Shoulders to Stand On: Remember Stonewalls Past and Present

By: Evelyn Bailey

Excerpts from article by Michael Robertson, Empty Closet, June 1975

“We have fled from blackmailing cops, from families who disowned or ‘tolerated’ us; we have been drummed out of the armed services, thrown out of schools, fired from jobs, and beaten by punks and policemen.  Straight cops patrol us, straight legislators govern us, straight employers keep us in line, and straight money exploits us. We have pretended everything is OK because we haven’t been able to see how to change it – – we’ve been afraid.”

Out of this intolerable reality and the struggle of all peoples to be treated as human beings was born the gay liberation movement.  It was this month 39 years ago that something unremarkable happened. On June 27, an event which had occurred a thousand times before across the United States over the decades took place.  THE POLICE RAIDED A GAY BAR! The very FIRST public RESISTANCE to overt harassment was demonstrated. The Stonewall Riots mark the conscious organized beginning of the gay liberation movement.  They also mark the beginning of Gay Pride.

For those for whom the Stonewall riots are just a name and for those who have never heard of them, let me try to recall for you what it was like to be gay in 1969?  Gay bars were legal. In 1969, raids on gay and lesbian bars were common. While they were purportedly looking for liquor law or other violations, patrons were arrested and dragged off to jail with no legitimate charges made against them.  The names of those arrested were often published in the papers and many were fired from their jobs as a result..

The Stonewall Inn, located at 53 Christopher St off Sheridan Square, was an private club.  Reputed to be Mafia owned (as were most of the gay bars in those days), liquor was sold on the premises without benefit of a liquor license. This and Mayor Lindsay’s re-election promise to clean up the undesirable riff-raff made it a perfect target for the authorities. On Friday evening June 27, 1969 at 3 a.m., eight plainclothes officers raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.  Employees were arrested, and customers were allowed to leave one at a time. Customers left in an almost festive mood, striking poses, swishing and camping. They had been through this before. Then there was a sudden mood change when the paddy wagon arrived and the bartender, doorman, three drag queens and a struggling lesbian were shoved inside. There were cat calls and cries to topple the paddy wagon.  Once the paddy wagon left the police moved quickly back into the Stonewall Inn and locked themselves in. The butch lesbians and drag queens fought back. The bar patrons threw bottles and rocks at the police. They chanted, “Gay Power!” and “Liberate Christopher St.!” One person threw a rock through a window and eventually garbage cans, bottles, and even a parking meter were used to assault the building. New York’s Tactical Police Force arrived on the scene. The crowd was disbursed.  Later that night and into Sunday morning a crowd again gathered in front of the ravaged bar. Many young gay men showed up to protest the flurry of raids, but they did so by handholding, kissing, and forming a chorus line. “We are the Stonewall girls,” they sang kicking their legs in front of the police. “We wear our hair in curls./ We have no underwear./ We show our pubic hair.” Police cleared the street without incident this time, but protests and public outcry against this injustice went on for 5 more nights.

In Rochester, inspired by these events, several members of the University of Rochester community proceeded to organize a gay group for students, faculty, and staff.  On October 3, 1970, the Gay Liberation Front was born, and when the group split into students and community members, the Rochester community members formed the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley in December, 1973.  In 2017, the Gay Alliance changed its name and the Out Alliance was born.

We will find strength in REMEMBERING.  We will together RAISE our voices. We will continue the FIGHT to be free.  We will ROC the foundations of oppression!

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