Time has claimed many of the street fighters who rebelled against the police raid of a New York City gay bar 50 years ago, in what has become known as the Stonewall uprising. Those who remain are still a little astounded at what they did.
Standing outside the Greenwich Village tavern one recent morning, at what is now the Stonewall National Monument, Mark Segal recalled the spirit of 1969, when protests against the war in Vietnam coincided with the African-American, Latino and women’s rights movements.
Gay power was next.
“Standing across the street that night, that little 18-year-old boy who is me, I never thought that I’d be here 50 years later talking about it. We didn’t know it was history. We just … knew it had changed,” said Segal, now 68, who has been at the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement ever since.
On June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, ostensibly to bust an illegal Mafia-owned establishment selling watered-down liquor without a license. But police also abused the patrons as they had done to gays many times before. Police also suspected the bar’s management was blackmailing wealthy customers by threatening to out them as gay.
The patrons of the Stonewall, including Segal, had had enough, and they fought back.
“When I stood here in the midst of it all, I remember saying to myself in just an instant: OK, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Segal said.
On June 6, just weeks before the city was expected to welcome 4 million visitors to mark 50 years since the uprising, the New York Police Department apologized for the first time for the raid.
New York has been designated the site of World Pride this year and parades around the globe are set for June 30.
It all started with those who were kicked out of the bar and onto Christopher Street that night. They gathered near the door, soon to be joined by an unruly crowd.
Protesters started throwing coins, then beer cans and bottles, according to David Carter’s meticulous retelling in the 2004 book “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.” At some point a lobbed cobblestone landed on a patrol car, prompting the police to barricade themselves inside.
The crowd grew larger, and more restless, hurling bricks, fuel-filled bottles and garbage cans. Some people tried to light the place on fire, while others battered the plywood window with a parking meter.
Meanwhile, the cops inside feared for their lives, pistols at the ready, according to Carter’s account, but Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine ordered them to hold fire unless he shot first.
The police were shocked, Carter writes, not just by how rapidly the crowd had grown, but that normally acquiescent homosexuals were out in force, shouting “Gay power!”
“It’s like Rosa Parks when she wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. You can only push people around for so long,” said Randy Wicker, 81, who was active in gay rights even before Stonewall. “And once they get a certain sense of self-respect, they say I’m tired of being treated this way, they resist.”
Eventually, the fire department and police riot squad known as the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) arrived, breaking up the crowd. But there was more rioting and street battles with the TPF the next night, and an atmosphere of more subdued tension lingered in Greenwich Village for a few more days before one final night of outrage.
Suddenly, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other queer people were motivated and organized.
At the time being gay was virtually illegal and anti-discrimination laws nonexistent, but Greenwich Village was relatively free territory for all: butch lesbians, drag queens, street queens, transgender women of color and of course gay men. The Stonewall Inn welcomed everybody.
“We had lesbians, fag hags, African-Americans. Most of the drag queens were Spanish. It was a very mixed,” said a man who goes only by the name Tree. He recalls dancing in the bar the night of the raid and is now a bartender at the inn.
“But we wouldn’t drink the liquor because we heard what they did to it to fill up the bottles.”
Among the groups born out of Stonewall was the Gay Liberation Front, which made a statement simply by putting the word gay in its name, said John Knoebel, one of its early activists. Homosexual was in more common usage, and pro-gay advocates were called homophiles.
“‘Gay’ as a word was a new, dynamic radical word to use,” Knoebel said. “We were the first organization that actually called ourselves gay and that was an offensive word to many people. We were naming ourselves and identifying ourselves and finally out of the closet and open and radical.”
Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Additional reporting by Dan Fastenberg; Editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool