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Stonewall at 50 - Myths and Truths

July 27, 2019

 

 

 

History is important - but inaccurate history is dangerous. Here are a few popular myths to bust on the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, and a few truths that are often overlooked.

 

1. "Stonewall was the start or birth of the gay rights movement."

 

Not really. It was a pivotal event when gays refused the shame that kept do many long complacent and fought back with pride for who they are, but there were many queer activists and a number of rebellions before it (Black Cat, Julius Sip-In, Comptons, Mattachine etc). The uprising at Stonewall gained more notoriety because it was in New York which had a larger gay population that turned out in force not just for the raid but for many nights after.  It was however the start of what we now call Pride - specifically the Pride Parade when marches were held on the yearly anniversary of the initial raid.

 

2. "Marsha P Johnson was a black Trans woman who started the rebellion by throwing a brick after being dragged out of the bar, triggering a widely Latino, black and Trans crowd to erupt."

 

Well, it's true she was black and a hell of a queer rights activist, but Marsha herself confirmed many times she wasn't in Stonewall on that night. By her account, she didn't arrive on Christopher Street until after the rioting started having only heard about it after it was in progress.

 

Marsha being in the bar is a myth perpetuated in part by Latino activist Sylvia Rivera first documented 15 years later. She claimed she was in the bar with Marsha celebrating Marsha's birthday when it started. Marsha countered in several interviews that Silvia was actually passed out in a park after taking heroin when Marsha roused her with news of the growing rebellion and that they arrived later together.

 

Despite Sylvia's version being shot down, she would revive it in the years after Marsha's death until it was pointed out that Marsha's birthday was in late August, not June. The few photos that exist of the raid and first night of riots show a crowd made up largely of young, white men peppered with some people of colour. In the night's that followed however, the even more marginalized queer black, Latino and lesbian communities came out in force.

 

Plenty of bricks were thrown in the riots that followed on later nights as well as garbage cans, rocks, bottles, trash and even parking meters, but there were no bricks laying around in the bar waiting to be thrown in case the cops came.  The "first brick" is another myth Sylvia began based on the brick Marsha often carried in a purse in case she was jumped. Sylvia later changed the object to a high-heeled shoe with herself as the pitcher. Marsha was seen climbing a lamp post and dropping her purse (presumably with the brick inside) onto the windshield of a police cruiser, but that was on one of the later nights.

 

In the years following the riots, both Marsha and Sylvia would continue fighting for gay rights (and later Sylvia for Trans rights) as well as homelessness and racial equality becoming true icons and heroes of the queer movement and the community.

 

3. "The rebellion was started in the bar by drag queens and Trans women fuelled by grief and anger over the death of gay icon Judy Garland."

 

This is another of Sylvia's stories. In 1994 she gave a completely different account than the previous birthday party take where she claimed Tammy Novak dragged her to Stonewall that fateful night to mourn the death of Garland. The movie stars funeral had been in NYC that afternoon and had left Sylvia "completely hysterical". When the raid began, Sylvia claimed she fought back out of grief and despair leading the drag queens and Trans people to follow.

 

In truth, drag queens and crossdressers (Trans was not yet a widely used term), were largely unwelcome at the Stonewall Inn. One was a figure named Désirée, allowed in because she was dating Petey - one of the gangsters in charge who would later shoot and kill her.

 

Another was the coatcheck attendant who somerimes came in drag, taking the name Barbara Eden.Tammy was one of the others permitted (despite  being 18 and underage), having lived with Fat Tony and Chuck Shaheen who ran the place.

 

While in later years Sylvia and Tammy identified as trans, Marsha only ever identified as a drag queen and a gay man. 

 

And now a few truths:

 

1. "It was illegal for homosexuals to gather in public as was crossdressing or serving gay customers do the bars were run illegally by the Mafia."

 

This is true - queers had no basic rights at all. Any establishment serving homosexuals could be charged or shut down. As a result, most of the gay bars were operating illegally without liquor licenses etc. They got away with it because they were controlled by the Mafia who sold watered down liquor and took a cut of the cash as well as protection money. In turn, the mafia paid off corrupt cops to turn a blind eye or give them advanced warning of raids. Customers paying attention knew they were coming when the liquor and cash boxes were quietly carried out.

 

Raids on bars where homosexuals frequented were common and Stonewall had been raided many times before - in fact on Tuesday June 24 just a few days before the riots began, the staff had been arrested and liquor confiscated. The kingpins had not been warned in advance about either raid. Ironically, the raids were more about shutting down the mobs illegal activities than going after gay people as it's now widely presumed but gay people were an easy target to harass, bully and insult so it was a good way to get to the mob.

 

2. "A lesbian manhandled by the police turned the tide and started the fighting."

 

This is most likely true according to eyewitness accounts. Stormé DeLaverie was by her own description a "a typical New York butch" lesbian. She has been acknowledged by multiple witnesses to be the person who threw the first punch at the police.

 

Stormé had grown up in New Orleans and was of mixed race though presented as white. She was a well known performer as a drag king and tended to dress androgynously on the street. Though Stonewall was considered a men's bar, her masculine appearance made her passable and she frequented the bar as she did on the night of the raid.

 

Stormé was arrested and cuffed in the bar before being dragged out into the street where she broke away from her captors several times. Insisting her handcuffs were too tight, she fought with at least four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes, during which she was hit on the head by an officer with a baton. “The cop hit me, and I hit him back,” Stormé later recounted.

 

Bleeding from a head wound, she looked at bystanders and shouted, "Why don't you guys do something?" According to a witness, an officer picked Stormé up and heaved her into the back of the wagon and the scene became explosive.

 

Stormé has faded from history because she didn’t like to talk about Stonewall. The trauma and nightmare that followed haunted her and she took exception to calling it a riot. “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience," she said years later, "It wasn’t no damn riot.”

 

3. "The Stonewall Bar as it exists today is only half of the original bar. The other half is now a nail salon."

 

True. The original layout and decor are long gone. Details such as the fountain and jukebox are long vanished as the place was gutted when the original Stonewall bar closed not long after the uprising. The mob wanted away from the bad publicity.

 

The buildings at 51 and 53 Christopher were originally built years apart in the 1800's as stables on a country estate. In the 1930's they were joined together to form a restaurant - Bonnie's Stonewall Inn. Eventually the restaurant fell into disrepair so it was closed then turned into a seedy gay dive. The bars didn't even have running water.

 

Not long after the uprising, the bar was closed, the interiors gutted, the sign removed and the properties once again split up. The original layout and decor are long gone. Details such as the fountain and jukebox (damaged in the uprising) vanished. In the ensuing years, they became desperate establishments including a sushi place, a bagel restaurant, and a shoe shop. In 2006, a new owner bought 53 and opened it as the Stonewall bar, which still exists today.

 

Due to the need for discretion for its customers, cameras were not allowed so photos of the interior or exterior before the raids occurred are rare. Very few photos of the raid actually exist either. Most photos seen in the media today are from successive nights when the media began following the story and community members began to document the evolving rebellion.

 

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