STONEWALL UPRISING – Rich Paschall

Fifty Years On, by Rich Paschall

It was much different then. 1969. There was a “counter culture” that opposed many of society’s norms. There were “love-ins” and music festivals.  Hippies made the scene wearing different clothes. Many wore flowers in their hair. Tie-dyed shirts and bell bottoms jeans were the fashion.

It was the summer of Woodstock. It was also the year the Beatles played their last live concert from a rooftop in London.

Woodstock

In the United States, Richard Nixon became president. NASA sent a man to the moon. PBS was established and Sesame Street made its debut. The US Air Force stopped investigating UFOs, having found none since Project Blue Book started in 1952.

It was a time of social unrest. Civil Rights protests. Protests for women’s equality. Students and others protested many political issues. The largest and most frequent were about the “police action” otherwise known as the War in Viet Nam. The Southeast Asian war, the first to be extensively televised, was very unpopular.

Protests at Columbia University in NYC

Homosexuality was illegal in 49 of 50 states. To be arrested meant your life was ruined. You could lose your home, your job, your freedom. To be a known homosexual could put your life at risk. A few gay groups, like the Mattachine Society, tried to depict gay men as just like everyone else in order to be more acceptable to society. Small protests were held each year in Philadelphia and Washington seeking equality. Men wore suits, women wore dresses. No one held hands.

New York had a few gay bars and clubs. Most were owned by the Mafia, who paid off the police. When the bars were to be raided, arresting a few gays, the clubs were tipped off in advance. The police generally came early in the evening so the clubs could reopen later and continue doing business. When the police arrived, the lights went up to tip off the patrons to stop holding hands, touching, and dancing. Men in drag were certainly going to be taken away. Policewomen checked them out to see if they were actually men. No further explanation is needed.

In June of 1969, there were frequent raids on local bars and clubs. Some were closed down. The Stonewall Inn had been raided on a Tuesday but reopened for business. Saturday of that week would be the day the tables were turned.

Stonewall 1969 (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Stonewall had tried to present itself as a private club. It had no liquor license and was raided periodically by police. It operated very much like a speakeasy in the Prohibition era.

The windows were covered with plywood so no one could see inside. The door had an opening where a bouncer could look out to see who wanted entrance. If he did not know you or thought you were underage, you would probably be turned away.

In the early hours of a warm night, around 1:20 AM on June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn.  It was to be closed permanently. There were perhaps two hundred people inside but only four plainclothes officers, two others in uniform and two detectives arrived. Gays usually put up no resistance, so the police thought they could control the situation.

On this night, they thought wrong.

The usual tactic was to arrest drag queens and anyone under 18, which was then the legal drinking age. The men were lined up and IDs were checked. Events, however, took a different turn from the usual protocol.

The drag queens refused to go and many men were refusing to show IDs. The police decided to arrest anyone who did not cooperate. Things quickly got out of hand.

The ones who had been released did not disperse. Instead, they waited outside. The crowd soon began to grow. The patrol wagons did not arrive and many were forced to wait in line. When a woman was taken outside to be put in a wagon, she fought back.

There’s one well-known picture of the event and virtually no video of what happened. It was before the era of pocket cameras and cell phones. Accounts vary but there are many personal accounts on which to rely.

One thing seems clear. In an era of social unrest, gays were fighting back. They were not going to have the Stonewall taken away, despite the fact that baseball bats were later used like in a Prohibition raid. Activism had come to the gay community in one spontaneous moment.

Only known image of the uprising (Fair use. Photographer: Joseph Ambrosini of the New York Daily News)

Battles with police raged into the night. The ones who had conducted the raid had to barricade themselves in the Stonewall against the growing crowd outside. When police arrived to free Stonewall, the crowd stayed and sang, formed a kickline, threw pennies, did other mischiefs. The people were pushed down the street, only to return behind the police.  Garbage was set on fire, some windows were broken.

The next night an even larger crowd returned to Christopher Street. The police tried to disperse them with nightsticks and tear gas. Again garbage was lit on fire and the crowd fought back.

Why are there gay pride parades?

Stonewall is the answer. On a warm summer night in New York in 1969, the gay patrons of Stonewall Inn decided to stop being pushed around. They wanted to be free to be who they were. They would no longer hide in the dark closets or recesses of dives like the Stonewall. They wanted to be proud and to live their own lives.

The following year on June 28, The Christopher Street Liberation Day was held with a march (parade) from Christopher Street to Central Park, an astounding 51 blocks. Organizers desperately hoped for more than a handful of participants to support the event. Thousands came, not just to watch but to march and celebrate. At one point the parade filled the street for 15 blocks. Events were also held in Chicago and Los Angeles to remember Stonewall.

It is likely many young participants in Gay Pride Celebrations do not know why there are such events or how they started. Nevertheless, it has become a worldwide phenomenon. On June 30, 2019 (today if you are reading this when it is first posted) organizations will come together in New York. There will be a 50th-anniversary celebration of the day the lesbian and gay communities battled for Christopher Street and won the right to seek equality in the open.

Stonewall today

Sources: This synopsis is a very condensed version, and you can read events in great detail on Wikipedia. PBS also recently reran the American Experience documentary Stonewall Uprising which you can find at PBS online. Below is just a small excerpt:

SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF – RICH PASCHALL

Your True Colors, Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

Like most people, you might join in a celebration of heritage, religion, race or some identifying quality at some point during the year.  In fact, you may join into several .  There are so many celebrations it is hard not to be a part of something grand.

We all take part in the fourth of July celebration.  We are proud of our heritage and wish to celebrate it.  There are parades and picnics, concerts and fireworks, flag waving and red, white and blue decorating.  Television shows, especially those of Public Television, bring us programs of our history, national parks and our unique music.  It is hard not to be swept up in the grand emotions of the day.  Do your emotions swell with pride?

Many also celebrate their ethnic background through a variety of events.  They honor the Independence of the nations of their ancestors as well as our own Independence.  Cinco de Mayo, for example, is a great day of events to honor Mexican heritage, although it is not Mexican Independence Day as some think.  In fact, it may be a bigger deal here than in Mexico.  Nevertheless, we all join our Mexican neighbors in the festivities.  September 16 is actually Mexican Independence day in case you were wondering why our friends were celebrating again.

German-American Festival, Chicago

Here our German heritage is celebrated with Von Steuben Parade and a weekend of Oktoberfest-like parties.  Baron Friedrich von Steuben was a German military officer and volunteer for General George Washington in the Revolutionary War.  By the end, he was Washington’s chief of staff.  Imagine the Pride for German Americans that this officer, born in Germany, helped to secure the Independence of America.  He was born on September 17th, hence our combined Von Steuben and Oktoberfest events.  By the way, we are also proud to say that our German parade was used as the parade in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  I guess it is appropriate Ferris is singing Danke Schoen.

In a city as diverse as Chicago, we always seem to be having parades.  In the summer, there are many weekends I can walk to the corner and watch a parade head down Montrose Avenue in celebration of a South or Central American country.  I see the delight in the faces of children from Guatemala or Mexico, Peru or Columbia, Brazil or Ecuador who are new to this country or first generation Americans.  I also see the faces of parents and grandparents who are proud of their ethnic culture and proud to be here.

Ethnic pride

A variety of religious events bring a feeling of pride to those who belong to the various religions around town. There are sometimes parades, sometimes outdoor services, sometimes grand occasions.  Many are proud of the churches built by their ancestors.  A church I attended was built by our German ancestors over one hundred years ago.  It stands proudly on its corner with a tower visible for miles.  Certainly the founders of our German American neighborhood would be proud to know their ancestors still come to this corner to attend mass and celebrate the founding of our church and school.  Many of the ancestors are in fact proud to be here.  All of the great religions can claim a home in Chicago.

We celebrate the culture of our colors as well.  Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, Native American Center, Du Sable Museum of African-American History all take pride in having a home here.  The events rooted in the background of color are a source of honor for many.  Indeed, Black Pride takes an important role in the cultural life of a city for more than just one month a year.  We are the proud home of the roots of jazz and blues and the unique contribution of black Americans to our nations music.  We are also proud to be the home of the first black president.

French visitor at Du Sable Museum, Chicago

If I was to pull up the calendar of events for the City of Chicago, I would likely find more celebrations of heritage than I could reasonably report in this space.  There is so much to be proud of that a simple report just would not suffice.  This weekend I would find one that you might question.  Many question it, and they should get an answer.

Why is there “Gay Pride?” Is this something to be proud of?  Why are so many people partying in the streets?  Why do we need a parade?  We don’t have Hetero Pride Day.  Why is this something special?  Sexual orientation does not seem like the thing to parade in the streets.  Who you love does not seem to be a reason for a parade, although perhaps it should be.

For a particular group of citizens who often felt isolated, it is important to come together to remember that you are not alone.  If your sexual orientation is not the majority, you are different.  If you grew up, as most did, afraid to express who you are, it is not unusual to come to celebrate the man or woman you tried to deny for many years.  Last year it was estimated that over 1 million people jammed the parade route in Chicago.  If the weather is good, we are likely to see the same again.

Pride Parade, Chicago

I have only been to the parade a few times.  It is long, boring, and overcrowded.  It seems every local politician is in the parade along with every large corporation that wishes to curry favor with the LGBT community.  The neighborhood has a perimeter that makes it difficult to get in and out for hours before the event, to hours afterward. Local business are crowded and it is tough to find a seat anywhere.

Despite that, a million people are proud to be there.

FIRST PRIDE PARADE

On June 28, 1969, we went to see a play with a group of friends. When the show ended, we left the theater to fine the street full of people. Crowded. It was the first ever New York Pride Parade … and we were there — accidentally — but there. 

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Photo: Alexander Thompson

I’ve been seeing pictures from Pride Parades taking place all over the world. With all the hate rhetoric and negativity we are seeing these days, it’s encouraging to see how the concept of Gay Pride has spread all around the world. It’s a much-needed antidote to the awfulness of the rest of the political scene.

Gay-Pride-Parade-NY-2013_001

The narrow-minded, stupid, loud-mouths of the world make the most noise. So much noise, that sometimes they drown the rest of us out, as if we don’t really exist. We exist. We care. We aren’t going away.