By Dave Bidon
Every year on the last Sunday of June, New York City's Pride March takes over the streets Manhattan, snarling east-west traffic and transforming one of the world's most iconic urban landscapes into the backdrop for a celebration that is part protest and part art. Though every Pride March is undeniably special, this year's will be different, and the hundreds upon hundreds of contingents that are waving rainbow flags in the day-long trek will notice as soon as they hit Christopher Street.
During the hot summer of 1969, this narrow street was thrust into the national spotlight when a riot erupted between the police and the gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn. They definitely didn't know it in the heat of the moment, but what they did launched a civil rights movement that officially turns forty years old this year.
Now, I used to dance at the Stonewall, and I can tell you that there are a lot of myths out there about that critical weekend. Let me start by giving you an idea of what it was like to be young and gay in New York in the late 1960's, as well as what is was like to visit a gay bar in those days.
First, it was literally against New York's liquor laws for there to be more than four gay people in a legal drinking establishment. That meant that any bar that catered to gays was illegal. Gay bars were all owned by "organized crime" or sometimes by cops, but never by gay people. They tolerated us just long enough to take our money for watered down drinks. Most places like the Stonewall were absolute dumps – the walls and windows were painted black, and there was usually a rough looking guy (think "Sopranos") at the door who decided who got in.
Gay bars were often raided by the police, so they opened and closed all the time. I was in a few potential raids and there was a script. A couple of plainclothes cops would walk in, push the jukebox away from the wall and pull the plug. One of them would stand and stare, daring us to say something. The other would walk over to the bar. If the cash register opened, ka-ching, they both turned and left, and the bartender or manager would plug in the jukebox and tell us it's over. If the register didn't open, one of the cops would walk to the door and let in some uniforms. Then the announcement: "This is an illegal establishment..." Sometimes they just made the patrons leave and arrested the manager, bartenders and waiters. Other times they brought everybody down to the station.
These were the days of Weegee photos of "perverts" getting into paddy wagons and then having their names published all over the press. You didn't even say the word "homosexual" in mixed company back then. It was pretty frightening.
A lot of Stonewall myths have arisen from a lack of understanding of the time. Stonewall catered largely to young gays. Yes, many of us didn't have a permanent address, and a few may have accepted money once in a while from an older guy who offered, but we weren't really hustlers or homeless. Full drag was only allowed two nights a week at the Stonewall –Tuesday and Sunday I think, but definitely not on a Friday or Saturday when the riot took place.
That's the second most common myth. Absolutely all of us were flamboyant back then, both in dress and manner. We wore silk scarves and beads and baby blue bellbottoms (we were just taking hippie a few steps further) and we also styled our longer hair. This was still a few years before most young gays would even dream of looking butch. The Christopher Street clone hadn't been invented yet. So, when you see the pictures today, we may look like drag queens, but we were really only "fem and fierce."
And yes, at the time of he riots, Judy Garland's body was on view at Frank Campbell's uptown. However, most of the regular Stonewall denizens were too young and could have cared less. We were into Aretha and dancing to "My Cherie Amour."
The police were raiding bars left and right that month. And that was after a long period with fewer and fewer incidents, so we were taken by surprise and getting worried. The story going around the city was that the police commissioner was at war with John Lindsay, our very liberal independent mayor. Supposedly the commissioner had learned that Lindsay's brother was gay, and he was trying to catch him in a raid to embarrass the mayor.
I wasn't at the Stonewall that fateful night, but I was there the next day. My best Lesbian friend and I went running and skipping all around the Village, jumping in and out of stores and yelling "I'm Gay!" at everybody and laughing together. Somehow, I think we were all ready for it at the time. It felt like queer VE Day or something. Gay people – especially young gays – had been getting angry for a long while. After all, this was the sixties: civil rights, anti-Vietnam and hippies. We'd just had enough.
That was officially the beginning of a new life for of us. We embraced our gay identities and wore them on the outside in defiance. And it gave us new feelings of freedom, righteousness and joy. This was like an electric shock that went through us all overnight. A new gay consciousness was riding on the waves of the many social movements of the sixties, and we weren't going back.
A year and day later, I joined the first Stonewall march. I remember we gathered on Christopher Street in little nervous groups that morning. There weren't many people there, and I think we delayed our start time a little. It was scary. There were signs that said "Hi Mom." Then I looked across the street and saw TV crews. Suddenly, I put the two together and realized that I could outing myself. I quickly moved back a few rows from the front of the march and started watching for cameras.
I can still remember what it felt like to step out onto 6th Avenue. I experienced complete internal panic and then I just let go. We didn't know if there would be gangs ready to beat us up or ugly name shouting or what. This wasn't a parade like later years; it was a demonstration. And it wasn't a march really, as it was more like speed walking. By the time we got up into the teens, we started getting applause here and there, and we could see lots of gay people hanging out of windows and standing on the sidewalk trying to make up there minds about joining. So we had our first chants, "Out of Your Buildings, Off of the Sidewalks, Into the Streets!"
And people did just that.
It got a little more festive as we got further uptown, and I remember meeting Taylor Meade, poet and sometime Warhol superstar (who was a little too solicitous) and other notable queers of the day. I believe I learned my favorite chant of all time that afternoon. A cute guy with a tambourine jumped out ahead and announced, "a Tarantella." All I could think of was that song by Cyril Richard as Captain Hook. Anyway, it went: "Ho Ho Homosexual, the Ruling Class Ineffectual!"
The last thing I remember was the subway ride back downtown. The cars were full of shirtless beauties all going back to our turf – the Village.
Photo by Ross Bradford
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