Veterans of the Stonewall ‘riots’ talk about what happened that week in Greenwich Village and why
After the recent California Supreme Court ruling upholding Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment approved by voters last November to prohibit same-sex marriage, Peter Fiske was one of those arrested during a street demonstration in San Francisco.
The experience wasn’t a new one for Fiske.
"It’s a damn shame I have to do this after 40 years," Fiske says.
Fiske had moved from New York to California in 1969, the same week that the patrons of the Stonewall Inn decided to fight back against repeated police raids of the club in a series of events that came to be known as the Stonewall Riots — and the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement in this country.
During his years in New York, Fiske had been a regular visitor to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. He describes it as the best dance club that ever existed — "a place where everyone was comfortable."
Williamson Henderson, however, was inside Stonewall Inn that fateful evening when the police raided the bar.
He remembers it as a warm summer night. School had ended that day in New York City. Judy Garland’s funeral had taken place earlier that day after a public viewing of her body at a funeral home on Madison Avenue. More than 21,000 fans had lined the street to pay their respects.
Outside the Stonewall Inn, a black 1964 Cadillac was parked in its usual spot, Henderson says. The car belonged to one of the club’s owners.
Henderson recalls that dancing or selling liquor in a gay bar in New York was prohibited at the time, so the Stonewall Inn’s alcohol was kept in the trunk of the owner’s Cadillac. Inside, the top-of-the-line classic Wurlitzer jukebox was playing.
Stonewall, classified as a private club, required patrons to sign in to gain entry. Henderson says no one used his real name. They signed in as Judy Garland or Lana Turner. Then the next person would sign in as Judy Garland 1 or 2.
At 1:15 a.m., police entered the bar, as they had many times before. They turned on the lights and turned off the jukebox.
But unlike previous raids, they ordered some people to leave and detained others, Henderson says. Some tried to flee. Then police smashed the Wurlitzer.
Fiske says, "Cops came in to shut it down and arrested people, and the next day their names would be in The Daily News."
But this time, the Stonewall Inn’s patrons had had enough. Rather than go quietly, they started a rebellion that lasted five nights.
"Fighting back gives you your dignity," Fiske says.
Another Stonewall veteran, Jeremiah Newton, says, "I was there the first night and the last night. Just another young person watching a senseless spectacle caused by the idiocy of the N.Y.C. police.
"I knew that something very different was happening, and I didn’t want to get arrested as I didn’t have rich parents around to bail me out of jail. This was the night of the day of Judy Garland’s wake and people — the gay community — were very upset," Newton recalls. "Thousands were at her public wake earlier in the day and emotions were high. Judy’s life seemed to be a metaphor for so many people who were crowding Christopher Street that night/early morning. Something did happen. All the ingredients were there."
Even though he wanted to avoid it, Henderson was among the 13 people who were arrested. He was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, being underage, inciting a riot and cross-dressing.
"Cross-dressing," he says. "I was wearing clogs."
Henderson says he told the police he was underage in hopes that would get him released. Instead, it added a charge.
He was first taken to the hospital and then to jail; he wasn’t released until Saturday night when a friend’s parents bailed him out.
What triggered the arrests, Henderson says, was that the owners of Stonewall Inn refused to pay off the police.
"The Mafia ran it," Henderson says, "The police had been there before, got paid off and they’d leave. This night was different. It couldn’t be they didn’t have the money."
He says that maybe they just had had enough and refused to pay. That presented the interesting irony of the Mafia tiring of extortion by the police.
By 2 a.m., about 200 people who had escaped the raid and other people from the neighborhood had gathered on Christopher Street and in Sheridan Square Park across the street from the bar. As word spread, hundreds more arrived to join in the demonstration. The crowd spilled over onto neighboring Morton and Grove streets.
A myth often associated with the first night is that the raid spawned a riot. Each of the Stonewall veterans bristles at that description.
Henderson jokes, "One of the transgender girls, Terri Ann Jordan Van Dyke, 18, doled out the machine guns."
"Riot," he says, implies looting, assaults, bombings, breaking store windows and burning cars.
"If it was a riot, would Stonewall Inn have been declared a National Historic Landmark?" Henderson asks.
"It was rebellion," he and other Stonewall veterans repeat.
The protests were peaceful and no property was destroyed, they said, adding that the only property damaged was at the Stonewall Inn — and the police did that.
Reports of the crowd size vary, but Henderson says the largest group gathered on Saturday night. He describes that and subsequent nights as a demonstration. Six people were arrested for disorderly conduct on Saturday night and three on Sunday night.
It rained on Monday and Tuesday, "so the rebellion was postponed," according to the Stonewall Veterans’ Association Web site. But then the rain stopped, and on Wednesday and Thursday, several hundred people gathered again to continue the protests. No arrests were made these last two nights.
Friday night began the 4th of July weekend and the Stonewall rebellion ended.
Henderson says the other 12 arrested the first night paid a $25 fine and the arrest remained on their records. But he refused to plead guilty and an attorney took his case pro bono.
After a dozen trips to court, the charges against him were dropped, and his attorney managed to retrieve his mug shot and fingerprints from the city.
Stonewall Inn reopened 10 days after the raid. Henderson said a less expensive Sebring jukebox replaced the Wurlitzer.
He says, "At first I was afraid to go there, but the place was more popular than ever."
The bar remained open until the end of the year when the landlord increased the rent. Henderson was at the New Year’s Eve party that closed Stonewall Inn. He says the last song played that night was the No. 1 hit at the time, Diana Ross’ "Someday We’ll Be Together."
Over the next 20 years, 51-53 Christopher St. was divided into two retail spaces that at different times were a dry cleaner, a clothing store and a bagel shop.
In 1989, Stonewall Inn reopened at 53 Christopher St. The new incarnation includes an upstairs cabaret space that wasn’t part of the original.
The bar has had three owners in the last 20 years. In 2006, the latest owners did six months worth of extensive renovations before reopening the 150-year old building in March 2007.
Henderson founded the Stonewall Veterans’ Association on July 11, 1969. The first gay Pride parade was held in New York the last weekend in June, 1970, to commemorate the first anniversary of the rebellion. The site gained National Historic Landmark status in June 1999.
Speaking of the LGBT movement today, Fiske says, "I’m astonished we’ve come so far."
Another Stonewall veteran, John Diehl, who now lives in San Diego, says, "We have come a long way from the days of police bar busts and harassment."
About moving forward, Fiske says, "I’ll give the Harvey Milk answer. We’ve got to come out to everyone. We’ve got to get allies. Don’t be afraid to be ourselves and never accept defeat."
Today, Fiske is a retired Morgan Stanley margin specialist and is co-chairing the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Gay Liberation Front at Pride in San Francisco.
Although not at the rebellion, Diehl says he was a frequent visitor to the bar at the time and a "23-year-old Air Force enlisted guy."
Diehl downplays his role as an LGBT activist, but says, "In the early ’80s I was instrumental in getting employment protections written into the Superior Court’s regulations" in California.
"The quest for equality is a goal all Americans should pursue, even if they have to be dragged to the goal line kicking and screaming," he says.
Newton says, "We all should have the same legal rights and our significant others should be protected under the law."
A documentary filmmaker, Newton says he "just produced a doc called ‘Beautiful Darling’ about the transgender Andy Warhol superstar, Candy Darling, who died in 1974 of cancer. It’ll be shown on the Sundance Channel this year."
Active as a leader of Stonewall Veterans’ Association since its founding, Henderson also had a modeling career in New York and is a longtime member of the Screen Actor’s Guild.
Exasperated by the recent defeat of marriage rights in California, Fiske says, "I’m hoping by Stonewall 50 I won’t have to do this anymore."
More photos from the Stonewall era can be found on the Stonewall Veterans’ Association Web site at stonewallvets.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2009.