Several participants of the 1969 Greenwich Village riots spoke about their personal experiences in the Stonewall Uprising documentary. Read short biographies of selected people in the film as they describe the effect that Stonewall had on their lives.
Within days of the Stonewall riots, 28-year-old Virginia Apuzzo made her way from Riverdale, New York, where she was a novice at the Convent of Mount Saint Vincent, to New York City's Greenwich Village. "I read about Stonewall in the newspaper," she recalled, "and I was very, very curious. Before I entered the convent at age 26, I'd had two lovers and knew I was a lesbian, but I tried to play by the rules. I thought I'd have to live my life with this deep dark secret."
What Apuzzo read in the newspaper made her realize she wasn't alone. "Here I'd thought I was the only one and that I'd just 'spoiled' two other women, and when the newspaper identified what sounded like a public group of people it was as if suddenly a brick wall opened up," she said. "It was very exciting."
Before the summer was over Apuzzo had left the convent, "with what I had on my back," she explained. "When you live a lie, as I was living, you wait for someone to whisper the truth so you can give up the lie, too. That's so much of how I saw and experienced Stonewall and how I've experienced the gay movement."
Over the past four decades, Apuzzo has dedicated her life to public service in a variety of roles, as both an educator and gay rights pioneer. Along the way, Apuzzo has served as executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, founded the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, and was appointed to a number of government positions including a stint as associate deputy Secretary of Labor, and she served as the highest ranking gay person in the Clinton White House, where she served as assistant to the president for management and administration.
Apuzzo appreciates that Stonewall still has relevance because "Stonewall happens every day." She explained, "When you go to a Pride march and you see people standing on the side of the road watching and then someone takes that first step off the curb to join the marchers, that's Stonewall all over again. When we, here at the Hudson Valley Center, talk to a teacher about the problems of a young student who is in the process of questioning himself or herself and that kid feels somebody standing there talking to the rule-makers on his or her behalf, that kid experiences a piece of Stonewall all over again. It's just in a different context, but for that one young person, it's no less powerful."
In 1969, just a few months after participating in the Stonewall riots, Martin Boyce returned for the fall semester of his junior year at Hunter College in New York City determined to do something he could never have imagined before Stonewall. "I decided that all of my term papers would be gay," he recalled. "I can say now that that was a courageous thing to do because nobody would hand in a paper in 1969 that had those explicit themes. It just wasn't accepted. But for a student like me, it was exciting because it was ground that no one else had covered before."
For his psychology class assignment on silent language, Boyce decided to do a paper on cruising. "I wrote about meeting someone at a store window," he explained, "and how you let each other know without even saying a word what you wanted and then going off together. It was a perfect theme for that class, but you had to think twice about handing it in."
Boyce wasn't surprised that his professor was "outraged, but he gave me a very good grade. He asked how I could possibly prove these things and I explained that I knew these things were true. He asked how I could know they were true, so I asked him, 'Have you ever slept with a man?' He said, 'no,' and I said, 'Well, then you'll never know.' He didn't say a word and just looked at me."
Boyce began a graduate degree in American history, but he "gave that up because I was a full-scale scare drag queen by then. You know, a fur coat, makeup, peek-a-boo hairdo, where your long hair covers one eye. It was a look made famous by Veronica Lake [the 1940s film actress and pin-up model]." And by then Boyce was also spending more time looking after his ill parents, who both died in the late 1970s.
While his parents were ill, Boyce took whatever job he could. "I wound up working at restaurants," he said, "and after my parents passed away, I trained as a chef and later opened my own restaurant in the East Village. It was called Everybody's Restaurant and it was a meeting place for artists -- I had a gay business partner who was a painter. Our slogan for brunch, which was completely gay, was 'We treat our customers like kings because the owners are a bunch of queens.' The restaurant brought everyone together; it was totally integrated."
With four decades of hindsight, Boyce sees his participation in the Stonewall riot as "a perfect event in my life because it let me live the kinds of dreams I had of seeing an equitable society. I was able to live my life, which I would have done anyway, but without Stonewall I would have had more opposition. So it turns out the times were on my side, which left me with a basically happy life."
Raymond Castro was not the kind of person who worried about the police when he was a young man socializing in 1960s Greenwich Village. "I was never afraid of the cops on the street," he said, "because I was not an obvious person. I was not flaunting my homosexuality to anyone. I wasn't holding hands. It would never have occurred to me to try and have a confrontation with them [because] you don't want to be arrested for any stupid reason. I never had any problems with the police. I never had problems with anyone anywhere, until that night."
It was on the night of June 27, 1969, when trouble found the 28-year-old Castro, who was born in Puerto Ricp and grew up in Harlem. When the police arrived, Castro was inside Stonewall. Like most of the patrons inside the bar he was immediately released, and he waited outside for the others to be let go. "I happened to see a friend of mine inside," he explained, "a young fellow with no ID and he motioned to me like he wanted out. So naturally I tried to help him." Castro quickly got his hands on a phony ID with the intention of getting the ID to his friend, but instead Castro wound up being "pushed back into the Stonewall by these plain clothes cops, and they would not let me back out. At that point they wouldn't let anybody out. It was like a hostage situation."
What happened next, Castro says, was a result of his "reacting on impulse." Handcuffed, Castro was being taken out "arm in arm with the police" to a waiting police van. When they reached the passenger side of the van, Castro stepped up on the running board and jumped back, knocking the two officers to the ground. "I resisted arrest," he recalled. Four more policemen joined in to subdue Castro.
Looking back, Castro said he "never ever gave it a thought of [Stonewall] being a turning point. All I know is enough was enough. You had to fight for your rights. And I'm happy to say whatever happened that night, I was part of it. Because [at a moment like that] you don't think, you just act."
He died on October 9, 2010 at the age of 68. At the time of his death he was living in Madeira Beach, Florida, for two decades, and worked as a cake designer and baker for the Publix supermarket chain. He was survived by his spouse of 31 years, Frank Sturniolo.
By the summer of 1969, Danny Garvin's brief service in the Navy was a fast-fading, bad memory. "I was a hippie living in an all-gay commune on Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village," he said.
The 20-year-old's typical day began at one or two in the afternoon. "I'd go over to Washington Square Park," Garvin recounted, "and then later go out to the bars and then hang out at someone's apartment. I got the occasional odd job, here and there, selling drugs, living day-to-day."
Garvin remembers the late-1960s as an "exciting time to be a kid on the streets. There was the whole youth generation movement, anti-war demonstrations, women's rights, the sexual revolution, the drug revolution, and all the new music. It was a very 'live and let live' time period. And when you were young -- I was 17 when I first got to the Village -- you had your finger on the pulse. It was great."
While the Stonewall riots left an indelible mark on Garvin -- "you don't forget seeing Molotov cocktails being thrown and kids with blood coming down their faces" -- he doesn't remember anyone talking about the riots for years. "Bars were still raided after Stonewall," he said, "so for me it didn't stand out. It wasn't until the 1980s that I learned there was a spark of interest in Stonewall. I think as we looked back we wanted to be able to point to something where it began, so they grabbed onto this so we could say, 'This is where our history changed.'"
In the years that followed, Garvin "hung out with gay activists," but focused mostly on his work as a geriatric recreational therapist. It was the AIDS epidemic that propelled him to "get more involved politically and I wound up becoming a Capuchin Franciscan Friar at the age of 40," he said. "During the short time I was a friar -- I left after two years and moved to Manhattan -- I founded the first drop-in HIV support group in Yonkers, New York, and helped set up a daycare program for crack-addicted babies."
Garvin also founded "the largest marching contingent" in the annual New York City Gay Pride Parade called Sober Together. "You already had a group of women who marched who called themselves Sober Dykes," he said. "You also had all these other gay sober groups that popped up, so several friends and I put this group together and within a couple of years the contingent was so big they had to put us at the end of the parade. What is amazing to me is that years later people who marched with me back then would say how before they joined Sober Together they had no idea there was any other kind of gay life outside of the bars."
Since the 1980s Jerry Hoose has lived on Christopher Street, just three blocks from the Stonewall Inn. "It was a stroke of luck," he said. But living in the Village was not. "I'd wanted to live down here since I was 10 years old because I thought it was glamorous. I knew I was gay from 12 on and then I really wanted to live in the Village because I'd been reading that this area was the center of gay life."
Hoose left home after high school, "and I pretty much ensconced myself in the gay scene down here," he said. "I was a wild kind of person and lived with this guy and that guy. My entire life existed in a shopping bag and I had fun."
Hoose figured that the Stonewall riots "would be a bleep in history and that once the anger subsided we would go back to the way we were. It was a sad time," he said, "for about a week." Then Hoose ran into a group of people handing out leaflets on Christopher Street. "They were from the Mattachine Action Committee," he recalled, "and they were planning a meeting that night to form a more militant organization."
At the meeting, Hoose found the energy he'd been looking for. "It was wild," he recalled. "It was insane! There were 50 or 60 people and we couldn't even decide what to call the group. Was it going to be 'gay' something or 'homosexual' something. But before the night was over we came together with GLF -- the Gay Liberation Front." For the next year, Hoose was involved in every political action and demonstration led by GLF. "I had a big mouth," he said, "and I was not afraid of anything so I was right in the front lines of whatever action took place."
For the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots Hoose went to meet the President. At the White House, Hoose recalled, "there were 250 gay leaders from around the country. Ten of us were going to meet him privately and I found out 10 minutes before that I was one of the 10. And why was I one of the 10? Even though it was a celebration for the 40th anniversary of Stonewall only two of us there had actually been at Stonewall. So Tommy Schmidt and I were waiting in the anteroom to meet the President and Tommy and I looked at each other and said, 'Would you have believed 40 years ago that we'd wind up in this position about to meet the president?'"
When Jerry Hoose walked in to meet President Obama, "the President put out his hand to shake mine and said, 'Jerry I'm so proud of what you did,' and then Michelle came over and said the same thing. I get a chill just telling this story."
In the fall of 1965, 17-year-old Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt left home for Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, to study art, but he was only there one year. After his father wanted Tommy to land a union construction job in New Jersey, Lanigan-Schmidt left home. "I took the train to New York," he said, "and I've been here ever since."
Lanigan-Schmidt's first stop was 42nd Street, where he met other gay street kids. "I learned very quickly," he said, "that I couldn't survive the 42nd Street bunch and made my way to the Village. I hung out with the other runaways who were living hand to mouth, mostly pan-handling, and living wherever I could find a place."
A year later, having decided to continue his studies, Lanigan-Schmidt applied to the famed Cooper-Union in Greenwich Village. For his entrance essay he wrote about "being homosexual and how good that was," he said. "For some reason in my teenage brain I just assumed they would think, 'how great that this kid is comfortable with being himself.'" When he was rejected, Lanigan-Schmidt met with a Cooper-Union administrator who told him that while the quality of his art was up to their standards, he should not disclose his homosexuality.
"I went to the Civil Liberties Union and told them what happened," Lanigan-Schmidt explained, "and they told me to see a psychiatrist. I had a breakdown over this. It was very traumatic.
Lanigan-Schmidt was an eyewitness to the Stonewall riots along with his friend Martin Boyce. The uprising was a transformative experience, he said, but the bar's biggest effect on Lanigan-Schmidt came before the riot. "The Stonewall was totally different because you could slow dance together. Holding on to another person without that fear that someone is going to bash you over the head is totally centering. So going to the Stonewall grounded me and then the Stonewall riots just brought that feeling out into the real world."
Despite his father's wishes and Cooper-Union's searing rejection, Lanigan-Schmidt ultimately wound up making art, and showing in exhibitions from the Venice Biennale to the Whitney Museum in New York. For the past two decades he has been teaching in the MFA department at New York City's School of Visual Arts (SVA). "I'm the gay teacher there," he said, "and I've only had trouble once and the once happened just last year. A student, who had been in the Army, said he wished I didn't make such a big deal about being gay. He wasn't telling me it was bad to be gay. He said it just wasn't such a big deal. And he's right."
Dick Leitsch was listening to the radio while packing for a trip to London when he heard a report about trouble in front of a gay bar in Greenwich Village. "I got in a cab," he recalled, "but couldn't get any closer to Stonewall than 14th Street, so I got out and walked."
As executive director of the Mattachine Society of New York (MSNY), Leitsch was all too familiar with police raids on gay bars. Founded in 1955, MSNY was an offshoot of the original Mattachine Society, which got its start in Los Angeles in 1950."At Mattachine we were just trying to legitimize being gay -- fighting employment discrimination, police entrapment, bar raids -- and the government and the police were trying to make it impossible to be gay," Leitsch said.
MSNY had a membership of nearly 450, and Leitsch ran the organization with 20 volunteers. "We also had this humongous mailing list," he said, "but we kept the list under lock and key because everyone was so paranoid about it getting into the wrong hands. If anyone found out you had anything to do with a group like Mattachine, you could be ruined, so people had good reason to be paranoid."
Returning home in the early morning hours following the first night of rioting, Leitsch canceled his plane tickets and headed for the Mattachine office "to type up my thoughts for the Mattachine Newsletter. I was the first gay person to write about Stonewall and I said it was the best thing that could have happened. I felt like Lenin at the revolution," Leitsch recalled, "but it turned out that for Mattachine it was the beginning of the end."
Before Stonewall, Mattachine was only one of two major gay organizations in New York -- the other was a chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, an organization for lesbians -- and as Leitsch recalled, "we had all kinds of arguments between the different constituents who didn't approve of one another. Then a week after Stonewall there were a thousand groups and each had its own agenda. Some people thought Mattachine should be more militant and others felt the people at Stonewall were just a bunch of dirty hippies and that nice boys didn't riot. It was hell."
Leitsch responded by organizing a series of public meetings sponsored by Mattachine where people "could work things out because nobody knew what to do." During the tumultuous period that followed, when a new generation of gay rights organizations took hold, Leitsch found himself "so burned out from the screaming and fighting" that within a year he went home to Kentucky to find his bearings and to look after his ailing father.
When he returned to New York City years later, Leitsch wrote freelance for GAY, the new weekly newspaper, and "went to rallies and demonstrations to be a part of the crowd, but I was uncomfortable about some of the things that were being done and I left the movement." Still, the 75-year-old Leitsch takes great pride in what he accomplished during the difficult years before the Stonewall riots. "Every once in a while I'll walk into a gay bar and look around and see people being openly gay and being free to do what they want to do and I think to myself, 'I had a big hand in this.' And I feel good about that."
Well before the Stonewall riots propelled him into a leadership role in the newly energized gay rights effort in New York City, John O'Brien was already an experienced political activist. Born in Harlem in 1949 to an immigrant maid and union janitor, O'Brien credits his growing up "in old tenements and poverty" as the motivation "to become an activist for change."
O'Brien started early, joining the NAACP at 13 and the Student Peace Union when he was 15. "I worked in numerous Vietnam peace groups over the next 10 years," he said, "and I was on both local and national steering committees, until the end of U. S. military intervention." But that was only a start. O'Brien was also "active in CORE and SNCC in efforts to end racial discrimination in both the South and the North," he said.
For O'Brien, participation in the Stonewall riots and his involvement as a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, proved transformative and not just for himself. "What had been a small isolated gay rights movement that had little support outside its small membership ranks, in a short period of time became a major political force in the United States that created change around the world." But in the moment, O'Brien didn't think that the gay uprising in which he participated "was going to amount to anything. I did not see the Stonewall rebellion as a part of history," he recalled. " I had no idea how important it would be and what it would lead to. I just saw it as an act of rebellion and an expression of anger on my part and other people's part in fighting and showing rage against the police department for it's discrimination and the horrors of what it was doing to people like me."
In the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall riots, O'Brien helped arrange a space for the first of the Gay Liberation Front dances and joined a committee that was planning the first Gay Pride March. He recalled, "Before Stonewall, I could never see gay people coming together and organizing or marching down the street for any kind of protest," O'Brien said. He takes pride in the fact that he was "one of the people who called for the first anniversary march, which has blossomed since." Today, more than 80 million people in 20 countries around the world mark the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising with parades and events of all kinds every year.
O'Brien believes that the "growing support for GLBT rights today can be traced directly to those participants in the Stonewall uprising who challenged power and authority and demanded respect and rights," he said. "The many people inspired by Stonewall who then became involved in the GLBT movement directly changed the horrible conditions and status of gay and lesbians, replacing fear with pride."
While O'Brien's commitment to progressive causes, including ongoing involvement in the gay and lesbian rights movement, has never waned, he is now investing considerable energy and time in preserving history rather than making it. "As an avid collector of historical materials," O'Brien says, "I'm planning to open a major museum on progressive world history that includes over 100,000 items that I've personally collected, on causes from ancient times to the present."
Manhattan native Seymour Pine had no reason to believe that the raid he led on the Stonewall Inn in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 would be anything but routine. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) Deputy Inspector had been on numerous raids of gay bars in the past, and the rhythm of those police actions was a familiar one.
"We'd go in," he said, "and the first police officer that went in with your group went to the bartender, flashed his shield and [announced], 'The place is under arrest. When you exit have some ID and it'll be over in a short time.' And that was it. It would take maybe a half hour to clear the place out." But that did not happen at Stonewall.
Although Pine described his experience at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the raid as "like a war," there were also moments of humor. Village Voice reporter "Howard Smith was stuck to me like glue," Pine recalled. "When I got to Howard I asked, 'How do you feel Howard?' And he said 'I feel alright, but I'd feel a lot better if you had the ax and I had the gun.'"
Reflecting on his role as a Deputy Inspector in the Morals Division of the NYPD, Pine didn't think his work should have been the police's responsibility in the first place. He explained, "I was in charge of five precincts that had to do with public morals: gambling, prostitution, liquor, social crimes, [all things] that should not have been part of the police department. But that was the way it was set up."
Pine also regretted the impact his work had on the people who were caught up in the police raids, especially since his own son was around the age of many of the young people who found themselves in the NYPD's crosshairs. "It made you feel lousy really," he said, "because most of them were school kids or those who had just recently gotten out of school. It made you feel like you were spoiling [whatever] fun they had." Pine was also concerned about the impact an arrest might have, because it could last far beyond a single night. "I felt badly for those people who were being arrested and who foolishly gave their right names," he explained. "These kids had no idea that if they got arrested for this, then they couldn't pass the bar and they couldn't be in a lot of professions, because they had a criminal record."
Late in his life, Pine apologized at a public forum for his role in the raid, but said in an interview with historian David Carter, "If what I did helped gay people, then I'm glad." Seymour Pine died on September 2, 2010, at the age of 91.
"Butch" Ritter had only one thing in mind when he slipped out of the house on the night of Friday, June 27, 1969, and he took a cab from his parent's house in Brooklyn to the Stonewall Inn. "I went to party," Ritter recalled, "to kinda sorta celebrate my 18th birthday."
Before heading to Manhattan, Ritter stopped first at a friend's house to dress for the evening. "I changed into a black and white cocktail dress," Ritter said, "which I borrowed from my mother's closet. It was mostly black, empire-waisted, with a white collar. I used to dress with a bunch of older queens and one of them lent me black fishnet stockings and a pair of black velvet pumps."
That night the police raided the Stonewall Inn, kicking off the subsequent riots that would last the next several days. "I was scared," Ritter says. "I was supposed to graduate high school that coming week and I wasn't where I was supposed to be, so when I was taken out of the bar and put into the paddy wagon I thought to myself, 'This isn't happening.' I was scared to death!"
By the time Ritter was put in the police van, "there were already more people than could fit," Ritter recalled, "so when they opened the doors to put in some drag queens, some of the other people and I skipped out."
Ritter didn't get far before being spotted by a young policeman. "The cop looked at me and said, 'Hey, you!' and I said, 'Please, it's my birthday, I'm just about to graduate from high school, I'm only 18,' and he just let me go!" Ritter ran for the subway, and all the way home was "scared to death that my father would see me on the television news in my mother's dress." For the next couple of days Ritter kept watching to see if there was anything on the news about the riot, but "there wasn't and I graduated from high school without my parents ever finding out where I'd gone to celebrate my birthday."
Soon after graduating, Ritter started living "mostly full time" as a woman, "but I would go home every weekend, strap my breasts down, and dress like a boy," she said. "I'd been taking hormones by then, but I didn't have my gender reassignment surgery until the mid-1980s." Of the surgery, Ritter's mother was "very accepting," she said. "My father, not so much. He loved me but he was a little less supportive of my transition. He called me 'Butch' until the day he died. It was so incongruous -- with my little Afro and plucked eyebrows, and tank top shirt and my little boobies -- but he called me 'Butch.'"
In the mid-1980s, Ritter returned to school to become a registered nurse. "I work with HIV patients," she said, "and over the years I was involved at the LGBT Community Center in New York doing peer counseling for transgendered individuals."
When Fred Sargeant came upon the first night of the Stonewall riots on his way home from dinner with friends, he was already more than familiar with the issue of mafia run gay bars and police raids. Sargeant was closely involved with the work of his partner, gay rights pioneer Craig Rodwell, who had opened Greenwich Village's Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967.
Sargeant and Rodwell returned to the Stonewall Inn for "every night of the rioting," Sargeant said. And Rodwell "started organizing around it right away. Trying to get the press to cover the story, trying to get other people, including some Mattachine members, to come downtown." Rodwell also wrote leaflets and distributed them in the Village. "The leaflets were all pretty much on the same theme," said Sargeant, "about the cops and the corruption and the mafia operating the bars and how gay people were getting caught in the middle." After the riots, while Sargeant went to many of the open meetings "to see what people were talking about doing," he didn't join any of the new groups.
"At a series of meetings that summer we talked about how to bring about something different," Sargeant explained. In 1965, Rodwell had proposed the July 4th "Annual Reminder" gay and lesbian protest marches in Philadelphia, and he and Sargeant were committed to an anniversary march in New York City to commemorate the Stonewall riots. Soon after, Rodwell, Sargeant and a handful of other activists formed the Christopher Street Liberation Day Coordinating Committee to plan for New York City's first annual Gay Pride March in June 1970.
In 1971, Sargeant left New York for Stamford, Connecticut, where he decided to become a policeman a few years later. "I wanted to see if I could make a difference," he said, "and having seen the situation at Stonewall and how the NYPD handled that I thought I could do it differently. Stonewall wasn't the only riot I saw. I'd been caught up in riots in the Village before and watched what the police did."
Sargeant and his partner of more than two decades live in Vermont, where they married in April 2010. The idea that gay people would win the right to marry didn't seem at all outlandish to Sargeant. He said, "One of the things Craig and I talked about in the late 1960s in those god-awful sessions where people would yak, yak, yak, was legalizing marriage for gay couples and it was the theme of one of the banners at that first Gay Pride March. It was but one of many agenda items, so I thought we'd get to it eventually."
On the first night of the Stonewall riots, 25-year-old Martha Shelley was escorting two out-of-town guests on a tour of Greenwich Village. "They wanted to form a Boston chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis [DOB]," Shelley said, and as the former president of the group's local chapter and their current spokesperson, Shelley was the ideal guide.
"DOB was like a civil rights organization for lesbians," Shelley explained, "as well as a social organization. We had a mailing list of 200 people, but not everybody showed up for the twice-a-month meetings. Basically, DOB's goal was to win social acceptance of lesbians and integrate them into American society." The Daughters of Bilitis was founded in San Francisco in 1955 and the New York City group was one of a handful of chapters across the country.
When Shelley and her guests stumbled across the ongoing riot outside the Stonewall Inn, they didn't realize what was going on. "We saw these people, who looked younger than I was, throwing things at cops," Shelley recalled. "One of the women turned to me and said, 'What's going on here?' I said, 'Oh, it's a riot. These things happen in New York all the time.'"
A day or two later, when Shelley learned about the uprising, "I was tremendously excited by it," she said. "I hadn't had enough sleep for the past couple of days and was feeling feverish and thought we had to have a protest march and be out on the streets. It was like I was on fire with it."
In the days that followed, Shelley attended a meeting that had been quickly organized by the Mattachine Society in response to the riots. "There were 400 people at that first meeting, and I raised my hand and suggested a protest march and everyone agreed with it," she said. "We formed a committee to organize the march, which DOB and Mattachine co-sponsored."
It was at a committee meeting later in the week where Shelley is widely credited with naming the first of the post-Stonewall gay rights groups. "People said I was the one who came up with the Gay Liberation Front name. But I was drinking beer and I really don't recollect that. What I remember saying was, 'That's it! We're the Gay Liberation Front!' That was 'it' because it was like the National Liberation Front of North Vietnam, the Vietcong. They were heroic in the eyes of the left. It was David against Goliath, fighting for their nation and for the liberation of their people, daring to stand up to the most powerful army in the world."
Shelley credits Stonewall with "changing my life. Before the riots I wanted to go around and convince the straight world we were okay," she said. "And after Stonewall we told the straight world that we didn't give a damn what they thought. We were going to do what we were going to do and we weren't going to ask their permission."
Village Voice columnist Howard Smith could see the Stonewall Inn's sign from his desk, but until the first night of the riots he had never been inside. As a self described "straight man" writing for one of the era's most liberal and outspoken publications Smith recalled that his boss told him, "'I want you to spot every new trend, especially sex, drugs, and rock and roll.' But [my beat] included almost anything."
The Stonewall Inn wasn't on Smith's radar, however. "This was not one of the key bars [where] some of the more important people in the gay movement would have hung out," Smith noted. "It was a down-at-the-heels kind of place. Lots of street kids. We didn't pay much attention to it."
When Smith saw commotion outside the Stonewall -- he had been working late on deadline -- he grabbed his press credentials and headed down to Christopher Street. "I raced to the Stonewall," he said, "probably thinking it's not going to be anything. There were police cars [and it] got bigger by the minute. It looked like a whole lot of people [who] had no more idea of what was going on than me had immediately joined it. That's what the '60s were like. A demonstration, a riot, I'll stand here!"
Smith soon figured out it was a bar raid, "which wasn't really a story," he said. "All the gay bars were owned by the mafia. They paid cops off, but every now and then they had to do a bust to prove to the community they were controlling vice. It was very common in NYC."
Smith noticed Inspector Seymour Pine, who seemed to be in charge. With the crowd outside growing increasingly restive, Inspector Pine asked Smith if he wanted to join the police inside the Stonewall Inn. As Smith recalled, Pine said, "'Your choice. You can come in with us, or stay here with the crowd.'" Smith went in and that's how he came to be the only journalist to witness the Stonewall riots from inside the bar. The article he wrote from his unique vantage point, which was published the following week on the front page of The Village Voice, "has probably been one of the most reprinted of everything I've ever written," he said.
At the time, Smith thought he had a great inside story about a bar raid. "I didn't have any hint of the significance," he said. It would be another few years before Smith realized the historic importance of the uprising. Today, Smith says, "It's rare that I met a gay man who says he wasn't at the Stonewall. There must have been four million people there that night."
Halfway through a two-month stint writing for The Village Voice Lucian Truscott stumbled on the story that turned out to be "the most famous" of his long writing career. "I'd just graduated from West Point and had two months leave before heading to Fort Benning, Georgia, at the end of July."
The night of the riot, Truscott recalls that "things were happening very, very fast," but by the time Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah arrived the following night things had quieted down.
"Fred was an impatient guy and famous for taking only one or two shots on any assignment," Truscott said. "So he tells me, 'Pull them together so I can get the shot and go.' The kids weren't doing anything -- and there were some seriously underage kids, 15, 16, 17 years old -- so I got the kids onto the stoop next to the Stonewall and said, 'C'mon boys, give me something,' so they struck poses and Fred took the picture. After that, he was gone."
Fred McDarrah's photographs are just two of the five extent photos of the Stonewall riots. "If two people had thrown a rock through a window in Harlem, the whole world would have been there taking pictures," he said. "It wasn't anything that seemed headline-grabbing, like a race riot. No one had the foresight to see that gay people rioting because they'd gotten thrown out of a bar was just a metaphor for a much, much bigger thing."
That fall, Truscott was transferred to Fort Carson, Colorado where he was assigned to teach a course in riot control. "I set up a blackboard and drew Sheridan Square and the blocks surrounding the Stonewall Inn," he said, "and used it as an example of how not to do riot control. I was poking fun at the TPF [Tactical Police Force] and how these big Irish and Italian policemen showed up with helmets and facemasks and nightsticks and these bulky outfits and they couldn't run as fast as the kids and they didn't know the streets of the Village. After Friday, you think they'd had all of Saturday to scope out the neighborhood and maybe bring a map, but the kids completely confused them and the protestors were in control of the situation from Friday night when it started until Sunday night when it ended. The protestors were basically non-violent and they used theater to great advantage to make fun of the cops and make their point. The police weren't going to allow them to go into the club to dance so they were going to dance in the street. And that's what they did."
A successful New York playwright in the late 1960s, Doric Wilson was inspired by the Stonewall riots to become politically active. "I was big and butch and I could leaflet in places where other people were afraid to go." Wilson joined the newly formed Gay Liberation Front, and then the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which was founded in late 1969. At GAA, Wilson organized a theater group, but he struggled for income.
"After Stonewall," Wilson explained, "gays could get a license to open bars and one of my friends opened The Spike." Wilson was hired as manager and head bartender. "I became a bar star," he recalled. "And then a friend opened Ty's on Christopher Street with a big window right on the street. Before Stonewall all the gay bars had been on the side streets and no one had big windows." The Stonewall Inn had none.
By 1974, Wilson formed the theater company The Other Side of Silence. We were the only game in town. We were doing legitimate plays on subjects that mattered to our audience. Couples would sit in the audience and hold hands and watch plays about the world in which they lived and they would cry even if it wasn't a sad play, but they cried because they were holding hands in public and seeing plays about their lives."
While Wilson credits Stonewall with "completely changing" his life and giving him direction, he "never thought it would lead to where we are now, where gay people would want to be heterosexuals," he said. "I don't want to live with my married husband in the country with a white picket fence and raise three children. It horrifies me beyond belief! It's fine if other people want it, but it's not for me."
While Wilson says he is disappointed with the evolution of gay life and the direction of the gay civil rights movement since the Stonewall riots, Wilson "couldn't be happier" that his play about Stonewall, "Street Theater," is performed "somewhere every June" to mark the anniversary of the riots he witnessed.
My American Experience
What do the Stonewall riots mean to you? Were you in New York in late June, 1969? Did the riots impact your life? How do you think America changed after the Stonewall riots?