In truth, men and women had been engaged in the struggle for decades previous to 1969, but Stonewall was of a piece with its era, as the 1960s saw race riots across the country, violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and marches for women’s rights and what were then termed “Negro” rights. As a result, Stonewall caught the attention of the media and opinion elites as a symbol – at that time, an unwanted symbol – of gay exuberance. Journalist Lucian Truscott IV said it “was the Rosa Parks moment” for gay Americans.
In a new documentary from PBS’s American Experience and Boston’s WGBH-TV, journalist Howard Smith, who witnessed the first night of the Stonewall riots as a reporter for The Village Voice, says, “It really should have been called ‘Stonewall Uprising.’ They really were objecting to how they were being treated. That’s more an uprising than a riot.”
Indeed, the documentary film, appropriately called Stonewall Uprising, uses its first 45 minutes or so explaining what life was like for gay people in the 1960s.
Attorney William Eskridge says in the film that “the 1960s were dark ages for gay men and lesbians,” and excerpts from contemporaneous movies and TV reports bear out his judgment.
Mike Wallace, for instance, hosted a 1967 documentary from CBS Reports called “The Homosexuals,” which featured a talk by Dr. Charles Socarides – who, it goes unmentioned in the film, was the father of a gay son who served as a White House liaison to the gay and lesbian community during the Clinton administration – in which he says “homosexuality is, in fact, a mental illness that has reached epidemiological proportions,” as though it is somehow contagious.
At the time, the film reports, gay men and lesbians were subjected to excruciating “treatments” under the hands of doctors, including aversion therapy, electroshock therapy, and gruesome pre-frontal lobotomies. A mental health facility in Atascadero, California, was known as “Dachau for queers” because of its dangerous and unethical experimental treatments.
A 1966 report by WTVJ in Miami called “The Homosexual” featured a lecture by Detective John Sorenson in front of an assembly of several hundred schoolchildren that seems shocking by today’s standards. (The children, for their part, seem shocked by what they hear.) He tells them, in what sounds like a warning about illicit drug use, that “you will be caught” if they engage in homosexual conduct, “your parents will find out,” and “you better stop quick.”
This atmosphere naturally made life uncomfortable for gay Americans. Mike Wallace said on CBS that public opinion surveys at the time showed that “two out of three Americans look upon homosexuals with disgust, discomfort or fear.” As a consequence, he said, “the homosexual, bitterly aware of his rejection, reacts by going underground.”
Eric Marcus notes that “before Stonewall, there was no such thing as ‘coming out’ or ‘being out’ … There was no ‘out.’ There was just ‘in’” the closet.
Gay men and women from small towns migrated to the cities and especially to New York, where they hoped that the anonymity of urban life could protect them. Stonewall riot participant Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt relates that “priests rant[ed] in church about certain places not to go, so you kind of knew where you could go by what you were told not to do.”
Even the big cities were not complete refuges. New York laws were used to oppress homosexuals on sometimes the flimsiest basis. Eskridge points to “a whole basket of crimes people could be charged with,” including an “1845 statute that made it a crime to ‘masquerade’” and which was used to justify arresting drag queens and other men who dressed in women’s clothing.
The police routinely used entrapment techniques to arrest gay men (and sometimes women). Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who during the 1960s was a leader of both the Democratic party and of the campaign against “vice,” admits in the film that “entrapment did exist, particularly in the subway system.”
Eskridge provides the hard numbers. “At the peak” of the crackdown against gay citizens, he says, “as many as 500 people per year were arrested for the ‘crime against nature’ and between 3,000 and 5,000 people per year were arrested for solicitation or loitering crimes. This is every year in New York City.”
Despite this widespread abuse of police power, Eskridge notes, “gay people were not powerful enough politically to prevent the clampdown.”
Mattachine Society of Florida, with WTVJ in Miami in 1966. Asked what homosexuals want in terms of changes in the laws, he replies:
“Let me say, first of all, what types of laws we are not after, because there has been much to-do that the Society was in favor of the legalization of marriage between homosexuals and the adoption of children and such as that.
“That is not at all factual,” he said. “Homosexuals do not want that [although] you might find some fringe character somewhere who says that’s what he wants.”
The fact is, at that time, gay men and women felt virtually powerless to change even the most oppressive laws that were being used against them, much less to aim for full equality with straight Americans. “Who was going to complain about a campaign against gay people?” asks Stonewall veteran Jerry Hoose. “Nobody – not even us.”
After laying out the conditions for gay people in the 1960s, most of the rest of the film is a nearly minute-by-minute recreation of the initial riot, which took place on June 27 in reaction to a police raid on the seedy Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. According to Seymour Pine, who was then a deputy inspector for the NYPD’s morals division, he led a team of only six officers to conduct the surprise raid. (Even the Mafia, which ran the bar, was not informed.)
Pine was as shocked as anyone that the normally meek patrons reacted violently. One participant, interviewed decades later, said:
Another participant reports: “My father said, ‘About time you fags rioted.’”
Keep in mind that, in 1969, most of the participants in the Stonewall riots were teenagers or in their early 20s. Contrary to the press reports at the time, they were not just drag queens, but a cross-section of what might be considered the “gay community” of the time. Patrons of the Stonewall Inn included street kids, hustlers, college boys, and locals from the neighborhood. The larger crowd that gathered and eventually took part in the riot even included heterosexuals like members of the Black Panthers.
The tension that eventually led to the uprising can be explained in a haiku-like graffito that was featured in a photograph in the Village Voice (spelling as in original):
The rebellion on those nights in June 1969 sparked a revolution in gay thought and political activism. Only a year later, the first gay pride march was held in New York City. Organizers had no idea how many people would show up (it turned out to be thousands) and whether it would be peaceful (they received bomb threats and feared sniper attacks). Fears were unfounded and a tradition was born.
Playwright Doric Wilson, who was also at Stonewall, remembers that “America thought we were these homosexual monsters, but we were so innocent and, oddly enough, we were so American.”
Lesbian activist Virginia Apuzzo echoes Wilson when she notes that “it’s very American to say, ‘This is not right.’ It’s very American to say, ‘You promised equality. You promised freedom.’ And in a sense, the Stonewall riots said, ‘Get off our backs. Deliver on the promise.”
Over a montage of gay-rights parades from around the world, Apuzzo continues, “In every gay pride parade, every year, Stonewall lives.”
Stonewall Uprising is a strikingly dramatic source of information about the history of the Stonewall riots, what came before, and, in a coda, what came after. Because there are few photographs and no motion picture film of the actual events, the producers rely, in part, on dramatizations of some scenes, but do not make clear what is a historical document and what is a recreation.
The excerpts from films of the time – CBS Reports, WTVJ-Miami, and an amusing public service announcement from 1961 called “Boys Beware” – are stunning in what we might now call their “political incorrectness.” They are funny and curious today but they portray what must have been a terrifying time for gay men and lesbians of the 1960s.
Stonewall Uprising could have taken better advantage of things like animation and CGI. A fascinating animated streetview of the riot could have been better utilized and should have remained on screen for a longer period so the information it conveyed could be better absorbed.
Grouped with older documentaries like Before Stonewall (and its sequel, After Stonewall) and dramatic films of the time like The Boys in the Band, Stonewall Uprising offers a useful look at a history that should not be forgotten but that is gladly in the past.
Stonewall Uprising is being screened at cinemas around the country this summer. It is currently (through July 1) in Atlanta at the Landmark Midtown Art, and from July 9 to 15 it is playing in Palm Springs, San Francisco, Berkeley, Minneapolis, Tulsa, and Montpelier, Vermont. It comes to the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., on July 16 through July 22. Many other cities and cinemas are listed on the First Run Features web site.
Stonewall Uprising: Written by David Heilbroner. Based on Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, by David Carter. Directed and produced by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner. A Q-Ball Productions film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
All photographs provided courtesy of First Run Features; click on photos to embiggen and see captions and full photo credits.