Remembering Stonewall

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It started with a place called the Stonewall Inn. Gay bars had been raided by police for decades. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people had been routinely arrested and subjected to harassment and beatings by the people who are meant to protect them. But one night, in this place called the Stonewall Inn when the police stormed in to continue their abuse, the clientele fought back. The uprising that night led by drag queens turned into a protest over the next few days and evolved into a movement that is still making the world better for everyone today. And it started with a place.

Roman Mars:
On June 28th, 1969, the patrons at the Stonewall Inn made history, which is why gay pride celebrations all over the country take place in June. And on June 27th, 2016 President Obama and the National Park Service designated the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the surrounding streets as the first national monument to LGBTQ rights.

Roman Mars:
In 1989, 20 years after the Stonewall uprising and now nearly 30 years ago, radio producer Dave Isay created the first documentary of Stonewall ever in any medium. It was also Dave’s first radio story, if you can believe it. He later went on to found the much beloved and hugely popular StoryCorps project. With the anniversary and national commemoration of the Stonewall Inn and the tragic massacre in Orlando, I thought it would be good to revisit this place, which like so many other gay bars around the world is much more than just a place.

Roman Mars:
This is remembering Stonewall by Dave Isay with Michael Schirker originally broadcast in 1989.

Geanne Harwood:
I am Geanne Harwood and my age is 80.

Bruce Merrow:
I’m Bruce Merrow.

Geanne Harwood:
I don’t know if it’s really true, but now people do refer to us as the two oldest gay men in America. We do, I think have maybe a record relationship of almost 60 years together.

Geanne Harwood:
Being gay before Stonewall was a very difficult proposition because we felt that in order to survive, we had to try to look and act as rugged and manly as possible to get by in the society that was really very much against us.

Randy Wicker:
My name is Randy Wicker. I was the first openly gay person to appear on radio in 1962 and on television in 1964 as a self-identified homosexual. In the year before Stonewall, people felt a need to hide because of the precarious legal position they were in. They would lose their jobs, there was a great hostility socially speaking in the sense that if people found out you were gay, they assumed you were a communist or a child molester or any of another dozen stereotypes who were rampant in the public media at the time.

Jheri Faire:
I’m Jheri Faire and I’m 80 years old. I started a gay lifestyle in 1948 when I was around 39 or 40. At that time if there was even a suspicion that you were a lesbian, you were fired from your job and you were in such a position of disgrace that you slunk out without saying goodbye, even to the people that liked you in your life, never even bothered to clean your desk, you just disappeared. You just disappeared. You went quietly because you were afraid that the recriminations that would come if you even stood there protested would be worse than just leaving.

Sylvia Rivera:
My name is Sylvia Rivera. My name before that was Ray Rivera until I started dressing in drag in 1961. The era before Stonewall was a hard era. There was always the gay bashes on the drag queens by heterosexual men, women, and the police. We learned to live with it because it was part of the lifestyle at that time, I guess, but none of us were very happy about it.

Seymour Pine:
My name is Seymour Pine. In 1968, I was assigned as Deputy Inspector in charge of public morals in the first division in the police department, which covered the Greenwich Village area. It was a duty of public morals to enforce all laws concerning vice and gambling, including prostitution, narcotics, and laws and regulations concerning homosexuality. The part of the penal code which applied to drag queens was Section 240.35, Section 4, being masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration, loiters remains or congregates in a public place with-

Sylvia Rivera:
At that time, we lived at the Arista Hotel. We’d sit around. Just try to figure out when this harassment would come to an end and we would always dream that one day it would come to an end and we prayed and we looked for it. We wanted to be human beings.

Red Mahoney:
My name is Red Mahoney. I’ve been hanging out, drinking, partying, and working in the gay bars for the last 30 years. In the era before Stonewall, all of the bars, 90% of the bars were mafia controlled. There wasn’t that many gay bars. It had maybe one, two Uptown and the Upper East Side. They would get closed down and there’d be one or two in the West Side. They’d get closed down. And Midtown, they’d be one, two, three maybe open. As they would get closed down, they’d move around and they were dumps.

Joan Nestle:
I’m Joan Nestle, co-founder of what is now the largest collection of lesbian culture in the world. The police raided lesbian bars regularly and they did it, they both did it in the most obvious way, which was hauling women away in patty wagons. There was regular weekend harassment, which would consist of the police coming in regularly to get their payoffs and in the Sea Colony, we had a back room with a red light and when that red light went on, it meant the police would be arriving in around 10 minutes and so we all had to sit down at our tables and we would be sitting there almost like school children and the cops would come in. Now depending on who was on, which cop was on, if it was some that really resented the butch women, who at many times were very beautiful women, we knew were in for it. Because what would happen is they would start harassing one of these women and saying, “Huh, you think you’re a man? Come outside, we’ll show you.” And the woman would be dragged away. They throw her up against a wall and they’d say, “So you think you’re a man, let’s see what you got in your pants.” And they would put their hand down her pants.

Seymour Pine:
The Stonewall? Oh, that was a good bar. That was. Just to get into the Stonewall, you’d walk up and you’d knock on the front door. You’d knock and the little door would open and, “Hey, what do you want?” “Mary sent me.” “Good, come on in girls.” The Stonewall, like all gay bars at that time were painted black, charcoal black. And what was the funny part? The place would be so dimly lit, but as soon as the cops are going to come in to collect their percentage or whatever they were coming in for, from it being a nice dimly lit dump, the place was lit up like Luna Park. Two guys, that’s very often all we sent in, would be two men could handle 200 people. You tell them to leave and they leave and you say, “Show me your identification.” And they all take out their identification and file out and that’s it. And you say, “Okay, you’re not a man, you’re a woman or you’re vice versa. And you wait over there.” I mean, this is a kind of power that you have and you never gave it a second thought.

Sylvia Rivera:
The drag queen took a lot of oppression and we had to… We were at a point where I guess nothing would have stopped us. I guess, as they say or as Shakespeare says, “We were ladies and waiting, just waiting for the thing to happen.” And when it did happen, we were there.

Michael Schirker:
On Friday evening, June 27th, 1969 at about 11:45 eight officers from New York City’s public moral squad loaded into four unmarked police cars and headed to the Stonewall Inn here at Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street. The local precinct had just received a new commanding officer who kicked off his tenure by initiating a series of raids on gay bars. The Stonewall was an inviting target operated by the Gambino crime family without a liquor license. The dance bar drew a crowd of drag queens, hustlers, and minors. A number of the bar’s patrons had spent the early part of the day outside the Frank Campbell Funeral Home where Judy Garland’s funeral was held. She had died the Sunday before. It was almost precisely at midnight that the moral squad pulled up to the Stonewall Inn, led by deputy inspector Seymour Pine.

Seymour Pine:
There was never any reason to feel that anything of any unusual situation would occur that night. You could actually feel it in the air. You really could. I guess Judy Garland’s death just really helped us really hit the fan. For some reason, things were different this night as we were bringing the prisoners out, they were resisting.

Sylvia Rivera:
People started gathering in front of this Chevron Square Park right across the street from Stonewall. People were upset. No, we’re not going to go. And people started screaming and hollering.

Seymour Pine:
One drag queen as we put her in the car, opened the door on the other side and jumped out at which time we had to chase that person and he was caught, put back into the car, made another attempt to get out the same door, the other door. And at that point, we had the handcuff the person. From this point on things really began to get crazy.

Robert Rivera:
My name is Robert Rivera and my nickname is Birdie and I have been cross-dressing all of my life. I remember the night of the riots, the police were the queens out of the bar and enter the paddy wagon and there was just one particularly outrageously beautiful queen with stacks and stacks of Olivia style with this tail style hair and she was asking them not to push her and they continued to push her and she turned around and she mashed the cop with her high heels. She knocked him down and then she proceeded to frisk him for the keys to the handcuffs that were on her. She got them in though. She undid herself and pass them to another queen that was behind her.

Seymour Pine:
Well, that’s when all hell broke loose at that point. And then we said, we have to get back into the Stonewall.

Howard Smith:
My name is Howard Smith. On the night of the Stonewall riots, I was a reporter for the Village Voice, locked inside with the police, covering for my column. It really did appear that that crowd, because we could look for little peepholes in the plywood windows, we could look out and we could see that the crowd, well my guess was within five, 10 minutes is probably several thousand people. 2,000 easily and they were yelling, “Kill the cops, police brutality. Let’s get them. We’re not going to take this anymore. Let’s go.”

Seymour Pine:
We noticed a group of persons attempting to uproot one of the parking meters in which they did succeed and they then use that parking meter as a battering ram to break down the door and they did, in fact, open the door. They crashed it in and at that point was when they began throwing Molotov cocktails into the place. It was a situation that he didn’t know how we were going to be able to control.

Sylvia Rivera:
I remember someone throwing a Molotov cocktail. I don’t know who the person was, but I mean I’ve saw that and I just said to myself in Spanish, I said, “Oh my God, the revolution is finally here.” and I just like started screaming, “Freedom!” We’re free at last. It felt really good.

Howard Smith:
There were a couple of cops stationed on either side of the door with the pistols like in a combat stance aimed in the door area. A couple of others were stationed in other places behind like a pole, another one behind the bar, all of them with their guns ready. I don’t think up to that point I had ever seen cops that scared.

Seymour Pine:
Remember, these were pros, but everybody was frightened. There’s no question about that. I know I was frightened and I’d been in combat situations. There was never any time that I felt more scared than I felt that night. And it was just, you know, there was no place to run.

Sylvia Rivera:
Once the tactical police force showed up, I think it really excited us a little bit.

Martin Boyce:
My name is Martin Boyce. In 1969 I was a drag queen known as Miss Martin. I remember on that night when we saw the riot police, all of us drag queens, we linked arms like the Rockettes and sang the song we used to sing. “We are the village girls. We wear our hands in curls. We wear our dungarees above our nellie knees”, and the police went crazy hearing that and they just immediately rushed us. He gave one kick in his leg.

Rudy:
My name is Rudy and the night of the Stonewall I was 18 and to tell you the truth, that night I was doing more running than fighting. I remember looking back from 10th Street and there on Waverley Street, there was a police, I believe a cop, and he was on his stomach in his tactical uniform and his helmet and everything else with a drag queen straddling him. She was beating the hell out of him with her shoe. Whether it was a high heel or not, I don’t know, but she was beating the hell out of him. It was hysterical.

Mama Jean:
My name is Mama Jean. I’m a lesbian. I remember on that night I was in the gay bar, a women’s bar called Cookies. We were coming out of the gay black going toward 8th Street and that’s when we saw everything happen, blasting away. People getting beat up. Police coming from every direction, hitting women as well as men with their nightsticks. Gay men running down the street with blood all over their face. We decided right then and there, whether we’re scared or not, we didn’t think about it. We just jumped in.

Sylvia Rivera:
This queen has gone completely bananas, jumping on, hitting the windshield and next thing you know, a taxi cab was being turned over, other cars were being turned over things. Windows were shattering all over the place. Fires were burning around the place. It was beautiful. It really was. It was really beautiful.

Mama Jean:
I remember one cop coming at me, hitting me with the nightstick in the back of my legs. I broke loose and I went after him. I grabbed his nightstick. My girlfriend went behind him. She was a strong son of a gun. I wanted to feel the same pain I felt and I kept on saying to him, “How do you like the pain? Do you like it? Do you like it?” I kept on hitting him and hitting him. I was angry. I wanted to kill him. At that particular minute, I wanted to kill him.

Sylvia Rivera:
I wanted to do every destructive thing that I could think of at that time to hurt anyone that had hurt us through the years.

Mama Jean:
It’s like just when you see a man protecting his own life. They weren’t the queens that people call them. They were men fighting for their lives and I’ll fight alongside them any day, no matter how old I was.

Sylvia Rivera:
A lot of heads were bashed that night. A lot of people were hurt, but it didn’t hurt their true feelings. They all came back for more and more. That’s when you could tell that nothing could stop us at that time, or any time in the future.

Michael Schirker:
The riots were well covered in the media. The New York Daily News featured it on the front page. There were reports on all of the local television and radio stations. By the next day, graffiti calling for gay power had started to show up all over the West Village. The next night, thousands of men and women came back to the Stonewall to see what would happen next. While a couple of trash cans were set on fire and some stones were thrown, the 400 riot police milling around outside the bar ensured that the previous evening’s violence would not be repeated. But on this night, gay couples could be spotted walking hand in hand and kissing in the streets just by being at the Stonewall surrounded by reporters, photographers, and onlookers. Thousands of men and women were proclaiming that they were gay. The crowds grew and came back the next night and for one more night the following week. What happened at the Stonewall on those nights helped to usher in a new era for gay men and lesbians.

Geanne Harwood:
When Stonewall happened, Bruce and I were still in the closet where we had been for nearly 40 years, but we realized that this was a tremendous thing that had happened at Stonewall and it gave us a feeling that we were not going to be remaining closeted for very much longer and soon thereafter we did come out of the closet.

Jenny Puzo:
My name is Jenny Puzo. In 1969, I was in the convent and when Stonewall hit the press, it hit me with a bolt of lightning. It was as if I had an incredible release of my own outrage at having to sequester so much of my life. I made my way down, I seem to recall in subsequent nights being down on the periphery looking, observer, clearly an observer, clearly longing to have that courage to come out and as I recall, it was only a matter of weeks before I left the convent and started a new life.

Henry Baird:
I’m Henry Baird. In 1969, I was in the US army, a specialist stationed at Long Binh Post near Saigon in Vietnam. I remember I was having lunch in the army mess reading the armed forces news summary of the day and there was a short paragraph describing a riot led by homosexuals in Greenwich Village against the police, and my heart was filled with joy. I thought about what I had read frequently, but I had no one to discuss it with and secretly within myself, I decided that when I came back stateside, if I should survive to come back stateside, I would come out as a gay person and I did.

Seymour Pine:
For those of us in public morals, after the Stonewall incident, things were completely changed from what they had previously been. They suddenly were not submissive anymore. They now suddenly had gained a new type of courage and it seemed as if they didn’t care anymore about whether their identities were made known. We were now dealing with human beings.

Jheri Faire:
Today, I live in a senior citizen apartment building. What’s different now is that I can be free. I have a daughter who’s a senior citizen and my son is 58. They know about my homosexuality. My three grandchildren in the 30s know about their grandmother. I have a great-granddaughter who at the age of 10 learned that Grandma Jheri was a lesbian and she thought that was most interesting, and yet I still don’t have the personal courage to not care if these yentas in the building know that Jheri’s a lesbian.

Seymour Pine:
Well, I retired from the police department in 1976. 20 years have passed. I’m going to be 70 in a few months. I still don’t know the answers. I would still like to know the answer. I would like to know whether I was wrong or whether I was right in ever thinking that there was a difference and ever thinking that maybe you shouldn’t trust a homosexual because something is missing in his personality.

Joan Nestle:
The archives of lesbian culture, which surrounds us now and was created four years after Stonewall owes, at least from my part, it’s creation to that night and the courage that found its voice in the streets. That night, in some very deep way, we finally found our place in history. Not as a dirty joke, not as a doctor’s case study, not as a freak, but as a people.

Sylvia Rivera:
Today I’m a 38-year-old drag queen. I can keep my long hair, I can pluck my eyebrows and I can work wherever the hell I want and I’m not going to change for anybody. If I change, then I feel that I’m losing what 1969 brought into my life and that was to be totally free.

Roman Mars:
Remembering Stonewall was produced by Dave Isay with Michael Schirker in 1989. This documentary was a production of Sound Portraits which went on to spawn StoryCorps, which is dedicated to collecting, sharing, and preserving people’s stories from around the world. You might have heard StoryCorps on the radio, but their podcast, which is hosted by their producers, offers longer stories that go more in-depth and offer more backstory. It’s even better than it is on the radio. You can get it and get more information about StoryCorps at storycorps.org.

Credits

Dave Isay of StoryCorps spoke with Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid; to Sylvia Rivera, one of the drag queens who battled most fiercely that night; to Bruce Merrow and Geanne Harwood, a gay couple who have been together for 60 years; Jheri Faire, an 80-year-old lesbian; Randy Wicker, the first openly gay person to appear on television and radio; Joan Nestle, founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives; and yippie leader Jim Fouratt, who helped found the Gay Liberation Front on the third night of the Stonewall Riots.

This story originally aired in 1989 and was produced by Sound Portraits.

Music

Hell by Flim

 

  1. Aden

    Long time fan, never had a cause for complaint, but I was surprised and disappointed at the choice to interview the cop for this episode. Especially given that all he could say was that even in old age he ‘isn’t sure’ that his past (and apparently present?!) homophobia and police brutality were right or wrong!

    If this were the anniversary of the holocaust, would we be hearing from a friendly old camp guard saying he was “just following the orders at the time” and “still isn’t sure if I was right to think Jews shouldn’t be trusted, because a part of their personality is missing”?

    Really quite astoundingly tone deaf.

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