Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Stonewall—The Night the Queers Fought Back

The Stonewall was a dive bar operated by the Mob in New York's Greenwich Village.  It's patrons were outcasts and the most flamboyant of a rough streets scene--young hustlers, drag queens, butch lesbians.  It was also an inter-racial scene all of it attracted police attention.  Wealthier and more respectable Gays gathered and partied more discretely in posh clubs that authorities usually ignored.

On the night of June 27, 1969 something snapped when New York City Police made one of their regular raids on a Gay bar.  Instead of meekly submitting to arrest, the denizens  of the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar operated by the Mafia and patronized by the most marginalized of folkshomeless street kid hustlers, drag queens, butch dikes, and others resisted when police started to arrest them. 
The raid was conducted by a small team of detectives, uniformed officers including women led by Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine of the Public Morals Squad. 
For some reason patrons refused to follow the familiar procedure of such raids—allowing restroom inspections of individuals in women’s clothing to determine if they were men and providing identification upon requestDumfounded by resistance, police called for backup and patrol wagons.  There was some scuffling inside.  
The Stonewall in looked just as seedy as it was.
Meanwhile some patrons who had been released were joined by passersby outside the bar.  The crowd quickly swelledTaunts and jeers were exchanged between the police and crowd.  The crowd began to interfere as drag queens were led to the wagons.  When a lesbian made several unsuccessful attempts to escape, she was beaten and cried out to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” 
That ignited the crowd which began pelting police with beer cans, coins, and rubble from a nearby construction sight.  They attacked the wagons, freeing some of those arrested.  Police retreated into the bar and barricaded themselves.  They grabbed some members of the crowd as they went, including folk singer Dave Van Ronk who had been playing at a nearby club and came out to investigate the ruckus, and Howard Smith, a writer for the Village Voice. 
When a lesbian named Betty repeatedly tried to break away from custody and was roughly handled by several cop she famously pled, "Why don't you guys do something?"  It became the Remember he Alamo battle cry of a movement.
Observers reported that the most aggressive members of the crowd were the young street kids.  They used an uprooted parking meter as a ram to try and break down the doors of the bar and crashed through the plywood covered windows.  When they got in police drew their pistols and threatened to shoot while rioters used lighter fluid to start a fire
The Fire Department responded as the crowd outside grew to hundreds.  The Tactical Police Force (TPF) arrived in riot gear to rescue the besieged officers in the saloon.  They formed a phalanx and moved up the street being blocked and taunted by an impromptu kick line of drag queens and “sissies.”  
Drag queens played a leading role in the resistance after the police raid in the the nights that followed.
Rioters and police played a brand of violent tag around the narrow streets of the Village until after 4 AM. 
Later that morning the riots were front page news
And they were not over.  The next night even larger crowds gathered in front of the building and fighting continued.  Despite heavy rain there were sporadic eruptions the next two nights
Meanwhile the Gay community, which had been largely unorganized except for the small Mattachine Society which advocated a campaign to educate the public that Homosexuals were “normal,” began to meet and debate tacticsThousands of fliers were printed for a Wednesday march
The original rebellion, which had been entirely spontaneous, was already laying the groundwork for a new, open and defiant Gay movementTaking cues from the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement, which were also confronting authorities with a new militancy, and taking advantage of the traditional anti-establishment radicalism of the Village, the beginning of a new movement was taking place. 
On Wednesday the Village Voice—the most liberal paper in New York, carried a harshly critical piece on the riots describing participants as “forces of faggotry.”  Angry demonstrators descended on the Voice offices that night and threatened to burn them down.  Other violent confrontations erupted in the neighborhood as police tried to stop marchers, this time for the first time carrying signs and “making demands.”  
That was the last night of disturbances, but things changed quickly over the next year.  Two new militant Gay organizations emerged in New York, the Gay Liberation Front, which allied itself with the broader radical movement, and the Gay Activists Alliance which advocated a focused campaign demanding an end to police harassment and for broader rights for Gays
Similar or allied groups sprang up in major cities and college towns across the country.  New Yorkers founded three new newspapers, Gay, Come Out!, and Gay Power which soon had press runs to 20-2500.  Again, similar publications were founded across the country.  
The Christopher Street March on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion is considered the founding event of the Gay Pride marches now held internationally.
On June 28, 1970 the anniversary of what was now being called the Stonewall Rebellion was marked by Christopher Street Liberation Day and a 51 block march from the Village to Central Park with thousands of marchers filling the streets.  Marches were also held in Chicago and Los Angeles. 
These became the Gay Pride Marches that have become annual events across the country.  There was a huge march this Sunday in Chicago.  An indication of how accepted and mainstream Gay rights have become, at least in big cities, is that there were official floats sponsored by the city’s sports teams. Politicians galore and all of the major media turn out to court the potent Gay vote and consumer demographic.  But there were still loads drag queens and all of the high camp fun that the carnival-like parades have become known for.
Resistance was a theme at many Gay Pride marches this year like this one in Los Angeles.
But this year Gay Pride Parades  also reflected a community increasingly under siege by a well-oiled and funded backlash led by religious zealots and abetted by the radicalized Republican Party eager to pander to a big part of its base.  With Republicans in complete control of many governorships and State houses rafts of anti-Gay legislation have been enacted or proposed. 
And now the Cheeto-in-Charge, who in an earlier incarnation had proclaimed himself a “friend of the Gays,” has lent his full blather and bluster to stoking the fires of repression.  He let Gay Pride Month pass without even the most tepid acknowledgement but pointedly spoke to a meeting of an ardently anti-Gay religious group.  He also signed an Executive Order supposedly in support of religious liberty that gives free reign to churches, charities, businesses, and individual professionals and crafts people to discriminate against Gays in almost every way.  Hell, it virtually invites them to do so.  Internationally Trump had refused to protest and seemed to endorse his pal Vladimir Putin’s increasingly violent suppression of Gays in Russia and practically endorsed the even more extreme repression by Turkey which is rapidly turning into a right wing Islamic dictatorship.  His proposed budget stripped funding from HIV/AIDS research and he supports the Senate Republican health care bill that will strip coverage to many.
So it was not a surprise that in the midst of the usual party, floats and marching units spoke out.  Or that in several cities outright protests broke out around or in the parades.  48 years after the fact Pride Month has returned to its roots—Resistance!

No comments:

Post a Comment