Stonewall today: Making sure people remember

Posted on 18 Jun 2009 at 7:36pm
By Samantha Fields Keen News Service

Trip to New York bar where patrons fought back against harassment 40 years ago a pilgrimage of sorts — for those who remember


SAMANTHA A FIELDS/Keen News Service Two young men walk past the front window of the Stonewall Inn. The owners of the bar, which has been designated as a historical landmark, have photos depicting the club’s past and its role in the gay rights movement in the front window.

NEW YORK — It was 40 years ago this month that the patrons of a gay bar in New York City fought back against police harassment. The bar was the Stonewall Inn, in New York’s West Village, and it is still in operation today — both as a bar and as a beacon to gay people who know its historic past.

"It’s like a wailing wall — you have to kiss it," said Andrew Wind, who first came to the Village at the age of 22, specifically to see the Stonewall.

People walking by on a recent day knew at least something about the significance of the bar with its distinctive half brick wall and arched black doorways.

"The only thing I know is there was some sort of rebellion in there, something about gay rights," said Bruce Bunner, who lives in the neighborhood. David Anthony, who also lives in the area and says he "kinda vaguely" knows the history of the place, that "a lot of gay rights stuff happened here."

Many people refer to that "stuff" as the Stonewall Rebellion. And many say it was the beginning of the modern gay civil rights movement.

But that distinction relies heavily on overlooking organized pickets in front of the White House and a concerted effort by many in the gay community to work within the political and legal systems during the 1950s and 1960s.

What really sets Stonewall apart is that it was one of the first times gay people physically resisted harassment.

Being gay was not OK in the 1960s. Back then, most gay people were closeted, because to be openly gay often meant losing their jobs, their families, even their lives.

In many states, it was illegal for two people of the same gender to have sex even in the privacy of their own homes. And some states had laws prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages to "homosexuals" in bars and restaurants.

That was the case in New York until 1967, when court rulings struck down such discriminatory regulations. But, as David Eisenbach wrote in "Gay Power: An American Revolution," the New York State Liquor Authority could, in 1969, still revoke the liquor license of any bar in which there was "substantial evidence of indecent behavior."

The language was vague enough to give the police the ability to selectively harass gay bars. And they did.

Many accounts say that the Stonewall Inn, in 1969, was run by members of the Mafia who persuaded the police to look the other way while the bar sold alcohol and illegal drugs to its customers. There was little effort made to supervise any aspect of the Stonewall’s business.

In "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution," David Carter writes that there was no running water in the bar; bar staff filled two sinks with water at the start of the evening and simply dipped dirty glasses into increasingly murky water and re-used them.

The toilets would frequently overflow onto the floors. The building had no fire safety equipment or exits. And there were reports that the staff collected information about patrons with which to blackmail them.

When police conducted their raids of the Stonewall and other gay bars, it was not so much to ensure that any laws were being obeyed as a routine collection of bribes to look the other way. But, according to some, police would occasionally demonstrate at least an appearance of law enforcement by rounding everybody up, checking for their identification and kicking them out of the bar.

Until June 28, 1969, when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back.

That night, when the police began escorting patrons out of the bar, many lingered outside 53 Christopher St. and watched. Various eyewitness accounts of what happened next differ in some respects, but most accounts agree that the melee began when police began handcuffing some of the patrons and pushing them into police wagons. One of the patrons — some say it was a woman, some say a man dressed like a woman — struggled against the police and called out to the crowd, "Why don’t you do something?"

And the crowd responded. People threw rocks, bricks, coins and anything else they could get their hands on. The police were outnumbered, and the raucous confrontation grew into what some news accounts referred to as a "riot." Those who were there say they prefer the term "rebellion."

Though various reports suggest the "riot" continued for only 45 minutes that night, it started up again the next night and news of the resistance spread quickly nationwide, giving other communities the courage to fight back against harassment.

The gay civil rights movement may not have begun in June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, but it certainly burst into the public’s awareness then and there.

Thirty years later, in 1999, the Stonewall was declared a National Historic Landmark. The reason for its nomination for landmark status read, in part, "Stonewall is regarded by many as the single most important event that led to the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement and to the struggle for civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. The Stonewall uprising was, as historian Lillian Faderman has written, ‘the shot heard round the world … crucial because it sounded the rally for the movement.’"

Bill Morgan, Tony DeCicco, and Kurt Kelly say the Inn’s role in gay history is what prompted them to buy the bar in late 2006, when the property came up for sale.

"We were concerned that it might end up becoming another Starbucks, and we felt that would be a real shame," said Morgan. "I believe it’s the only landmark gay establishment in the U.S., and we felt it was the right thing to do for the community. We felt it was the right thing to do for the neighborhood, and we felt that, historically, it was really important for us, if we were able to do it, to step up and do something about it. And we did."

They spent about six months doing renovations on the bar — which Morgan said had been neglected for years — and reopened it in March 2007.

"We decided to, as I was saying, dress the old girl up and have a nice coming out," he said. "And that’s kind of what we’ve done. We’ve been able to give it back to the community — and not just the men, but the women as well."

These days, the bar is two floors — there will often be different things going on upstairs than down. Sometimes, it’s "women’s night" on one floor and "men’s night" on the other.

Downstairs, a long bar runs the length of an exposed brick wall, and a pool table is situated in a back corner of the big room. Upstairs is another bar, a small stage and a scattering of tables.

On a recent weeknight happy hour, nearly all the seats at the bar downstairs were occupied, primarily by men, and a few younger women were laughing over a game of pool.

Morgan, DeCicco and Kelly have made a concerted effort to remind patrons and passersby of the bar’s history. Up behind the bar, hanging above the rows and rows of liquor bottles, are several T-shirts, available for purchase, that say "The Stonewall Inn."

And in the front windows are several framed black and white photos. One shows the boarded up window of the Stonewall Inn with graffiti scrawled across the plywood saying "Gay Prohibition Corrupt$ Cop$ Feed$ Mafia."
That one was taken in June 1969.

Mary McClain, 52, says she knows what happened here in June 1969, although, at the time, she was just a kid.

"To stand up and fight back, to fight back and not take it anymore, to say no to the authorities — that’s brave," says McClain.

Bar co-owner Morgan says most people who come to the bar know Stonewall’s history. More recently, he said, he’s noticed the younger crowd asking about it.

"I’ve sat and listened to them ask the bartenders, who obviously know the history, ‘So this is a famous bar?’ And they’ll get a little bit of a history lesson," said Morgan. "The hope is perhaps they’ll go on to go home and Google it and see where they’ve been."

Outside Stonewall on a recent day, Miguel Saona from Spain put down his bag and pulled out his camera. He asked someone to take a picture of him in front of the bar. Having read and seen so much about Stonewall and its history, he wanted to see the place. He had come by the day before, only to find the battery on his camera was dead, but it was important enough to him to come back the next day.
For him, he said, "It’s something like a pilgrimage."

© Keen News Service

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2009.

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