I WAS perhaps the unlikeliest person in the world to cover the Stonewall riots for The Village Voice. It was June 27, 1969. I had graduated from West Point only three weeks earlier and was spending my summer leave in New York before reporting for duty at Fort Benning, in Georgia. After a late dinner in Chinatown, I was about to enter the Lion’s Head, a writers’ hangout on Christopher Street near the Voice’s offices, when I blundered straight into the first moments of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar a couple of doors down the street. Even a newly minted second lieutenant of infantry could see that it was a story.
Across the street from the Stonewall, a crowd of maybe 100 was watching the police march out a dozen or so bar patrons and employees into a paddy wagon. The young arrestees paused at the back of the waiting paddy wagon and struck vampy poses, smiling and waving to the crowd.
This was not the way gays were supposed to behave when they were arrested, and the officers started shoving them with their nightsticks. People in the crowd yelled at the police to stop. The officers responded by telling them to get off the street. Someone started throwing pocket change at the officers, and others began rocking the paddy wagon. Then, from the back of the crowd, beer cans and bottles flew through the air. In a hail of coins and street debris, the paddy wagon drove away with two patrol cars, and the remaining officers retreated inside the Stonewall, locking the doors behind them.
Soon enough, loose cobblestones from a nearby repaving site rained down on the bar’s windows. An uprooted parking meter was used to ram the club’s doors. Someone lighted a wad of newspaper and threw it through the bar’s broken window, starting a small fire. The policemen inside the Stonewall put it out with a fire hose, which they then turned on the crowd.
Instead of dispersing, the people in the street cavorted sarcastically in the spray, teasing the officers with suggestive come-ons. A few moments later, patrol cars came screaming down Christopher Street from Sixth Avenue. And at approximately 2 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, the gay men decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. The clash outside the Stonewall went on for 48 more hours and become famous as the riots that started the gay-rights movement.
Amazingly, there was no TV coverage and only a few paragraphs in the city’s daily papers. Myths and controversies have arisen in the vacuum left by the mainstream news media.
One involves the argument about who is, and isn’t, a “veteran” of Stonewall. A handful can prove they were there by pointing to themselves in the famous photograph, taken by Fred McDarrah, that was on the cover of the following week’s Voice, accompanying my article and another by a colleague, Howard Smith.
For the record, I orchestrated that image. Fred was famously parsimonious as a photographer, in the habit of taking only a few photos for a story. Outside the Stonewall that night, he took a look at the scene and asked me to get a bunch of rioters together. I rounded them up and posed them on a stoop, and Fred got his shot.
A prominent Stonewall myth holds that the riots were an uprising by the gay community against decades of oppression. This would be true if the “gay community” consisted of Stonewall patrons. The bar’s regulars, though, were mostly teenagers from Queens, Long Island and New Jersey, with a few young drag queens and homeless youths who squatted in abandoned tenements on the Lower East Side.
I was there on the Saturday and Sunday nights when the Village’s established gay community, having heard about the incidents of Friday night, rushed back from vacation rentals on Fire Island and elsewhere. Although several older activists participated in the riots, most stood on the edges and watched.
Many told me they were put off by the way the younger gays were taunting the police — forming chorus lines and singing, “We are the Stonewall girls, we wear our hair in curls!” Many of the older gay men lived largely closeted lives, had careers to protect and years of experience with discrimination. They believed the younger generation’s behavior would lead to even more oppression.
In part, at least, they were correct. It would take several more years before major New York political figures came out in favor of employment anti-discrimination laws, and much longer before other gay rights would be realized.
Another myth is that the police raid on the Stonewall was part of a broader crackdown on gay bars in the summer of 1969, a mayoral election year. In fact, the Stonewall operation was the work of a Police Department deputy inspector, Seymour Pine, and officers from the morals unit, and they carried it out without the knowledge of the officers of the local police precinct, whom they suspected of taking payoffs from the Stonewall and other Mafia-run gay bars in the Village.
Deputy Inspector Pine had two stated reasons for the raid: the Stonewall was selling liquor without a license, which it was, and it was being used by a Mafia blackmail ring that was setting up gay patrons who worked on Wall Street, which also seems likely.
The owner of the Stonewall, Tony Lauria, was reputed to be a front man for Matty Ianniello (known as “Matty the Horse”), a capo in the Genovese crime family who oversaw a string of clubs in the city. New York’s gay-bar scene at the time was a corrupt system apparently designed to benefit mobster owners, who served watered-down drinks at inflated prices, often made with ill-gotten liquor from truck hijackings.
It worked like this: citing disorderly behavior laws, the State Liquor Authority ruled that bars catering to openly homosexual patrons were not entitled to liquor licenses. Gay bars were thus made effectively illegal, which left them to the mob, which happily ran clubs without liquor licenses and paid the police to look the other way. Several more years would pass before the first clubs with openly gay owners would be licensed — places like the Ballroom on West Broadway and Reno Sweeney on West 13th Street — and the mob lost its stranglehold, an early legacy of Stonewall.
On Sunday, the third night of the riots, I ran into Allen Ginsberg on the street and accompanied him into the reopened Stonewall, where he talked and danced with some of the young revelers. Afterward, as the last of the riot police packed up to go home, I walked with him toward his home in the East Village. He said everything seemed different after the riots — how grim, even sad, gay bars were compared to the “beautiful” scene at the Stonewall that night.
As I turned south on Lafayette Street, he waved and cried out, “Defend the fairies!” His jolly farewell was obviously meant in jest, because after Stonewall, they didn’t need defending any more.
Thanks to Lucian K. Truscott IV
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