Stonewall was a riot

Lesbian and Gay Liberation did not begin with a demonstration, a meeting, a campaign or a court case. It began with a riot. Nancy Lindisarne and Jonathan Neale tell the story.

In what follows, we lean heavily on a marvellous history by David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. Wring 35 years later, Carter talked by dozens of middle aged men who had been there, from the street hustlers to the cop in charge. His account is vivid, but he’s also careful and balanced in his use of evidence. On disputed matters, we trust his judgement.[1]

In 1969 the Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in New York City, in the beat and bohemian neighbourhood on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. ‘The village’ was also a homosexual haven – men heard about it from all over the country and came to a place where they could find others like themselves, and be a little bit open.

            Homosexuality was illegal in 49 out of the 50 United States. Men and women were deep in the closet. The lavender scare of the 1950s had lost even more people their jobs than the red scare. Pers ecution had been deepening through the 1960s, particularly arrests on the street and in gay bars. Working class communities were more tolerant of openly effeminate men than professional communities and workplaces, which is to say, very intolerant.

            In this world, the Stonewall Inn was special. There were, as far as anyone could tell, more homosexual men and women in New York City than anywhere else in the country. San Francisco maybe had a bigger proportion, but it was so much smaller a city. And Stonewall was the only gay bar where you could be fully yourself. In the other places, you could dance in the dark, but the lights came on without warning, and then you had to sit down abruptly. At the Stonewall, the lights stayed low.

            The bouncers at the other bars had rules. No one could enter who looked too feminine, or too young. We need to be clear what we mean by feminine here, because times and words have changed so much. Contemporary witnesses say that many patrons at the Stonewall were queens, even ‘screaming queens’ and ‘flame queens’. So people assume, now, that those were drag queens, and men in women’s clothes. A few were, and most were not. In 1969 a queen meant a man who looked effeminate, less so than David Bowie, Freddie Mercury or Prince in their prime. Bell bottoms pants, a loose shirt with flowers on it, maybe a necklace and a head band, a bit of blush – that would do it. Enough so that back then anyone could tell on the streets of New York. Then you were a queen.

            You could dress like that and walk like that and get into the Stonewall. The bouncers let young men in, too. There were an awful of gay, effeminate teenage boys in New York too. Some of them still lived at home, but many had been kicked out of home or moved out. They came from all over the country, because they had heard about the village. They lived homeless, on the streets, further uptown mostly, and made a living hustling – stealing and prostitution. They were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and they often only had the clothes they wore. They were out, flamboyant, tough, and terribly vulnerable inside. Most gay men would have nothing to do with them, even the drag queens. In the village, gay men with homes threw bottles out the window at them. The Stonewall was the only bar that would let them in.

            There were women in drag too, though not so many. And some lesbians. Both would be important in starting the riot.

The Police

The mafia owned Stonewall, and Fat Tony ran it. He was from a mafia family, and gay himself. The investment was almost nil, the drinks were watered, and the income was almost all profit, about $5,000 on a Friday or Saturday night, an enormous amount in those days for a bar with only two rooms. Fat Tony had no trouble paying off the cops at the Sixth Precinct – probably $1,200 a month. There were still police raids on the bar, but the Sixth Precinct tipped off the Stonewall beforehand, so the bar staff could hide most of the money and most of the liquor, and the mafia could disappear. The gay staff, bartenders and bouncers, got arrested.

            The cops were murdering gay men in the area in the first few months of 1969. At night many men went to find casual sex between the trucks parked in the dark along the docks. Many of the young homeless prostitutes worked there too. The docks were five short blocks, about a ten minute walk, from the Stonewall. The police still raided gay bars. But Mayor John Lindsay, elected with a lot of gay votes, had ordered the cops to stop street entrapments. The Transit Police, though, were not under the mayor’s control, and they were still doing shakedowns on the docks, stopping gay looking men and demanding their money. That winter Colin Kelly, an off-duty transit policeman, shot and killed John Allison and another gay man who was with him. The trucking companies and the pier owners also hired private cops to stop the gay men having sex. The private policemen, like the transit cops, did shakedowns as well.

            The Mattachine Society was a small, moderate, but very determined group defending gay civil rights. The February newsletter of the New York branch warned about the trucks at the docks: ‘The area has become a mecca for uptight hoodlums looking for a ‘queer’ to beat up. One of their favourite games is to shove a homosexual into the cesspool known as the Hudson River … At least four people have drowned in the filth after hitting their heads on pier footings.’[2]

The Raid

When Seymour Pine was a teenager, he wanted to be an FBI agent. But he was Jewish, and his father talked Seymour out of it, saying there was no future for a Jew in the agency. So after college Pine joined the New York Police Department instead. World War Two soon intervened. Pine had been an athlete in college – wrestling, football, and then judo in the police. In basic training, he realised the army knew shit about unarmed combat. The army took notice, and sent him to OCS, the training school for officers, where Pine wrote what became the standard army manual on unarmed combat. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and did liason work with underground forces in Italy and France. Finally, he was wounded in a mine explosion, spent thirteen months in hospital, and then went back into the NYPD.

            By 1969 Pine was a Deputy Inspector. That spring he was transferred to the Public Morals Division in Manhattan. That was a dirty unit, like most vice squads, and Pine was known to be an honest cop, which was not that common. His superiors hoped he would clean up Public Morals. And Pine was determined to close down the gay bars.

            June 25, a Tuesday night, Pine led a routine raid on the Stonewall. He was frustrated – the Sixth Precinct had phoned ahead and the staff had been able to prepare. Pine could see that. He told a barman he’s be back, and close the place down. The barman said he couldn’t. Pine was riled by that. He’d been disrespected. He was going to show them.

            Pine came back three nights later, at about 1.15 am on Saturday morning. He had a paddy wagon (a van for prisoners), squad cars, undercover male officers, undercover female officers, a state liquor board agent, [CHECK] and a federal agent from Firearms, Alcohol and Tobacco. If he got the Stonewall on federal charges of watering the booze, that would close them down. The Sixth Precinct had given no warning.

            Weather is important here. It was a hot night. In New York people kept their windows open on hot nights, and sat out on the front steps of their building, or walked around. There were still a lot of people up and about. And everyone in New York knew that riots began on hot summer nights.

            The first big black riot in America had begun on a summer night in Harlem in 1963. Harlem was in the north of the island of Manhattan. Greenwich Village and Stonewall were in the south of the island. And everyone knew that homosexuals were sissies who would never fight back. But the idea of a riot was there. And of course, there were Puerto Rican and black men and women in Greenwich Village, and in the Stonewall. And some of them had been in riots before – just as themselves, nothing particularly gay about it. So the idea was there, the possibility.

            Craig Rodman was in the Stonewall earlier that night. But he made a new friend, and they went back to Craig’s place to get better acquainted. Craig lived in a gay commune nearby. They had structured group discussions in the commune on the politics of the Vietnam War, race, and women’s liberation – the issues of the day. They had never discussed the politics of being gay, although every one of them was a gay man. That was the reason they lived together.

            You could interpret that, looking backwards, as amazingly backward. Or you could say this was the hardest issue of all in the sixties, and they had all the pieces they needed that Friday night, except for that one last piece.

            Craig would be back outside the Stonewall very soon.

Almost from the first, the raid was not going quite as planned. The police rounded up all people wearing women’s clothes. It wasn’t hard, they were mostly standing together. Most people knew the drill. A police woman would take the lady into the toilets and search her to see if she had male genitals. If she did, she was arrested. Most people, when it came for the search, just said, ‘I’m actually a man’, and went quietly. This was why there were two women police officers there, for the searches.

            The lesbians were corralled in a different part of the front room – again, not hard, because they too sat together. They were not dressed as women, by and large, and they were arrested if they were found to be wearing three items of men’s clothing.

            Some of the men in women’s clothes were drag queens, and some were transvestites. This time they weren’t quiet. They talked back to the cops, maybe shook them off. They were foul mouthed, of course, and they were New Yorkers. It was then that Seymour Pine got a bit worried.

            Most of the people in the bar were allowed to go. But some were held. Gradually, one by one, they were taken out to the paddy wagon. Any other night, the people who got out of the bar free would have vanished fast into the safety of the dark. Not this night. They stood outside the bar, a safe distance from the cops, but there, watching, making noises. Other people began to join them, from off the street, or out of their houses. In the photographs of that night, almost everyone is a man.

            The crowd grew more tense, but nervous too. Craig was back from home, and he shouted as loud as he could, ‘Gay Power’. A few people shouted it after them, but then stopped, amid titters. It was a play on the slogan of Black Power, and Craig was trying to start something. But it felt too far fetched.

            Some minutes later a few people began to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’, the long deep rolling song of the civil rights movement. That did not catch on either. Maybe it felt like too much of a stretch, maybe it just felt too non-violent, not angry enough. And then the cops brought ‘The Lesbian’ out of the bar in handcuffs.

            The Lesbian has been a subject of controversy ever since, because what happened next was almost too politically correct to be true. But David Carter has written the standard oral history of Stonewall. He is a careful, balanced writer, with good judgement, and he has talked to an awful lot of people who were there. He says the story of The Lesbian is true.

            Everyone who saw her said she was very masculine in appearance. (And they would have said she back then.) They used words like ‘butch’, ‘dyke’ and ‘bull dyke’. That did not have to mean, back then, quite what we would assume now. But it did mean that she was almost certainly working class. Butch lesbian women could not get middle class jobs then. It was  a style in a working class world.

            She started resisting, or maybe just bad mouthing, the police inside the bar when they put the handcuffs on. (She was wearing three items of male clothing.) A cop hit her on the head with his night stick (a heavy baton). When she came out of the bar she was trying to shake the cops off, and it took three or four of them to get her into the paddy wagon. She fought her way back out, and they hit and wrestled her back in, and she fought her way out again. It took maybe five or ten minutes to get her locked in.

            The crowd were tensing now, shouting, and men were beginning to throw coins at the cops. Watching the police beat a woman raised something ‘chauvinist’ in them, one man in the crowd said later. They had been raised – you don’t hit a woman. They shouldn’t be letting this happen. But there was another twist to the gender game here. For she was being a man. Except for maybe Seymour Pine, The Lesbian was the person in the bar trying hardest to be masculine. The crowd of men watched her and thought, we don’t have to be sissies any more. We can be men. And something in their rage gave way.

            Suicide comes up a lot in the life stories of the men who were at Stonewall, as it does so often in the memories of gay men who came of age in the fifties and early sixties. It was mostly when they were teenagers, the moment when they worked out how to hang themselves at home, and then thought about it, and decided no, they would go on living. Or the moment when they took the pills or slashed their wrists and went to hospital. They felt terribly alone, damaged and bullied, those boys. Their violence turned inwards. But now, standing in that crowd, among so many like them, hearing the voices rise, the rage turned outwards.

            Men were throwing coins now, pennies, then quarters. Beer bottles flew, and full beer cans. The space between the cops and the crowd was down to ten feet. At the back of the crowd, across the road, a few people were filling empty bottles with petrol, making Molotov cocktails. There was a stack of bricks outside a building site just down the road, and people began throwing them at the cops.

            The young homeless men, the working class out queens, were in the front of the fighting. The Stonewall had been the only safe, warm place in the world they could be themselves. The place they could have a beer and a dance and pick their own partners after a night hustling. Their rage was greater. They were more familiar with violence too. They had been beaten a lot on the streets. They’d been beaten at home too, maybe by a father trying to beat the sissie out of them, maybe just because some of them came from homes where there was a lot of violence. They had been beaten because there’s violence when you live on the street. And they were working class men. Working class men in America have always endured a lot more violence than college men. And when they move into action, they are, and were, more likely to use their fists or grab a brick.

            Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt was one of those street kids. He told Dan Carter, ‘What I know definitely from my own experience is that the people who did the most fighting were the drag queens and hustlers. [They] fought with the same ferocity they would fight with when any situation put their sense of dignity on the line.’

            There were college kids there too:

Kevin Dunn, a nineteen-year-old gay man, dressed in hippie attire and a true believer in the peace movement … stood there thinking to himself, “ ‘I’m sick of being told I’m sick” and went to grab something – I don’t know if it was a half-filled milk carton – it was some kind of a carton – and I was just about ready to throw it, but I stopped and said, ‘But you’re not supposed to be violent, you’re against violence.’ ”

            But as Kevin hesitated “a big, hunky, nice-looking Puerto Rican buy – but big mouth – yelling out (at the police) next to me … took the thing out of my hand and threw it! And it was one of the first things that got thrown at Stonewall. And I just thought after he did that ‘Ah, what the hell! Yeah!’ And then I started scrambling to pick up whatever I could find.”[3]

            Robert Bryan was a college graduate’: ‘Every so often, [the police] would sort of reach out and grab somebody from the crowd and pull them in, and they were beating them in the doorway with clubs. They had a circle around; they’d grab somebody from the crowd and pull them in, and they were beating them in the doorway. I was so appalled at what was going on that I came running up behind one of the policemen who was bent over with a club and, with all my force, kicked him in the seat and knocked him over.’[4]

            Then Bryan ran. The crowd were shouting now, ‘Pigs’ and ‘Faggot Cops’. Pine told the cops around the paddy wagon to slam the doors and drive to the Sixth Precinct, and come back with help fast. He took the remaining police back into the Stonewall and barricaded the door from the inside.

            The paddy wagon had trouble getting out of the crowd. People were banging on the sides, throwing things, leaping on it. The driver had to keep going fast enough to part the crowd, but not so fast he killed someone. Then the paddy wagon was through.

            The men in the crowd looked round. The paddy wagon and the squad cars were gone. The remaining police were inside the bar. It began to sink in. They had won. They had done something the sissies, the faggots, the homos had never done before. Fought. And not just fought. Won.

            Rage broke loose in their hearts. People were screaming ‘Gay Power’ now. Some men tore down a parking meter and used it as a battering ram against the door to the bar. They broke the door open several times. Each time, they faced the police inside, with their handguns drawn. The crowd stood there, and the police slammed the door and barricaded it again.

            Men from the crowd were shoving paper under the door and leaning down to light it, to set the bar on fire. They leapt back quick, though, afraid of being shot. Other men broke through the window, and through the wooden panel below the window. They threw bottles full of petrol through the holes, and other men poured petrol through the window.

            There were eight cops inside from the NYPD, one state agent, one federal agent, and one prisoner, injured from a beating, handcuffed, lying on the floor. The cops found a fire hose, and kept putting out the fires as fast as they sprang into flames. Then the fire hose ran out of water, and they had to use buckets.

            Pine had written the standard army on hand to hand fighting. He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and been seriously wounded. Now he was more afraid than he had ever been in the war. He understood that many of the men outside wanted to kill him and the men and women he commanded. He had been in combats, and in riots, and he could see what was going to happen. His cops were afraid, on edge, with loaded guns in their hands. Sometime soon, the door was going to open and one of his men or women would fire their gun in fear, without thinking. The moment that happened all the other cops would open fire too. That was what happened in combat.

            Pine had been in riots too. He knew that if they opened fire, the first men through the door would go down. But the people at the back of the crowd would push forward, and the front line would be pushed forward, and the crowd would be through the door. He, and all the cops, would die.

            He remembered from combat what to do. How Smith was the reporter trapped in the bar with the cops: ‘I was sure we were going to be killed, but [Pine] was very, very good. He went from guy to guy. He made sure their guns were ready, and all that. But he said, “Anybody who fires their gun without me saying ‘Fire!’ is going to be in big, big trouble. You’ll be walking the loneliest beat on Staten Island for the rest of your career.” He was very threatening and very in control of the guys, even though it was very apparent he was scared also. But he didn’t want anybody to start firing because he knew that if one cop fires, they all start.’[5]

            As he talked to each one, Pine reached out and touched them. He knew that was important, touching, to calm the jitters, to get them to concentrate on what he was saying.

            And move on to the next one, down the line. It worked, for a while. But relief was a long time coming from the Sixth Precinct. Pine was pretty sure one of his people was going to open fire soon. He was going to die.

            Then the crowd heard the sirens. Everyone thought it was the cops coming. It wasn’t. It was a couple of fire trucks that couldn’t get through the crowd. But the tension eased. And then, a few minutes later, the riot police were there. Pine and his men got out, and into cars, and away.

            The fighting between the riot police and the gay people lasted all night. Dawn came. Martin Boyce was still living at home, but he ran with the street kids like Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. Years later, he remembered: ‘Morning came on Christopher, and those broken windows and pieces of cloth inside and diamondlike glass all over. It was a riot, no doubt about it, and there were just exhausted survivors looking dazed. We knew what happened. We all did it. It was like, ‘Oh’. Because, you know, it was a very extraordinary kind of beauty, something to make art out of later. Not directly, but Tommy Schmidt, I’m sure, could see the beauty of shattered glass and certain kind of fag decorations being blown in the wind, by the window. It was obvious, at least to men, that a lot of people were really gay and, you know, this was our street.’[6]


[1] Carter, David, 2004, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. Duberman, Martin, 1993, Stonewall, New York: Dutton, is also useful.

[2] ‘Cop Kills Two – May Go Free’ and ‘Docks, Darkness and Danger’, New York Mattachine Newsletter, March 1969, quoted in Carter, 2004.

[3] Carter 2004, 161.

[4] Carter 2004, 163.

[5] Carter, 2004, 170

[6] Carter 2004, 181.

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