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The spark that lit the gay rights movement, four decades later

Early in the morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, plainclothes officers and uniformed patrolmen from the New York City Police Department’s Public Morals Squad raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular but illegal gay bar in Greenwich Village. The raid sparked several days of demonstrations and clashes with police, ranging in intensity from passive to confrontational. The demonstrations culminated in the first gay pride march from Washington Square Park to Central Park.

The riots are widely regarded as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, which has evolved from a loosely organized grassroots network to a considerable social and political force. Four decades after the Stonewall riots, political leaders are now beginning to recognize the influence of the LGBT community, knocking down barriers to gay and lesbian participation in the military and nominating at least two transgender officials, for the first time in history, to senior posts in the federal government under the Obama administration.

To find out more about the riots and their effect on the struggle for gay civil rights, Need to Know spoke with David Carter, a historian and author of “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.” The book was recently adapted into a television documentary, “Stonewall Uprising,” for PBS’s “American Experience.” The film is showing in select theaters now.

Gloria Teal: Many people don’t understand just the intense homophobia in America at the time of the riots. Gay people could be arrested for being gay, some were forced to have lobotomies, and even The Stonewall Inn was an unlicensed bar because in New York City it was illegal to serve alcohol to gay people. Can you tell me more about that?

David Carter: Early activists in the gay rights movement said that gay people were triply condemned. They were condemned by the law as being criminals, they were condemned by religion as being sinners and by medicine as being mentally ill. According to a 1950 issue of Coronet magazine, “The homosexual is an embittered seducer of the youth of both sexes and is not content with being degenerate himself. He must have degenerate companions and is ever seeking younger companions. The male sex deviant does not stop with infecting their often innocent partners — they descend through perversions to other forms of depravity such as drug addiction, burglary, sadism and even murder. Once a man assumes the role of homosexual he throws off all moral restraints.” And that was the actual predominate view of the times.

Teal: Can you give me an overview of the riots? Why the Stonewall Inn, why that night?

Carter: One of the first problems you have in understanding what happened at Stonewall is one of the most often asked questions: Who started it, and why they started it. And that question tends to presuppose an answer, that there was one reason, one person or one group of persons that created the Stonewall riots. I think it’s true of Stonewall, as it is of many important things in history, that it has multiple roots. If anything, what caused the Stonewall riots to occur were causes of very different kinds having to do with geography, social history, local political history, national political history, the weather, everything.

There was a ratcheting up of police activity against gay people at the time, I think, probably because of Mayor John Lindsay’s reelection campaign. Also, keep in mind Greenwich Village was the main gay enclave in America at that point at the same time it was the most heavily policed. The police in New York City were more aggressive than police in any other large city in America at the time in terms of arresting homosexuals. And the Stonewall Inn was the most popular gay club in New York City. So there you have already the foundation for a riot.

Teal: The Stonewall Inn was run by the Mafia and, in addition to being an unlicensed bar, it was also the headquarters for other illegal activity. Can you tell me more about that?

Carter: The Stonewall Inn was rather well known in its day as a place where people were blackmailed. The Mafia there hired mainly heterosexual waiters,  they would indicate an amorous interest in the clientele, and Ed Murphy, who ran the bar, would blackmail them. The second floor above the Stonewall Inn was used as a Mafia headquarters for the blackmail operation.  It operated for at least a decade and took in thousands of victims.  At least one of the victims, probably more, worked on Wall Street and stole bonds and securities to pay the blackmail. And that, eventually led to the determined police effort to shut down the bar. And that coincided with other efforts going on in the city, particularly John Lindsay’s re-election campaign.

Teal: A minute-by-minute account of the riots is difficult, if not impossible, to establish. What do we know, though, about what happened on the street outside?

Carter: There was a whole hierarchy of resistance. My research showed that it was particularly the homeless youth who were the first main resistance to the police. Then you had more radical gay people, like John O’Brian who went on to found the Gay Liberation Front, and then you had a lot of other people who were yelling and blocking the streets on purpose. And if you hadn’t had that larger crowd there the small percentage that was doing things that were more challenging to the police would have been either chased away or caught.

Teal: Stonewall could have easily been forgotten as a brief civil disturbance. Instead, it’s marked as the beginning of the modern struggle for gay civil rights. Why is that?

Carter: Stonewall is only significant because it created the Gay Liberation Movement. I’m glad people are interested in the Stonewall riots, but they also need to be interested in the gay liberation movement because Stonewall would have had no historical interest had it not led to the gay liberation movement. The first announcement of the Gay Liberation Front said, “We formed because of Stonewall.” Their first march was on the one month anniversary of the riots. Just to concentrate on Stonewall without going into groups like the Gay Liberation Front or the Gay Activists Alliance is like studying the fall of the Bastille but absolutely knowing nothing about the French Revolution.

The real change that Stonewall made was it transformed gay rights into a movement, by taking a very militant stand and taking it to the level of the street. I think it also allowed gay people to begin to see themselves differently. I was a 17-year-old in Jessup, Ga., and I remember hearing news of the Gay Liberation Front confronting people who were oppressing gay people, and I saw people standing up and courageously and successfully fighting back. That did change my mentality. You are not in an impossible situation with no hope. You can fight back, and you can possibly win.

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