19: Martin Duberman
Excerpt from Stonewall
Published in 1993;reprinted from Voices of a People's History of the United States, 2004.
Around midnight on Friday, June 27, 1969, a New York City police unit raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gathering place for homosexuals, people attracted to those of the same sex. Police raids on bars that were frequently visited by homosexuals were common during that period and often occurred without much resistance. However, on that night, people in the bar fought back, and the fighting spilled into the streets. A special, tactical police unit, trained to handle riots and large crowds of protesters, was called in and peace was eventually restored. The battle came to be known as the Stonewall riot.
For the next few nights after the riot, demonstrators for gay rights gathered in the streets of Greenwich Village, the area of New York City where the Stonewall Inn was located. The Stonewall riots and the demonstrations that followed helped ignite the modern gay rights movement. (The term "gay" can be used to refer to both male and female homosexuals but often refers specifically to homosexual men; the term "lesbian" is often used to refer to homosexual women.)
"With the cops holed up inside Stonewall, the crowd was now in control of the street, and it bellowed triumph and pent-up rage."
Facing discrimination and hostility, homosexuals in the United States were historically a private subculture, or a group of people who share similar traits or interests that are different from mainstream society. During the 1940s, homosexuality had gradually become more public, partially because of publicity during World War II (1939–45) when gay men were banned from the armed services. In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) issued an executive order barring gay men and lesbians from all federal jobs. Many state and local governments and private corporations did the same. Local police forces, sometimes urged on by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), regularly raided gay bars.
In the 1960s, gay rights activism became more public through the "Homophile Movement," which was made up of individuals concerned about the well being of homosexuals. The Homophile Movement was influenced by the "Black Power" model of confrontational civil rights activities. The slogan "Black Power" had become popular among African Americans during the 1960s, when militant (those seeking change aggressively rather than nonviolently) black leaders such as H. Rap Brown (1943–) and Malcolm X (1925–1965) pushed for a violent approach to end racial inequality. By 1969 there were about fifty Homophile organizations in the United States with memberships of a few thousand people each. The Stonewall riots of 1969 sparked a larger and more organized gay liberation movement that emphasized pride and action among homosexuals.
Martin Duberman (1930–), a writer and professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, lived in the Greenwich Village area where the Stonewall riots occurred. Inspired by the event, he became more open about being gay as an activist, writer, and scholar. A1972 essay he wrote on trends in gay male literature was one of the first to appear in a national publication—the New York Times Book Review, December 10, 1972. He also appeared as a gay spokesperson on television and on college campuses, and he wrote about gay literature, theater, and news events. As a young man during the 1950s and 1960s, Duberman had consulted with psychiatrists to help him understand his homosexual inclinations, or leanings. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973, so psychiatrists attempted to help cure Duberman. His book Cures (1991) explores how psychiatry responded to homosexuality.
In his next work, Stonewall (1993), Duberman combined elements of history and biography to review the Homophile Movement and the Stonewall riots. To personalize events, he profiled several people, focusing especially on the interlocking lives of two lesbians and four gay men who were either at the Stonewall riots or were involved in gay and lesbian politics of the time.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Stonewall:
- To show how homosexuals shared some common experiences though they might be very different from one another in many other ways, Duberman focused on the lives of six people, some of whom appear in the excerpt that follows. Those appearing include Sylvia Rivera, a Hispanic transvestite, or a person who dresses and acts like a member of the opposite sex; Jim Fouratt, a white Catholic and ex-priest who is involved in the anti-Vietnam War (1954–75) movement and other causes; and Craig Rodwell, a bookstore owner. Also featured in Stonewall but not mentioned in the following excerpt are Yvonne Flowers, a black feminist, or someone who believes in equality for women; Karla Jay, a Jewish feminist who later became a professor and writer in gay and lesbian studies; and Foster Gunnison Jr., a white professor who collects items relating to the gay and lesbian rights movement.
- Many other people are mentioned in the excerpt, often only by their first names. They are people who witnessed or participated in aspects of the Stonewall riots along with the main characters.
- As the excerpt opens, police have raided the Stonewall Inn and are attempting to get those arrested into a van to transport them to police headquarters. The events that follow show how the Stonewall riots was a spontaneous, or unplanned, expression of gay frustration and a refusal to endure continued police harassment.
- The Stonewall Inn had been raided several times previously for a number of reasons: it operated without a liquor license, which is a legal document necessary for selling alcoholic beverages; it had ties with organized crime; and it was known as a place where homosexuals gathered.
Excerpt from Stonewall
As the police, amid a growing crowd and mounting anger, continued to load prisoners into the van, Martin Boyce, an eighteen-year-old scare drag queen, saw a leg in nylons and sporting a high heel shoot out of the back of the paddy wagon into the chest of a cop, throwing him backward. Another queen then opened the door on the side of the wagon and jumped out. The cops chased and caught her, but Blond Frankie [Frank Esselourne] quickly managed to engineer another escape from the van; several queens successfully made their way out with him and were swallowed up in the crowd. Tammy Novak was one of them; she ran all the way to Joe Tish's apartment, where she holed up [hid] throughout the weekend. The police handcuffed subsequent prisoners to the inside of the van, and succeeded in driving away from the scene to book them at the precinct house [police station]. Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, the ranking officer, nervously told the departing police to "just drop them off at the Sixth Precinct and hurry back."
From this point on, the melee [riot] broke out in several directions and swiftly mounted in intensity….
Stunned and frightened by the crowd's unexpected fury, the police, at the order of Deputy Inspector Pine, retreated inside the [Stonewall] bar. Pine had been accustomed to two or three cops being able to handle with ease any number of cowering [frightened] gays, but here the crowd wasn't cowering; it had routed [defeated] eight cops and made them run for cover. As Pine later said, "I had been in combat situations, [but] there was never any time that I felt more scared than then." With the cops holed up inside Stonewall, the crowd was now in control of the street, and it bellowed [roared] in triumph and pent-up rage.
Craig [Rodwell] dashed to a nearby phone booth. Ever conscious of the need for publicity—for visibility—and realizing that a critical moment had arrived, he called all three daily [New York City] papers, the Times, the Post, and the News, and alerted them that "a major news story was breaking." Then he ran to his apartment a few blocks away to get his camera.
Jim Fouratt also dashed to the phones—to call his straight [not gay] radical-left friends, to tell them "people were fighting the cops—it was just like Newark! " He urged them to rush down and lend their support (just as he had long done for their causes). Then he went into the nearby Ninth Circle and Julius' [bar], to try to get the patrons to come out into the street. But none of them would. Nor did any of his straight radical friends show up. It taught Jim a bitter lesson about how low on the scale of priorities his erstwhile [former] comrades ranked [gay] concerns.
Gary tried to persuade Sylvia [Rivera] to go home with him to get a change of clothes. "Are you nuts?" she yelled. "I'm not missing a minute of this—it's the revolution!" So Gary left to get clothes for both of them. Blond Frankie, meanwhile—perhaps taking his cue from Zucchi—uprooted a loose parking meter and offered it for use as a battering ram against the Stonewall's door. At nearly the same moment somebody started squirting lighter fluid through the shattered glass window on the bar's façade [front side], tossing in matches after it. Inspector Pine later referred to this as "throwing Molotov cocktails into the place," but the only reality that described was the inflamed [angered] state of Pine's nerves.
Still, the danger was very real, and the police were badly frightened. The shock to self-esteem had been stunning enough; now came an actual threat to physical safety. Dodging flying glass and missiles, Patrolman Gil Weisman, the one cop in uniform, was hit near the eye with a shard, and blood spurted out. With that, the fear turned abruptly to fury. Three of the cops, led by Pine, ran out the front door, which had crashed in from the battering, and started screaming threats at the crowd, thinking to cow it [order it around]. But instead a rain of coins and bottles came down, and a beer can glanced off Deputy Inspector Charles Smyth's head. Pine lunged into the crowd, grabbed somebody around the waist, pulled him back into the doorway, and then dragged him by the hair, inside.
Ironically, the prisoner was the well-known—and heterosexual —folk singer Dave Van Ronk [1936–]. Earlier that night Van Ronk had been in and out of the Lion's Head, a bar a few doors down from Stonewall that catered to a noisy, macho journalist crowd scornful of the [gays] down the block. Once the riot got going, the Lion's Head locked its doors; the management didn't want [gays] moaning and bleeding over the paying customers. As soon as Pine got Van Ronk back into the Stonewall, he angrily accused him of throwing dangerous objects—a cue to Patrolman Weisman to shout that Van Ronk was the one who had cut his eye, and then to start punching the singer hard while several other cops held him down. When Van Ronk looked as if he was going to pass out, the police handcuffed him, and Pine snapped, "All right, we book him for assault [physical attack]."
The cops then found a fire hose, wedged it into a crack in the door, and directed the spray out at the crowd, thinking that would certainly scatter it. But the stream was weak and the crowd howled derisively, while inside the cops started slipping on the wet floor. A reporter from The Village Voice, Howard Smith, had retreated inside the bar when the police did; he later wrote that by that point in the evening "the sound filtering in [didn't] suggest dancing [gays] any more; it sound[ed] like a powerful rage bent on vendetta [revenge]." By now the Stonewall's front door was hanging wide open, the plywood brace behind the windows was splintered, and it seemed only a matter of minutes before the howling mob would break in and wreak [cause] its vengeance [revenge]….
At that moment, an arm reached in through the shattered window, squirted more lighter fluid into the room, and then threw in another lit match. This time the match caught, and there was a whoosh of flame. Standing only ten feet away, Pine aimed his gun at the receding arm and (he later said) was preparing to shoot when he heard the sound of sirens coming down Christopher Street. At two-fifty-five a.m., Pine had sent out emergency signal 10-41—a call for help to the fearsome Tactical Patrol Force [TPF]—and relief was now rounding the corner.
The TPF was a highly trained, crack riot-control unit that had been set up to respond to the proliferation [greatly increasing] of protests against the Vietnam War. Wearing helmets with visors, carrying assorted weapons, including billy clubs and tear gas, its two dozen members all seemed massively proportioned. They were a formidable [impressive and intimidating] sight as, linked arm in arm, they came up Christopher Street in a wedge formation that resembled (by design) a Roman legion. In their path, the rioters slowly retreated, but—contrary to police expectations—did not break and run. Craig, for one, knelt down in the middle of the street with the camera he'd retrieved from his apartment and, determined to capture the moment, snapped photo after photo of the oncoming TPF minions [subordinate officials].
As the troopers bore down on him, he scampered up and joined the hundreds of others who scattered to avoid the billy clubs but then raced around the block, doubled back behind the troopers, and pelted them with debris. When the cops realized that a considerable crowd had simply reformed to their rear, they flailed out angrily at anyone who came within striking distance. But the protestors would not be cowed. The pattern repeated itself several times: The TPF would disperse the jeering mob only to have it re-form behind them, yelling taunts, tossing bottles and bricks, setting fires in trash cans. When the police whirled around to reverse direction at one point, they found themselves face to face with their worst nightmare: a chorus line of mocking queens, their arms clasped around each other, kicking their heels in the air Rockettes-style and singing….
It was a deliciously witty, contemptuous [scornful] counterpoint to the TPF's brute force, a tactic that transformed an otherwise traditionally macho eye-for-an-eye combat and that provided at least the glimpse of a different and revelatory [revealing] kind of consciousness. Perhaps that was exactly the moment Sylvia had in mind when she later said, "Something lifted off my shoulders."…
Before the police finally succeeded in clearing the streets—for that evening only, it would turn out—a considerable amount of blood had been shed. Among the undetermined number of people injured was Sylvia's friend Ivan Valentin; hit in the knee by a policeman's billy club, he had ten stitches taken at St. Vincent's Hospital. A teenager named Lenny had his hand slammed in a car door and lost two fingers. Four big cops beat up a young queen so badly—there is evidence that the cops singled out "feminine boys"— that she bled simultaneously from her mouth, nose and ears. Craig and Sylvia both escaped injury (as did Jim, who had hung back on the fringe of the crowd), but so much blood spattered over Sylvia's blouse that at one point she had to go down to the piers and change into the clean clothes Gary had brought back for her.
Four police officers were also hurt. Most of them sustained minor abrasions [cuts] from kicks and bites, but Officer Scheu, after being hit with a rolled-up newspaper, had fallen to the cement sidewalk and broken his wrist. When Craig heard that news, he couldn't resist chuckling over what he called the "symbolic justice" of the injury. Thirteen people (including Dave Van Ronk) were booked at the Sixth Precinct, seven of them Stonewall employees, on charges ranging from harassment to resisting arrest to disorderly conduct. At three-thirty-five a.m., signal 10-41 was canceled and an uneasy calm settled over the area. It was not to last.
What happened next …
The scene eventually quieted down, but crowds returned again the next few nights. Five days after the raid, more than 1,000 people gathered at the Stonewall and again caused extensive property damage. A month after the raid, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) organization was formed in New York, and membership spread by the end of the year to cities and universities around the United States and several other countries. A year after the Stonewall riots, a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park was organized by the GLF. Between 5,000 and 10,000 men and women attended the march. Since then, many gay pride celebrations and parades are held in June to coincide with the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
By 1973 there were nearly eight hundred gay and lesbian organizations in the United States challenging all forms of hostility and punishment. That year the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. In 1982 Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
During the 1990s, gay rights issues were hotly debated. President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) instituted the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for the U.S. military, which permitted gays to serve in the armed forces. The military continued to ban homosexual activity. Clinton had intended to revoke the prohibition against gays in the military but met stiff opposition. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was a compromise, with military officials ordered not to inquire about a person's sexual orientation (don't ask) and service people having the right not to reveal their sexual orientation (don't tell).
In 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law that denied gays and lesbians protections against discrimination. In 2000 Vermont became the first state to legally recognize civil unions—marriages performed by a legal official, rather than by a religious official—between gay or lesbian couples. In June 2006, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a Constitutional Amendment (the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA]) banning gay marriage by defining marriage as the traditional union of a man and a woman. By then, however, most states had instituted their own laws, including 39 states with laws that used the same language as DOMA. Debates over laws, court rulings, and state ballot proposals on same-sex marriage were widespread during the early twenty-first century.
Did you know …
- Prior to 1965 in New York City, police would routinely record the identities of those present at raids on homosexual gatherings, and on some occasions the names were published in newspapers.
- Frequent raids on the Stonewall Inn may have been racially motivated in part: many African Americans and Hispanics were regular customers.
- Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid, claimed he was ordered to close the Stonewall Inn because it was reputedly a place where gay men who worked in the Wall Street financial district met to share information. A rash of increases in the number of thefts from financial institutions led police to suspect that gay men were being threatened with exposure, or blackmailed, to perform the thefts by the organized crime ring that ran the Stonewall Inn.
Consider the following …
- Research recent reports on homosexual tolerance exhibited in the religious community, the military, the workplace, the classroom, and in entertainment and sports. Write an essay on the status of gays in two or more of these areas.
- Research arguments for and against gay and lesbian families and same-sex marriage. Consider and write about social, political, religious, and/or economic implications of gay marriages in today's society.
For More Information
Bawer, Bruce. A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society. New York: Poseidon Press, 1993.
Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.
Duberman, Martin. Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey. New York: Dutton, 1991.
Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1993.
Duberman, Martin. "Stonewall." Voices of a People's History of the United States, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. New York City: Seven Stories Press, 2004.
Duberman, Martin, et al., eds. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: New American Library Books, 1989.
Kranz, Rachel, ed. Gay Rights. New York: Facts on File, 2000.
Scare drag queen: A man dressed as a woman with an appearance intended to be shocking.
Paddy wagon: A police car or van used to take arrested people to jail.
Book: Formally charge with a crime.
Radical-left: Belonging to the extreme liberal movement in terms of politics and social and economic issues.
Newark: Refers to the race riots that broke out in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967.
Battering ram: A long, heavy object that can be pushed against a barrier to break it open.
Molotov cocktails: Containers filled with highly flammable liquid.
Shard: A broken piece of glass.
Heterosexual: Being attracted to members of the opposite sex.
Derisively: To taunt or mock.
Billy clubs: Sticks that are used by police officers.
Tear gas: A substance that irritates the eyes and can cause burns on the skin; used to break up large crowds, protests, and riots.
Roman legion: A unit of soldiers from the ancient Roman Empire.
Rockettes-style: Refers to the famous New York female dance group, who often lock arms and perform high kicks in perfect unison.
Macho eye-for-an-eye combat: A fight between men in which each side repeatedly tries to even the score, matching strike for strike.
"Feminine boys": Males who exhibit female characteristics.
"Symbolic justice": Refers to the stereotype about gays having weak wrists.