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Lambda Lore

Stonewall: A great and glorious weekend

On the last weekend in June 1969, events on NYC’s Christopher Street led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front. By Oct. 10, 1969, a Gay Liberation Front had even formed in Salt Lake City as well as other cities on both coasts. It was kind of a big deal.

In the evening of Saturday, June 28, a second night of rioting broke out when a crowd of street kids, homeless gay youth, once again gathered outside the now boarded up Stonewall Inn. They came to protest the previous night’s police raid. The riot that broke out from the routine raid on the bar had caught the city’s police by surprise, who were on the defense against a hostile and frustrated community. However, the police’s Tactical Force units poured into Sheridan Square to route angry protesters who were starting fires, throwing bottles and shouting “legalize gay bars.” As crazy as it may seem under New York state laws it was illegal to serve alcohol to a homosexual.

The Saturday night battle between the police and protesters lasted nearly two hours and was half-serious and half-campy. At one point a group of gay men formed a chorus line and began doing a can-can routine down the street while singing “We are the Stonewall Girls,” until the police armed with “billy clubs” and night sticks charged and dispersed them.

On Sunday the largest homophile organization on the east coast, the New York Mattachine Society, held a meeting to calm down the community. They hoped to channel the volatile mood of the street kids into a constructive response. Unfortunately, the Mattachine leaders were completely out of touch with the idealism and anti-establishment fervor of the 1960s. Some young people attended, but felt that the Mattachine was more concerned with the image of vandalism than social injustice.

On Monday, the last day of June 1969, many in the village felt that some of the police were deliberately trying to provoke the homosexuals milling around Sheridan Square. One police officer goaded a man saying “start something faggot, just start something.” Another cop kept shouting at the increasingly angry young people, “I’d like to break your ass wide open.” After saying that to several dozen people, one smart ass turned and said to him, “What a Freudian comment, officer!” The cop furiously started swinging his baton, scattering the onlookers who would scatter like pigeons and then regroup.

Two cops in a cruise car started yelling obscenities at the people, obviously trying to start a fight. Another street officer stood on the corner of Christopher and Waverly, swinging his night stick as he made cracks at passersby. A “wildly fem” drag queen sneaked up behind him and dropped a lit firecracker between his feet. It went off and he jumped into the air.

On Wednesday, July 2, the police were summoned for a third time to quell a hostile crowd of nearly 500 protesters chanting Gay Pride slogans and marching up and down Christopher Street. According to one eyewitness, the police armed with nightsticks, seemed bent on a massive retaliation. As gay demonstrators shouted “Gay Power,” the New York Tactical Force went on the offensive. They beat the demonstrators with nightsticks, leaving many bleeding in the street and some unconscious on the sidewalk.

The Village Voice wrote, referring to the police’s action, “Some seemed quite ready to depopulate Christopher Street the moment anyone would give them permission to unholster their guns.”At one point, 7th Avenue from Christopher Street to West 10th looked like a battlefield in Vietnam as the Tactical Force beat down the young people with clubs.

As the battle continued into the evening the composition of the street action had changed. The gays were almost outnumbered by the “Black Panthers, Yippies, Crazies, and young toughs from street gangs all over the city and some from New Jersey” who came to the village to exploit the situation for their own ends. Looting from these outsiders ensued. Observers in the know doubted the looting was done by gay people.

The news of the police brutality against the demonstrators horrified the leaders of the Mattachine Society and next day their newsletter had a defiant, rather than a reconciliatory tone. It stated, “We didn’t know what it was like not to be mistreated, expected to be mistreated, and accepted harassment when it came. Now we’ve walked in the open and know how pleasant it is to have self respect and to be treated as citizens and human beings. There’s no possible way to make us accept the ‘old way’ again. The homosexual community has tired of the old ‘We Walk In Shadows’ routine. We want to stay in the sunlight from now on. Efforts to force us back into the closet could be disastrous for all concerned.”

On July 4, about 40 New York gays boarded a Homophile Youth Movement (HYMN) charter bus to go to Philadelphia for the Annual Reminder. Sponsored by the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO), the demonstration was celebrating its fifth birthday of picketing in front of Independence Hall. These New York gays brought with them a new militant self respect from the actions on Christopher Street.

It became apparent at the Annual Reminder that there was a “generation gap” between the older homophiles and the younger, new militant gays. When Frank Kameny, founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington DC and organizer of the Annual Reminder, saw two New York lesbians holding hands he ran over to them and slapped their hands shouting “You can’t do that! You can’t do that!”

“Freaked out” out by Kameny’s non-confrontational attitude, the New York group “caucused” and then wrote on their picket signs “Equality For Homosexuals-Smash Sexual Facism!!” Kameny was livid and appalled. After several hours of picketing, with many of the young gays walking hand-in-hand, the Annual Reminder disbanded for the last time. Eventually the Annual Reminder was replaced with the directive to celebrate the Christopher Street rebellion as the focus of an annual reminder to be held in June rather than in Philadelphia on July 4.

On July 9 Dick Leisch, founder of the the Mattachine Society of New York, and Michael Kotis, its president, organized a  “Homosexual Liberation Meeting Committee.” Kotis said “right after the riots people wanted to do something…they wanted to get involved and overcome the difficulties, the oppression, the injustice.” The committee had no elected officers but Michael Brown and Martha Shelley were the acknowledged leaders. The committee met at Freedom House, the monthly site of the Mattachine’s town meetings.

Minutes from that first meeting called for a “Gay Power” demonstration to protest police harassment but it became apparent from the start that two factions were developing. One group wanted the committee to align with all oppressed minorities such as Blacks and women. Others wanted the committee’s goal to be law reform for homosexuals. When Michael Brown suggested joining the Black Panthers’ demonstration at the Women’s House of Detention, the Mattachine Society cut off its association with the committee. It was Mattachine policy to only be involved with issues related to homosexual liberation.

Later on July 10, 1969, the Village Voice printed a letter by Lavan Lisco entitled “Scared No More.” In it he stated, “The Stonewall raid was not the only reason for incidents occurring on the great and glorious weekend. In the last three weeks five gay bars in the village area that I know of have been hit by the police… .”   His sentiments were soon shared that the Stonewall Uprising was a “great and glorious weekend” for all of us.

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Ben Williams

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