived and pushed back the rioters, who kept running back from different sides, as animated maps detail. The crowds pushed the TAC phalanx back. In control, the uprising went on for hours.
At dawn the streets filled with shattered glass seemed magical to Boyce “The streets we fought on were strewn with diamonds. It was like a reward. We did it… but we’re gonna pay dearly for this.” The bar reopened Saturday night as if nothing had happened. Unlikely neighbors supported it. “Bout time you fags rioted’ said Boyce’s father. The fight escalated. Tactical police in large numbers arrived. Exceedingly brutal, “they went for the head wounds.” The uprising continued for nights. Boyce remembers, “It was thrilling. It was the only time I was in a gladiatorial sport. I was a man.” News reports were minimal. Truscott’s report in The Village Voice, which used the word “faggotry” elicited the first Gay Power demonstration and lead to the word ‘gay” becoming lingua franca at the Voice. The New York Times trivialized the riot as “The Night the Drag Queens Fought Back.”
“We became a people,” recalls Doric Wilson, another participant. A protest march was the next move. The Gay Proud March on June 28 legitimized the struggle. The first gay march, unplanned and without speakers, (about 120 strong) set off for Central Park. As they went up 6th avenue it kept growing to 2000 strong. “We were ourselves for the first time. We were so innocent, and oddly enough we were so American.”
Officer Pine has the last word. “You knew you could ruin them (the people you arrested) for life…you felt bad. You knew they broke the law, but what kind of law was that?”