(At Stonewall): NEW YORK — Few people are still around who were really at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on that summer evening 50 years ago, when a raid by the police led to a violent uprising. Just this month, the New York Police Department apologized. Here are recollections of that night from three men who were there.
Gay in 1969
In February 1969, Martin Boyce moved into the Manhattan apartment where he would live for the next 50 years. At the time, Boyce, then a 21-year-old history student at Hunter College, was living with his family. Most nights, however, he traded the East Side for the West Village.
“Christopher Street was our turf,” he said in a recent interview at his home.
Boyce and some of his friends liked to dress in “scare drag,” a looser style of gender-bending that, he recalled, some drag queens derided as “lazy” and “no ambition.”
But the point was “to confuse someone for just a few moments,” he explained. In any case, one of his personal philosophies of scare drag had a practical benefit.
“Never wear heels, because you had to run,” he said.
Evading police harassment was a fact of life for gay people like Boyce. Many of the unwanted interactions were predicated on a criminal statute allowing for the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing. (“And socks didn’t count,” Boyce said.)
While allowing that the officers “generally” followed the rules, he said that “it was all their whim to make our lives miserable.”
According to Boyce, the routine police stops, regular attempts at entrapment and raids of establishments frequented by gays all contributed to an atmosphere in which being gay meant feeling hunted.
“We all had our lists in our heads of friends who were beaten, maimed, thrown out of their house, informed on by the cops — tragic stories,” he said. “But there was nothing you could do about it.”
53 Christopher St.
The Stonewall Inn, a seedy gay bar on Christopher Street, was different things to different people. Many resented the Mafia’s control of the bar, which manifested in ways ranging from police payoffs to what Boyce described as a sign-in book at the entrance. (“I can’t tell you how many times Judy Garland was there,” he said wryly. “Not one real name.”)
But Mark Segal, a Philadelphia native who, at 18, arrived in New York City in spring 1969, was more than happy to overlook the overpriced and watered-down drinks.
“It was a safe place for us,” he said. “When you walked in the door of Stonewall,” he added, “you could hold hands, you could kiss and, more importantly, you could dance.”
The bar also drew an unusually diverse crowd. “Stonewall was like a Noah’s ark,” Boyce said. Its patrons exhibited “degrees of loudness,” he explained, “going from drag queens down to professionals.”
To avoid alienating any particular demographic and ensure that the clientele remained mixed, Boyce said, the bar’s various Mafia front men performed a crude calculus at the door: “Not too many whites, it’ll tip to white; not too many blacks, it’ll tip to black.”
Still, “it wasn’t the only gay bar in the neighborhood,” Jim Fouratt pointed out in a recent interview. Fouratt turned 28 in the summer of 1969, when he was working for CBS Records, giving the label cool-kid credibility in meetings with bands. He preferred a bar at the nearby Cherry Lane Theater, he said.
“Most of the customers were closeted married men,” he said of the Stonewall. In his 1993 book “Stonewall,” historian Martin Duberman quoted a description of the bar by Fouratt that pulled exactly zero punches: “a real dive, an awful, sleazy place set up by the Mob for hustlers.”
What’s in a Name
Very early on Saturday, June 28, 1969, something happened at the Stonewall Inn, though even the question of what to call it, like most details of that night, is a matter of disagreement.
Although many historians favor the term “uprising,” Boyce and Segal do not shy away from calling the events of that night a riot.
Fouratt, on the other hand, said he preferred to think of it as an “internal rebellion,” one in which his “internalized homophobia flew away.”
It began with police action that, from the start, was distinct from the raids routinely staged at the Stonewall. Those usually came earlier at night, when the bar was less full, meaning the raid would prove less disruptive to business — the reason the bar’s management paid to be tipped off.
That night, police officers entered the bar and began to arrest employees, saying they were selling alcohol without a license. Several patrons were taken into custody under the appropriate-dress statute.
Most of the time, the people hanging out outside the bar would scatter at the police’s arrival. “We always listened to them, we always broke up,” Boyce said.
“But not this time,” he continued. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know for the life of me.”
Instead, the crowd began to resist, with boos escalating to more aggressive jeers. There are different accounts of the true spark, but eventually, a riot broke out in front of the Stonewall.
“The pain, the anger, the frustration, the humiliation, the constant badgering, the constant turmoil that they caused in our lives: Now was the time to get it out,” Boyce said. “You didn’t have to hurt a cop. You didn’t have to hurt somebody. You just had to scream it out.”
Scenes of Frenzy
Although the general contours of the uprising are somewhat well established, almost every detail of that first night continues to be fiercely contested, even half a century later, including “who threw the first brick” — or even if bricks were thrown. (“There’s this whole myth of people breaking, throwing bricks at the windows and starting fires: It’s all myth, it’s all mythology,” Fouratt said, saying there was wood all over the windows at the time.) But participants’ vivid recollections of certain moments form a striking collage of a June night heavy with history.
Boyce said the crowd outside the bar was nothing out of the ordinary. “In those days, it was entertainment to see a raid,” he said. “It was schadenfreude: You weren’t in it, so watch it.” From where he and his friend Birdie Rivera were standing, he said, they had a good view of someone being shoved into a paddy wagon.
He said he remembered seeing a high heel come out of the van and kick the officer. “He just went in,” Boyce recalled, “and you heard flesh, and bone, against metal.”
After the officer turned around with his nightstick raised and told the onlookers to clear out, something took a turn, Boyce said. “We just kept taking steps towards him. So I don’t know what we looked like, or what was in our eyes. But he did. And he looked, he flinched, he gulped, and he ran for the door.”
Within minutes, he said, “Bang: The whole thing just blew up.”
Boyce said he remembered a long night of at least a dozen retreats and returns. At one point, he said, people ran out of things to throw and went out to get more ammunition. When they returned, he said, “they were dragging big, black bags of squeezed oranges from Orange Julius.”
And of course, there was the kickline. “We started this Rockette kickline, singing ‘We Are the Village Girls,’ one of our ditties,” he said.
That squares with Segal’s recollection of a generally upbeat mood. “We were very happy that night,” he said. “We were joyous.”
“At one point, I felt like screaming, ‘I’m gay!’ in the middle of the street,” he said. “That was unheard-of.”
Asked if he had any regrets about anything he did or didn’t do that first night, Segal initially said no. “I’m happy that I wrote on the streets, you know, and the walls; I’m happy that I witnessed what I witnessed.” Still, he said, “I don’t remember throwing anything, as other people have.”
“If I have one regret, maybe it’s I didn’t throw a stone or a can,” he said, laughing.
Boyce was also proud of how the night unfolded. “No scores were settled,” he said, pointing out that the frenzy of a raid was often used for cover to exact personal vengeance. “Queens that really hated each other fought side by side.”
All these participants agreed that it was not remotely obvious in the immediate aftermath that the uprising would prove to be of any lasting significance. “We didn’t think Stonewall was historic at all,” Segal said.
One of the most important shifts after Stonewall was visibility. Boyce and Segal both recalled having to sneak around libraries when they were younger for information about gays, which, at the time, meant scientific literature that characterized homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Boyce mentioned Tennessee Williams’ growing fame and Truman Capote’s self-deprecating TV appearances as evidence that “we weren’t totally isolated.”
“No matter how negative, you just wanted to see yourself,” he said.
Segal apparently felt the same way. In the years after Stonewall, he engaged in a series of political stunts called zaps, in which he barged into broadcasts in an effort to provoke discussion. “I was appearing unannounced on all your favorite TV shows, if they were live,” he said.
“I didn’t care if I was an enemy because if someone saw me doing what I was doing, they had to talk about us,” he said, “and the more they talked about us, the more we became visible. The more we became visible, the more people would feel confident coming out.”
Segal, whose grandmother took him to his first civil rights demonstration at 13, said that despite his presence at Stonewall, he hoped his legacy would be “ending invisibility.” “I’m proud of those zaps,” he said, calling them “the most important contribution I made.”
One of his main prescriptions for contemporary gay rights groups is more black and transgender people in leadership positions. But Segal also said activists could stand to adopt a few of the earlier movement’s tactics, and perhaps some of its fervor.
“Get out in the street!” he said. “Handcuff yourself to something! Get arrested!”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.