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Friday, June 7, 2013

The Stonewall Riots and the history of a movement

by Jamie Lutton


I have lived on Capitol Hill and run a bookstore here since 1987. I have watched the  happy partying that happens every late June around the time of our gay rights parade, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot. Hundreds and hundreds of LGT people and their families show up from out of town, even from out of state to celebrate with us and see our parade. 
Now and then I will talk to some of the young people, and ask them what they know about the real Stonewall. Almost all the young ones, under 30 at least, seem ignorant and indifferent. This shocked me, it is as if a young black American did not know who Martin Luther King was, or worse did not care. But then I realized; this event is not taught in the schools, not even in college classes, unless you go and look for this history on your own in an electvie class. It surely is not required knowledge, like knowing about Hitler and the Holocaust, or about our Civil War.. 
The history of the LGT struggle for civil rights has then generally been forgotten, even by those it affects personally..
It is as if the world that gays and lesbians had to live in before 1970 has been swept under the rug of history. No one wants to tell this story, and when it is told, it devolves to being a story about men in high heels in New York outside a bar, throwing cobblestones at cops.. 
There is a lot more to it than that.  I read Stonewall by Martin Duberman when it came out in 1994, and have recommended it ever since to my customers. This book is a LGT view of the late 1960's, early 1970's, and the real history of the gay right's movement back to the 1930's.  The struggle for civil rights for the LGT community was a long and difficult one, and it took more than one riot to change things...but it took a riot, it seems, to get ordinary people, the average Joe and Jane who was LGT, to look up and notice that they were strong, and could say 'no' to being called foul names, harassed, arrested, and beaten. . 
This author, tracked down and interviewed dozens of LGT people who lived in New York city at this time, and who were eyewitnesses to the riots.. He chose six people, two men, three women and one transgender person to interview, taping their testimonies and transcribing them. This gives the book a feeling of candor, and immediacy. . . The riots at the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street are not reached until the page 181 of this 282 page book; the rest of the book is these people telling their life stories. This helps give context to the events of that night and the nights following.
I was on the edge of my chair reading it by the time I got to the days of the riots, even though I knew the general outcome, the details and the events of that night were suprising to me.
One thing that outraged me was reading about the 'ritual' of a police raid  on a gay bar.  The cops would arrest those people without I.D.'s, men in women's clothing, women in men's clothing, and  always some of the employees. The would seize the cash the bar had, scream abuse,  hit or shove the other clients,  shut the bar down for the night (till they were paid off). The raids were even timed by the police to happen once a month or so, early in the evening, so the bar could re-open quickly. They would even call ahead so the bar's Mafia owners and workers could leave, so only the gay employees would be arrested.
The police had a interest in keeping the geese that laid golden eggs alive, so the bribes would keep coming in. The Mafia owned the bar  and paid off the  police,  so that it had an outlet for the illigal liquor it wanted to distribute, that was stolen out of distilleries, or did not have 'tax' stamps on it. It also was a very profitable business for them.. 
But the LGT people who were the clients were beat up, humiliated and arrested. And this happened over and over.
One thing that is forgotten in 2013 is that gay bars were the main way ordinary gays and lesbians could meet each other, socialize, network. The constant threat of being arrested, fined and jailed finally was too much for them that night, and starting with the transvestites who had just been loaded into the wagon, who fought back.  the people who had just been kicked out of Stonewall, took on the police, throwing bottles, rocks and cobblestones..
The riots lasted on and off for three days.
When word got out about the riots, the 'respectible' gay rights movement was appalled, and not supportive. One rich gay man on Fire lsland even said "How can we expect the police to allow us to congregate? Let's face it, we are criminals, you can't let criminals congregate." Gays and Lesbians who had 'made it' and were well off still thought of themselves as 'criminals', but did not want to change the status quo.  
 
The people who capitalized on the riots, and organized the first gay rights parades, and other political actions were veterans of the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, the women's right's movement, and had been educated through their activities there, to make the 'jump' to demanding civil rights for gays, lesbians and transgender peoples
This author's detailed history of 'respectable' gay rights organizations that, before Stonewall, have little to do with the ordinary LGT men and women who rioted on June 28th. It is a history of the people who were financially exploited by the police and the Mafia who finally could not take it any more, and who wanted to hold the hands of their lovers in public . To be able to be 'out'
Another history of this riot and these times is Stonewall, the riots that sparked the gay revolution by David Carter  and Gay Power by Betsy Kuhn. But this book is the first that was written, it uses an excellent interview technique, and  is still my favorite book on the subject..
America  is a much better place, because these heroic people rioted that night, saying  'no more'. Police corruption has greatly decreased in American police forces because a strong reform movement in the 1970's. The unholy marriage between the Mafia and the police in the cities has been eliminated, partly because police unions have successfully campaigned for higher wages for the police. The police is not just a force of white men, they reflect the population they serve; black, Hispanic, female and gay police are common.. The police, then, no longer see the minorities in the neighborhoods they patrol as suspect population to be controlled.
The LGT population has wrestled back their bars from the clutches of the Mafia, as LGT people are no longer automatically seen to be criminals.
The country, then, is a better place for everyone.

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