The clash between police and the patrons of a New York City gay bar in June 1969 marked a key moment in the modern-day LGBTQ rights movement. The uprising at the Stonewall Inn stretched over several days and became a defining moment in the push for equality.
Police raids of gay bars were “very common” in those days, Martin Boyce told the PBS NewsHour.
“I was in a number of raids,” Boyce said. “We were all trained right away what to do in a raid. You knew exactly what to do.”
He said that in a raid, patrons would stay quiet, listen to the police and have their forms of identification ready. The goal was “just to get out of there,” he said.
Boyce, 71, who lives in New York City with his husband, used to be what he calls a “scare drag queen” — less like the performers featured on the popular reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and more androgynous and gender-bending, with very long hair that he described as his “crown.”
On June 28, 1969, when the police targeted the Stonewall Inn, the people decided not to stay silent. Instead they fought back.
Earlier this month, 50 years after the riots, the New York Police Department apologized for the harassment that law enforcement officers inflicted on LGBTQ people.
“That was such a joke,” transgender activist Judy Bowen said of the apology. To her, it felt insufficient for the violence and harassment the police had doled out against LGBTQ people for years.
“When the police commissioner was making that apology I broke down and cried,” Bowen said. “I remember too much about things that I remember happening in the past … things that should not ever happen to any human being.”
Martin Boyce said he can forgive, but cannot forget the “terror” he and other LGBTQ people experienced at the hands of New York police.
“It’s very little — too little, too late. Fifty years is a long time to wait for an apology,” he said.
The PBS NewsHour spoke with five LGBTQ people about what they remember about Stonewall, what led to the uprising, and how far we’ve come 50 years later.
How would you describe the original Stonewall bar?
“It was a dump painted black,” Boyce said. “Nothing to talk about except the magic of the jukebox and the magic of the dance floor and the magic of the crowd. You know, we didn’t have many bars then. All of us had to go to one bar–every different type of gay person whether they liked each other or not. So the bar had reached a large or a high level of toleration, but it was a very mixed bar.”
Boyce recalled that “every type of gay person was there, it was like a gay Noah’s Ark.”
“It was gays in suits — they were professionals, they had important jobs. There were the street queens. There were the nelly queens. There were all different types of queens, black drag queens, who controlled the jukebox,” he said.
Wallace Sanders, 76, is an adjunct professor at New York University, teaching Spanish language. Though he was not present at the riots, he frequented the Stonewall Inn in the late ‘60s and said in those days, gay bars tended to be owned and operated by “racketeers.” He compared it to the speakeasies of the 1920s, saying everybody knew the bars were there, but bar owners “paid the police off” and police would come in and get free drinks.
“It’s smaller now. The space that the Stonewall occupies [today] is only half the size,” Sanders said.
“[Back then], after you paid to get in, you went down a hole and you could go left or right. There were two huge rooms and both were playing music, but never the same music at the same time,” Sanders said, adding “the sound system was such that once you went into one and started dancing you couldn’t hear the music from the other. It’s fascinating. I don’t know how they did that.”
“It got very crowded, especially on the weekends and during the holidays. It was one of the most popular places,” Sanders said.
Where were you when the Stonewall riots broke out?
Bowen was working at a dance club not far from the Stonewall Inn. She was coming home in the early morning hours after her shift at work ended.
“I knew that I could not go down there because of the police. I had a lot of hair, and if you looked a certain way, they could take you in because you were classified a cross-dresser. So I quickly got out of a cab on Christopher and Sixth Avenue, and I ran to the door of my building and I went upstairs. I learned from the past whenever you see a lot of police, you don’t go to the problem, you run from it.”
“But it was all building up. Everyone was so tired of the abuse,” she said of how common raids were in those days.
Bowen recalled an incident at a club near New York University on an earlier night: “I had just come home from work. I was working for an accounting firm at 17 Battery.” Bowen often talked about how she “passed” as Judy in the straight world.
“The police came in, and they tell me: ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, I came in here to just see a friend.’ They said, ‘Get out of here!’ So, as soon as I got outside, they locked the door, and then I started hearing screams of people being beaten. Those things you do not forget,” Bowen said.
Word about what was happening at Stonewall spread quickly, reaching the ears of the street queens, including Agosto Machado, who dressed in drag and did not have permanent housing.
“I was staying with friends at the hotel Keller on the West Side Highway. Just being on the street, it was word of mouth–there’s something going down at the Stonewall. ‘Oh did you hear?’ Someone would go into a restaurant and say, ‘There’s something at the Stonewall. The police are beating us up.’” said Machado. “It was a hot summer night, and you heard sirens. Some people were starting little fires in the trash receptacles, and people just gravitated to what was happening.”
Boyce was unable to get into the Stonewall bar that night. He had been resting on a stoop, deciding what to do, when he heard commotion. He went to investigate, and said that within 10 to 15 minutes, the riots began.
He says he saw a “brutal” police officer pushing a “queen” into a paddy wagon, noting that to this day he sees the police as a “mentality” rather than a “profession.”
“She turned around and kicked him on the shoulder. It was a shock to everybody,” Boyce said. “But that’s the first inclination something had changed. [The officer] went in and dragged her in and beat her. You could hear flesh and bone against thin metal and moaning. He told us, ‘All right, you faggots, get out of here. You’ve seen the show.’”
Boyce recalled that when the officer turned his back, the group started moving toward him. “Whatever he saw in our faces unmanned him, unnerved him,” he said. “And he ran into the bar for protection as did many of the other policemen.”
“The first night went on all night. I went home at dawn,” Boyce said.
Karla Jay, 72, was one of many people who joined the Stonewall riots after the first day of clashes.
“I heard about it the following morning on the radio. I got out of the subway, which is on the corner, and part of the area was barricaded off by police forces. I came to see what had happened,” she said,
The Mattachine Society, a proto LGBTQ group from the pre-Stonewall era, “had put a kind of hand-lettered sign in the window of the Stonewall. It was a big sign with white letters telling people to keep the peace, to cooperate with the police, and to go home and to be peaceful,” Jay said. “I was shocked, because it seemed to me that this was not the time to be peaceful, that the police had started this whole mess by going into the Stonewall for a payoff to arrest people who were having a drink, dancing with their friends. I was really stunned.”
Machado said years later, in 1973, he was in Washington Square Park for a rally when Latina transgender activist Sylvia Rivera fought her way onto the stage, telling everyone, “‘We have been beaten, arrested fighting for your rights.’”
“The majority were white people, and they booed her,” Machado said. “It shocked me so much because Sylvia really did go to the front line, and she helped picket 42nd Street for rights. She was a street fighter.”
What are the misconceptions about Stonewall?
Stonewall has become a symbol of the LGBTQ rights movement, but its storied history has also been mythologized in some ways. Jay said the violence at the Stonewall riots was not as intense as has been portrayed.
She said the accounts of what happened at the Stonewall have been greatly exaggerated. “The window was intact. The door was intact. There were no parking meters lying around in the street. I didn’t see any overturned cars or burnt cars. But there was a lot of anger. And people were just talking and shouting and saying, ‘What do we do? What do we do?’” “But people were not agreeing with the Mattachine sentiment anymore that we should just go home and be good and eventually straight people would accept us,” said Jay.
Judy Garland died the week before the Stonewall riots. Legend has it that her death caused an uproar within the LGBTQ community that contributed to the protests. Those who were at Stonewall say that’s not true.
“So many people, especially people of color, saw the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but they weren’t particular worshipers of Judy in the way some are,” Machado said. “The climate, the time, the unrest, unhappiness, and the density of young people in the West Village any night of the week — it’s very crowded and boisterous and the camaraderie was so electric — to have the police try to break us up across the street, say you can’t loiter and so forth, it was just another thorn.”
Machado added that Stonewall was not the only time protests broke out. Members of the LGBTQ community fought back a number of times, including in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
What progress has been made since Stonewall?
LGBTQ activists say they are encouraged by the changes they have seen in the past 50 years, some of which are beyond what they ever imagined.
“It’s really amazing what has happened. In the early summer of 1969, after the Stonewall uprising, we had the first Gay Liberation Front meetings. We sat in a circle, and we went around and asked each other what we wanted from liberation. One woman said, ‘I would like to be able to hold my lover’s hand in public and not be beaten up.’ And we all could agree to that. Another woman said, ‘I would like to get married.’ We laughed, and we thought, someone should get a straightjacket for this woman because she’s living in fantasyland,” Jay said.
“To have seen the progress that we have made in the LGBT community, here we have things like marriage, where so many couples – and non-couples too — have children, and where so many employers accept us and give us benefits. These things are really quite extraordinary.”
“Putting identity to all segments of our population is so heartening,” Machado said. “Now in some of the public schools, you can go to a public school and choose your gender and they have restrooms for people who are making choices of their identity. ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is global, and young people see that on TV or on their smartphone, and it’s nothing. It’s just not shocking in that other sense. It’s an art form.”
Boyce noted various cultural and legal milestones in the fight for LGBTQ rights: “The fight against Anita Bryant, the victory over homophobia concerning the AIDS crisis, Lawrence v. Texas, [which was] very important because it decriminalized sodomy which should have been decriminalized anyway. And gay marriage” under former President Obama.
The shift in language that LGBTQ people use to identify themselves — chiefly, the word “transgender” — has been a noteworthy change for Sanders.
Sanders said that while he lives as a cisgender gay man and typically uses he/him pronouns, he “never felt like a male” from as early as the age of three. Growing up with a father and two brothers in a working class area, he felt he had to “get tough” and play a role to “survive.”
“Oh my God, so many people in my age group who now hear the word ‘transgender.’ We’ve been given a name!”
“I don’t live as a transgender. But, I’m sure if I was 30 years younger I would … Once you’ve lived 60 years or 70 years under certain circumstances, you don’t change,” he said.
Sanders says he never went further than dressing in drag on Halloween, but did it for the first time at age 50, donning high-heeled shoes.
“When I did it, people asked me, ‘Oh! You look so natural. Do this for a living? How come you walk so nicely in heels?’ I said, “Because my my alter ego walks in heels. I’ve never done it before. But when I dream, I dream of myself walking around in heels.”
For Bowen, she realized, after Stonewall, that she would survive much better in a heterosexual community because “you’re often rejected in your own community.”
“People like me, we were rejected by the gay and lesbian” community, Bowen said. “I noticed how at the gay and lesbian meetings, they would reject people like Sylvia [Rivera] and all the others because they just did not want to include trans,” Bowen said. “They looked upon us with shame,” she said, saying that at equality rallies, they didn’t mention trans people, they mentioned gays and lesbians.
Today, Bowen said she speaks at a lot of universities. “I really, really, really preach visibility. Acceptance through visibility. There is more acceptance now. There’s less to fear.”
What progress still needs to be made?
Despite feeling encouraged by what has occurred over the past 50 years, LGBTQ activists said there’s more work to be done.
“We have so far to go,” Jay said, “There is so much discrimination. Trans women of color are being killed and beaten up at an extraordinary rate. And homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries in the world.” But she said she has great hope that so much more can be accomplished in the years to come.
Bowen said that a fight for LGBTQ rights is also a fight against racism and oppression.
“There’s a major problem in this country with trying to control and to make everybody the same. We’re not the same. There’s a lot of diversity,” Bowen said.
“No one is truly free unless everybody shares the same freedom and that’s not been the way it is in this country.”
Machado said he is disappointed that more rural parts of the U.S. can be less accepting than the cities, but he still finds reason to hope in future generations.
“I have great faith. The torch has been passed.”