20th Century America, Christopher Street Liberation Day, Dick Leitsch, Gay Activists Alliance, Gay Liberation Front, Homosexuality, Mattachine Society, New York City, Roland Emmerich, Stonewall, Stonewall Riots, Sylvia Rivera, The 1960s
In my previous post, I explored all the rioting that Stonewall (2015, dir. Roland Emmerich) left out. In this post, I want to talk about something else the film left out, namely almost everything that followed the riots. The riots themselves aren’t really what matters. What matters is how the riots changed the gay community in the year that followed. In the movie, after the riots, the film jumps ahead to Danny (Jeremy Irvine) returning home to visit his former lover and his way more interesting kid sister. And then he goes back to New York City, bumps into the street youth including Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) and then participates in a huge march to Central Park. The viewer is left to figure out for him or herself how the riots produced the parade.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this film in the theater, you may wish to put off reading this until after you’ve done so, because I discuss a variety of major plot points.
Prior to the riots, the gay community existed mostly underground. Gays, lesbians, and trans people tended to meet furtively, in the few bars that would tolerate their presence. Gay men congregated in parks, back alleyways, and in places that were generally deserted at night, like docks and warehouse districts, looking for anonymous sex. There were a few public organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, that had enjoyed modest success in pushing for limited legal rights for gays and lesbians, and a few gays had dared to appear on television and radio shows. But that was as far as organization went.
The riots changed that dramatically. Just a few days after the riots, a leaflet began to circulate that read “Are The Homosexuals Revolting? You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are” and announced the formation of group to further this revolution. Dick Leitsch, president of the New York branch of the Mattachine Society, wrote an account of his experience during the Riots, titled “The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World” (‘dropping a hairpin’ being gay slang for hinting about being gay), and circulated it widely within the gay community.
When the Mattachine Society held a meeting on July 9th, not even two weeks after the raid on the Stonewall Inn, more than 100 people attended. More than 200 attended another meeting the next week. While Leitsch struggled to control the meeting and tried to emphasize the Mattachine’s strategy of respectable protest, the street youth who attended the meeting would have none of it, insisting on a more confrontational approach. On July 30th, about 500 gays, lesbians, and trans people marched from Washington Square Park to the Stonewall, shouting “Gay Power!” In the months to come, this more militant approach tended to displace the Mattachine Society’s more respectful strategy toward fighting for gay rights.
Over the next several months, numerous groups were formed to demand rights for gays and lesbians. The Gay Liberation Front began hosting dance parties where gays and lesbians could dance without having to give money to the Mafia. The simple right to congregate and dance was tremendously important to them; when a lesbian was punched in the face by a staffer at a Mafia-controlled bar for refusing to stop dancing with another woman, the GLF organized a dance-in at the bar and refused to be intimidated by the owners.
In general, the GLF was the most in-your-face of these new groups. They actively sought confrontation with straights. When the Village Voice refused to run ads containing the word ‘gay’, the GLF protested with a large crowd outside its office (which, as I mentioned in my previous post, was across the street from the Stonewall) and got it to change its policy. The GLF also began confronting politicians at public meetings and candidates forums. They launched a newspaper, set up a bail fund, and began organizing to feed the street youth.
But the militancy and fractious nature of the GLF also alienated some gays and lesbians, who organized the Gay Activists Alliance in response. The GAA focused on forging a sense of gay and lesbian identity and refused to get sidetracked with other political causes the way the GLF frequently did. They demanded a meeting with Mayor Lindsey’s administration, and actually got one, although it was with an advisor who promptly ignored their demands. The GAA adopted the Greek letter Lambda as their logo, creating a symbol that continues to be used long after the GAA has disbanded.
In late February of 1970, Seymour Pine, who had led the raid on the Stonewall, similarly raided the Snake Pit, another Mafia-owned bar that catered to homosexuals. When the patrons began to congregate outside, Pine feared a repeat of the rioting, and arrested 167 people and took them down to the Sixth Precinct. One of the patrons, an Argentinean named Diego Vinales, leapt from a second floor window of the precinct building and was impaled on the spikes of the fence outside.
Vinales survived, and was eventually cut loose from the fence and taken to a hospital, but word began to spread that he was dead or dying, and the crowd inside the precinct became angry and turned the arrests into a spontaneous sit-in. In the confusion, several gays slipped into the police chief’s office and used his phones to alert the media, both mainstream and the new gay newspapers, and the GAA.
Later that day, a crowd of 500 gathered in front of the Stonewall to protest and marched to the Sixth Precinct. It eventually marched to Vinales’ hospital to hold a vigil. The fact that such a crowd could be raised so quickly showed just how far the movement had come in barely more than half a year.
Congressman Ed Koch wrote to the police commissioner demanding to know why Pine had violated the commissioner’s promise to not entrap or harass gays and lesbians. He became the first elected official to speak up for homosexuals, and his willingness to align himself with the gay community was a factor in his eventual election to the mayor’s office. In May, the GAA badgered Carol Greitzer, a city councilwoman, into agreeing to sponsor a bill banning job discrimination against homosexuals. Sylvia Rivera, a truly fearless transwoman, claimed that she hit Greitzer over the head with the petition in support of the bill.
Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson founded the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, dedicated to helping what would eventually come to be called trans people, and established Star House, a shelter for street youth. (Sadly, the considerable efforts of trans men and women to support gay liberation ran into enormous resistance from gays and particularly lesbians, who often derided trans women as “female impersonators”. As a result, when a bill banning job discrimination did finally get passed in 1986, all mention of trans people had been removed. The hostility Rivera encountered eventually led her to leave New York City and abandon activism for two decades.)
Vinales’ accident, and the publicity it received in the traditional media, helped shift public opinion against police raids and in favor of fully-legal gay bars, with the result that gay bars began to proliferate in the next few years. The Stonewall Inn, however, closed about three months after the riots. It had drawn too much attention for the Mafia to feel comfortable with it, and its owner, Fat Tony, was murdered, perhaps because of his tendency to talk too much when he was high.
Craig Rodwell pushed for an event to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, and on June 28th, 1970, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march took place. About 20 groups were represented and what started as several hundred people marching from Christopher Street to Central Park had swelled to several thousand by the time the march reached its destination. A few years later, the annual parade reversed its route so that the party at the end benefitted the businesses along Christopher Street. The Christopher Street Liberation Day parade eventually turned into a Gay Pride Parade and inspired countless similar parades annually around the world. Germany’s main pride event is still called Christopher Street Day.
So in that sense, it is possible to trace a straight line from the Stonewall Riots down to contemporary Gay Pride events, still usually held in June in honor of the Stonewall Riots, although many younger gays, lesbians, and trans people no longer realize that Gay Pride is actually a commemoration of that event. Indeed, many worry today that Pride Parades are simply becoming a new way for corporations to market goods to gays and lesbians.
It’s a shame that Emmerich chose to skip over everything that happened between the Stonewall Riots and the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade a year later, because that year saw the unleashing of an enormous tide of energy, enthusiasm, protest, anger, and organizing. Reading about all those events, arguments, and organizational work makes me a little envious of those who lived through that heady period, although I’m deeply grateful that I get to live with the fruits of their decades-long struggle rather than having to put up with the considerable social stigma, discrimination, and violence that those earlier activists encountered. One activist commented just a few days after Stonewall, “All I know is I’ve only been in this movement three days, and I’ve been beaten up three times!” (Carter, Stonewall, p. 213).
The film offers a far simpler narrative, in which the riots just magically give birth to a parade a year later, instead of acknowledging the parade as a piece of strategic planning by Rodwell, who realized that commemorating the riots would help build a gay identity and a sense of history for a people who, at the time, were perceived as having no history. The story of Danny Winter, budding gay rights activist working in post-Stonewall New York City would have been a much more interesting story than the one Emmerich chose to give us. I suppose now I’m just complaining that Emmerich didn’t film the movie I would like to see, but if you’re going to totally make up someone to drop into an historical event, wouldn’t you want to focus his story on the interesting stuff?
Want to Know More?
The movie is not available yet, since it’s still in theaters.
If you want to read more about Stonewall, a good place to start is David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. It’s an excellent piece of scholarship and highly readable.