“The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World”
1969. It was a year unlike any other...stop us if you’ve heard this one before. Right—you’ve read the books, seen the infomercials, bought the “Now That’s What I Call Hippy Music!” 12-CD boxed set, and thoroughly pwned the T-shirt (retrograde fashion of course). That being said, it really was an age unto itself—an age of taking absolutely nothing for granted.
It was, to borrow a phrase, “the summer of ’69.” John Lennon kicked off the month of June by recording “Give Peace a Chance”. Meanwhile, half a world away, Vietnam was in full orange bloom. It’s easy to take freedom for granted, especially in this day and age—but let’s review a little history: It had only been five years earlier that LBJ signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a full 99 years after Congress had passed the Thirteenth Amendment. It had only been 45 years since American women had been given the right to vote.
But if you were gay, things weren’t quite so peachy. Civil rights did not apply to homosexuality; every state in the union possessed and vigorously enforced anti-gay laws, to the extent that the slightest public display of same-sex unity could lead to incarceration, or, worse—a one-way trip to the nearest sanitarium (homosexuality was still considered a “sociopathic personality disturbance” by the American Psychiatric Association).
And then there was “the hairpin drop heard round the world,” on June 27, 1969, at a gay bar in Greenwich Village called The Stonewall Inn. Back in the day, police raids on any number of establishments, especially those with mob connections, were de rigueur. And if said establishment catered to a gay and lesbian clientele, then all bets were off. Usually these raids went down as a simple matter of course, meeting with little if any resistance. But on this particular night, all that changed—violently. , which he based on the 1950 film by Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa “…there is a shared reality, true, but differing truths may indeed be said about it…. The film is set in 12th-century Japan and concerns the encounter in the forest between a bandit and a samurai and his wife. The mystery of the film comes from four quite different accounts of the same event (a sexual encounter that may be rape, and a death that is either murder or suicide). Each account is clearly self-serving, intended to enhance the nobility of the teller. Each account is presented as a truth at a trial by the bandit, the samurai’s wife, the samurai (who, having died, testifies through a spirit medium), and a passing woodcutter who may have been an onlooker. As each of the four testifies, we see that particular version of the events on film, so that the apparent truthfulness of the visual image supports each testimony in turn. But unlike the familiar detective story on film, where accounts that are later impeached are given only verbally, Rashomon commits itself to, and convinces us of, the truth of each version in turn. And unlike the detective story, we are not given an explanation wrapped up nicely in truth at the end.”
So, on that fateful December day in 1955 when 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger, was she a civil rights activist, or merely a bone-weary working woman who’d simply had enough bullshit and refused to take any more? Parks wasn’t the first fed-up female to fight the system. Earlier protestors Irene Morgan, Sarah Louise Keys, and a brave 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had all taken similar stands—or seats, as the case may be. However, these prior skirmishes, didn’t spark a revolution. Parks, on the other hand, found herself at the epicenter of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. From that seed, a whole mythology grew up around her, and to Parks’ credit, she grew into the role that her unpremeditated act of civil disobedience thrust her. Cast as a civil rights icon, she took on the mantle, and, treading with grace and courage, never looked back.
When it comes to civil rights for gay & lesbians in the 20th century, the situation becomes more insidious. Gay men and lesbians have been a social persona non grata in American society for centuries. “Underground” coalitions, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, provided some means by which to network and try to improve their lots, but in general gay men had to resort to a complex code of signals, meeting locations, and subterfuge in order to connect with one another—and of course, once they did, they risked persecution (and prosecution) if they were discovered.
Lesbians had it no different; while there was not the social shame of women living with “a friend” for years on end, attempts by women to dress in masculine ways (read: butch) provoked anger and discrimination, as did many women’s choice to stay unmarried and childless. So, for those of you keeping track: gay and lesbian activism did exist prior to Stonewall, but never to this extent—and never this violent—or this out loud.
Sometimes the raids were carried out under pretenses of liquor law violations. Some nights there was no pretense whatsoever. Either way, anyone looking “too gay” usually found themselves hauled off in a paddy wagon. Their names were published, which usually resulted in them losing their jobs. The lucky ones (i.e., those who weren’t in drag or otherwise “deviant”—in these instances, even gay men got to experience a little bit of white male privilege) made a hasty beeline toward the rear exit without being hauled off to the hoosegow.
And on June 27, 1969, alcohol—or its illegal sale—was the charge du jour. The plainclothesmen and uniformed officers began their ritualistic duty of arresting the bar’s employees, harassing its clientele, and depositing them out onto Christopher Street with all the aplomb of, well, cops from the 1960s. But the story quickly went off-script on this night. Some attribute what was to follow to the death five days previously of Judy Garland. Others, possibly the more pragmatic, attribute it to simply having had enough.
Is a Myth as Good as a Milestone?
The aftermath of the riots is when the mythmaking began and a degree of divisiveness quickly ensued. Certain factions that were on the front lines, especially drag queens and lesbians, were sent to the back of the hoopla bus in favor of white, middle-class gay males who were perhaps more palatable to mainstream media of the day. What first-person accounts and news footage of the day reveals is another story:
Drag queens being tossed brusquely into paddy wagons. Another drag queen blocking the doorway to the bar, hips jutted out, drawing a defiant line in the quicksand. Inside Stonewall, a hetero folk singer taking a sanguinary beating at the hands of the police. Someone, possibly a butch lesbian, began throwing Bruiser Brody-sized haymakers at the cops. Coins zipping through the air, pelting police. (Throwing coins at the police represented the payoffs which gay bars had to regularly make to cops in order to remain in business—unaffectionately known as ‘gayola’.) Other airborne items included trash cans, beer bottles, and rocks. One account suggests that someone began dousing the bar in lighter fluid, attempting to set it ablaze.
“Gay power!” roared the crowd of approximately 400 suddenly congregated on Christopher Street. Not long thereafter, the 400 swelled to a riotous 2,000 protesters. The line had been drawn—and decidedly so.
It was at this point at which the riot squad was called in. Armored police with billy clubs took to beating the tar out of everyone and anyone they could get a hold of. Well, except for the vox populi—in this case represented by a coterie of drag queens—who raised their voices—but not in speech; in song:
“We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!”
(Sung to the theme song from The Howdy Doody Show)
To this date there is a great deal of controversy and debate about what actually happened throughout the riots—and who was there, who was doing what, etc. So it’s safe to say that the Stonewall Riots, much like every other exigent zero hour, has wound its way into the annals of American myth-making. Does it matter who threw the first punch, the first brick—the butch lesbian, or the drag queen? No—just like Judy Garland’s funeral had nothing to do with it.
No matter whom the actual instigators, each microcosmic incident-within-incident—one thing was for certain: it was on. The Stonewall Riots had begun in earnest, if not with a bit of über Kitsch. That first night, 13 people were arrested. Four police were injured. No firm count has been assigned to the number of protesters injured, but it has been said that at least two were beaten severely.
The public protests continued for the next several nights, swelling Christopher Street like an overstuffed grape leaf. Flyers and handouts were being disseminated titled: “Get the Mafia and cops out of gay bars!” And the following Wednesday, approximately 1,000 protesters returned to march on Christopher Street, marking the genesis of the modern gay rights movement. The following year, a march was organized in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. Between 5,000-10,000 people attended. An important realization had been made: the meek will not inherit the earth—or their most basic civil rights. “Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself,” said author/actor/activist Harvey Fierstein. The squeaky wheel, does indeed, get the grease.
“In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast,” noted Quentin Crisp, in The Naked Civil Servant. “Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.” The question now: How long will this gentrification of the human spirit take? True, we’ve come a long way since the days of “the love that dare not speak its name,” but just when those voices that speak that love will be truly heard, understood and valued without bias or judgment…well, that’s still somewhere over the rainbow.