by Evelyn Bailey
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village in New York City. The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar, in neighboring streets, and in nearby Christopher Park. The Stonewall Riots served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.
The resistance exhibited by patrons to being arrested, harassed, and pushed around by police on that warm June evening grew out of months and years of discrimination, debasement, dismissal, unfair treatment in housing, employment, health care, and everyday services.
Police raids of gay bars were common in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s including in our own Rochester, NY. Tim Mains, the first publicly elected gay official in NYS, and Gary Sweet, first owner of the Avenue Pub, describe the relationship between the Rochester LGBTQ community and Rochester Police in the Shoulders To Stand On documentary. You can hear their full interviews at bit.ly/ROCLGBT
In the years leading up to Stonewall, there was the women’s liberation movement — a political alignment of women and feminist intellectualism that emerged in the late ‘60s, and continued to the ‘80s — which demonstrated resistance to a patriarchy asserting control over women’s lives economically, socially and politically. In 1964, the passage of the Civil Rights Act after decades of African-American resistance to white supremacists, the KKK, and systemic governmental discrimination. Protests to end the unwinnable Vietnam War raged, and Students For A Democratic Society (SDS), who criticized the US political system for failing to achieve international peace, the threat of nuclear war, and domestically criticized racial discrimination, economic inequality, big businesses, trade unions and political parties, were growing in numbers and effectiveness.
In the ‘60’s, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and other leaders of the political movement resisting self-centeredness, inequality, bigotry, and injustice were assassinated. The hope for a brighter, just, and more equal society were greatly threatened. In 1968, these three icons of social change were immortalized in this song Abraham, Martin, and John (youtu.be/yZfRyWPZAII). Another emotional blow to the gay community happened on June 22, 1969 with the death of Judy Garland. Sylvia Rivera, Stonewall patron and central rebellion figure, remembered that there were Garland fans who had come from the very emotional funeral to drink and mourn at the Stonewall bar that night. “I guess Judy Garland’s death just really helped us hit the fan.”
Gay culture of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, as a persecuted group who understand suffering, identified with Judy Garland’s life. She had been through the fire and lived. In “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Garland-as-Dorothy sang about wanting more than the life she has and asks: “If happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I?” What was thought to be a song of a young girl dreaming for a bigger life became an anthem for an entire community looking for someone to guide them out of the shadows. Gay men everywhere identified with not only the song, but Dorothy herself, calling themselves “Friends of Dorothy.”
Whether or not there was a connection between Judy Garland and the explosion of Stonewall, the gay community became more visible and more resistant to accepting their “lot in life”. The RESISTANCE to discrimination, and rejection by society of the Constitutional guarantees that “all are created equal … with certain unalienable Rights, … Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” became more organized and moved up a few notches because of Stonewall.
In August STSO will look at two other major resistance movements: the Daughters of Bilitus and the Mattachine Society that contributed to the explosion of Stonewall.
Happy Pride 2018!