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Above Our Nelly Knees: The Stonewall Riots at 40

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The 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots takes place this Sunday. Sexis takes a look back at what Stonewall meant then, and what it means to this day.

  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.


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