“THE question of who gets credit for starting the riots is one that deserves consideration. The question however contains a premise: that an individual or group of individuals can be singled out as the prime mover in a collective process … there was throughout the evening both a gradual buildup of anger and, correspondingly, a gradual escalation in the release of that anger … in the course of that buildup there were numerous turning points, some more critical than others.
“My research for this history demonstrates that if we wish to name the group most responsible for the success of the riots, it is the young, homeless homosexuals, and contrary to the usual characterizations of those on the rebellion’s front lines, most were Caucasian; few were Latino; almost none were transvestites or transsexuals; most were effeminate; and a fair number were from middle-class families.”
The above quotes are from David Carter’s remarkably well-researched, beautifully written, non-mythological 2004 book, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. Of the night — the nights — that Greenwich Village rioted, Mr. Carter gives significant nods to Marsha P. Johnson, Zazu Nova and Jackie Hormona. (Marsha and Zazu indeed inhabited the drag/trans world. Hormona was one of the innumerable Village streets kids.) Carter does not, however, hand them pedestals or suggest honorary statuary.
Great moments in history should never be minimized. Nor should they be transformed to fit into political correctness or our more “fluid” times. We live in a factually dangerous era — what is a fact, anyway? However they are twisted elsewhere, we should keep our facts straight — so to speak. The Stonewall Riots were about more than one night — or several nights — of outrage.
It was about Frank Kameny, Harry Hay and Dick Leitsch of the Mattachine Society, which paved the way for modern gay rights. It was about all those furiously, righteously inflamed activists who literally overnight founded The Gay Liberation Front which morphed into the Gay Activists Alliance. It is about the thousands of men and women who walked from Greenwich Village to Central Park on June 28th, 1970. You know, when it was a march, not an exhibitionist parade. Everybody deserves a statue, thank you very much.
Stonewall is also about how far we’ve come, and how far we can fall, in this fevered, divisive climate. (A recent poll indicated that gay couples are more afraid to hold hands in public now than they were just three years ago.)
I’m a pessimist by nature and a rather cranky senior citizen now. But I will amend my hectoring tone. I will stay my wagging school teacher-ish finger.
I’ll let those who want to, celebrate, to parade. And I’ll give you my Stonewall experience. Non-political. Not serious. A tale cosseted in the honeyed warmth of my 16th year. The good old days. Kinda. Sorta.
No, why deny it — they really were!
“BE the change that you wish to see in the world,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
TODAY is the 52nd anniversary of the famous Stonewall riot: an event that changed history. Gay people battled their way out of the closet with bricks and uprooted parking meters in defiance so shocking, so long festering and righteous that it scared the men of the New York Police Department. Despite many challenges and a palpable air of unease and disquiet these days — the legalization of same-sex marriage notwithstanding — they never have and never will go back into that closet.
Unlike many gay men of my age who lived near and/or hung around Greenwich Village in 1969, I will not claim to have been a participant in the riot, an observer or even having been at the Stonewall earlier, before the riot. I wasn’t in the Village that night. I had, however, been downtown the night before, and attempted to get into The Stonewall.
The Stonewall was my very first bar — so exciting with its two jukeboxes and the little dance floor in the back that looked like a chessboard, lit from below. But the bouncer who usually allowed 16-year-old me onto the premises was away. No amount of eye-batting or promises of more could dissuade this dragon at the wooden door to allow me in. “How old are you?” I swore I was 19. “You look 15. Go away!” I wanted to argue that I’d been let in when I was 15, but better to wait for the friendly bouncer another night.
So I wandered off, found a few similarly displaced acquaintances and spent the hot summer night camped (and camping it up) on various stoops, loitering outside other bars and making general teenage nuisances of ourselves.
At six o’clock a.m on the morning of June 27th, I was standing on Sixth Avenue right off Christopher Street with some pals. We were about to go our separate ways, when I said, “Wait, girls, today’s the last day Judy’s laid out, we should go up and see her!” (Back then, if you weren’t overtly masculine, you talked like that. Later, I dropped my “Oh, Mary’s” and “Miss Things.” A guy I met around that time said, “I thought you were really cute, until you started talking! Why do you think that’s necessary?”)
Miss Garland had died in London on the 22nd. Her body had been brought back to New York for the funeral. Now, the funny part was I wasn’t even much of a Garland fan. No fanatic, at any rate. I knew who she was, and what she supposedly represented to gay audiences. I was aware of her many dramas, suicide attempts, tales of her ruined voice, the “scandal” of her new much younger husband, Mickey Deans. I loved her MGM musicals, especially “Presenting Lily Mars.” And of course I’d seen “A Star Is Born.” (I didn’t think then, and don’t think now, that it was her finest hour. But, yes, of course she deserved the Oscar over Grace Kelly.)
But I’d never seen her perform live, and had never listened to any of her later recordings. (My one memory of her ill-fated TV series occurred while I was visiting relatives on a Sunday — there was Judy on the tube, in stark black and white; rail thin, jittery, undeniably fascinating. Her heavily painted, huge haunted eyes and tremulous mouth screamed “I’m on the ledge! Help me — but not before I finish this song!” One of my uncles snickered, “Eh, she’s drunk!” switching to “Bonanza.”) So, I knew nothing of the thrall she held over audiences, gay and straight.
Still, we all decided that going to see Judy Garland laid out at Frank Campbell’s would be a “fun” thing to do. (I know – but tell me about how sensitive you were at 16.)
So, we boarded an uptown bus and pretty soon there we were in front of Frank Campbell’s — five motley, long-haired, fey boys in jeans and tee shirts. There was still a line of mourners traipsing past Judy’s open casket. (The funeral would begin in a few hours.) While we stood there, I thought I’d impress my friends with my vast knowledge — “Rudolph Valentino was laid out here.” Nobody was impressed. They didn’t know from Valentino.
Soon, I was standing in front of the coffin. I looked in. I must tell you that I always wish I hadn’t. Judy Garland was the deadest person I’ve ever seen. Nothing could be done to disguise the ravages of her final years. She didn’t look peaceful. She didn’t look pretty. Suddenly, I felt ashamed. This wasn’t fun at all.
Outside again, the heat was climbing. We made our casual, giddy goodbyes and headed to our various “homes.” I was living on Broadway and 71st Street in what was then The Alamac Hotel. (Now it’s a super-expensive condo.) The Upper West Side was still very “Panic in Needle Park”-ish but I liked it. So I crossed Central Park, and went to bed.
You know when you’re a kid, how you can sleep forever — a whole day, even? That’s just what I did. I’d been up the entire night. I was beat from … being young. So I slept and slept and slept. I didn’t wake up until the very early morning of June 29. The sun wasn’t up. I switched on the radio. (I loved the radio!) And that’s when I learned my life had changed while I dreamed.
The raid on the Stonewall was being treated in a very jocular manner – oh, those sissies, thinking they can fight the cops. My own concern — my deep concern — was would the bar ever re-open?! After all, though the phrase “Gay Liberation” would take a few days to take hold, I’d been living in a liberated fashion for some time. I hadn’t experienced prejudice because I hadn’t experienced anything of value to my thought process yet. I didn’t work. I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t.
And guess what, lucky me — I never did have to pretend! I eventually fell into show-biz in the big city, and worked for a boss who certainly did not care on which side I buttered my bread. Hard times, agonizing coming outs, doubts, hiding — I was blessedly untouched by what millions of young men and women still suffer, despite what appears to be unfettered progress in movies, on TV and in the bubble of celeb world.
However, even for an immature type like me, by the end of that week I realized something incredible had happened. You could see it and hear it and read it. (I saved for years the famous Village Voice cover story on the event.) In an effort to mock the riot, the tale of grief-stricken gays mourning Judy took hold in some quarters. Believe me, the patrons of the Stonewall weren’tJudy Garland fans. (That group was over at Julius’ or Uncle Charlie’s.)
The Stonewall re-opened briefly as a juice bar, which was OK by me — I didn’t drink, yet. But the semi-exciting, forbidden furtiveness of gay life — even in the louche and loose Village — had altered irrevocably. I’d experienced and rather enjoyed that forbidden vibe. I thought it was “exciting” when the music stopped and lights would go up at Stonewall — there was a cop on the premises!
There would still be raids on other bars, and the battle for equal rights had just begun, but even I realized that there wasn’t really anything attractive or sexy about the fear of being who you are. Cops should have better things to do.
I never became an activist. I was too busy having fun after the dam burst. (Although I did partake in the early Gay Pride marches.) Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue — always a free zone —became even more invigorating; a joyous, cruisy conversational jaunt — you’d walk and meet friends and bring them along and meet other friends and everybody seemed in tune, as if we could all read each other’s minds, finish each other’s sentences. Even in wintertime, there was a warmth that came from an entire group of people demanding their right to live and love — and yes, just plain make love — fearlessly. The change in attitude arrived so swiftly that when “The Boys in the Band” was released as a movie in 1970, everybody under 25 felt compelled to declare, “We’re not like that anymore!” (To which I could only muse, “Oh, really, Mary?”)
I’m glad I’m the age I am, that saw what I saw, lived how I lived. And how amazing that I managed to live this long, survive illness, maintain a relationship that became marriage — even though both of us were for years wildly averse to becoming “straight gays.” Eventually, it was about securing me financially. We had cats. Let others adopt Korean infants.
Oh, and Judy? Well, a month after the Stonewall riot, I was over at some fellow’s house. I was poking around through his record collection, and pulled out a striking-looking album. In giant red letters it declared “Judy. Judy. Judy at Carnegie Hall. The Historic Concert.” It was a two-record set, which impressed me. I opened it up and read all the liner notes. The guy woke up and found me engrossed in the raves about Miss G. “Oh, you like Judy, huh?”
“Well, yeah, kind of. Is this good?”
“It’s great. Listen, it’s an old album. I need to get a new one. It’s a little scratchy. You can take it if you want.”
And so I trundled back to West 71st Street with Judy at Carnegie Hall under my arm.
I turned on my crappy record player. I put the needle to the overture, which was thrilling in itself. By the time Judy was crying, “Good night, I love you, God bless!” I was crying too. I had lost my heart to Judy. I didn’t feel so ashamed anymore that I’d made a sport out of seeing her laid out.
At least I could say, honestly, “Yes, I saw Judy Garland.” I didn’t have to say where.