6/29/09

faggots, bulldaggers, queens, and queers


40 years ago, to be gay was to be illegal. Get found out? Lose your job, lose your family, lose your home. There were laws against wearing the clothes of the opposite sex. Being attracted to those of your gender was a mental disorder - gays were literally sickos, perverts. Get busted in one of the regular police raids on gay bars, the only meeting place open to "the love that dare not speak its name"? Lose your freedom. Lose your human dignity when the cops raped or beat you. Lose any right to life and love, damned queers.

These days, a man can marry a man in some states. Lesbians pop up in car ads and become America's sweethearts. The president himself has to face mainstream accusations of not doing enough to advance gay rights (I happen to agree, but that's not what I want to talk about today).

40 years ago yesterday, in the wee hours of the night, the NYC police department went to raid a mafia-owned bar called the Stonewall Inn. A true dive, it catered to the least respected even of the gay world - the stone butches, the drag queens, the homeless queer kids that lived in a nearby park. Folks who drank and danced there (it was the only gay bar in NYC that allowed dancing, by the way) came from all ethnic backgrounds - when you are hated for whom you love, racial issues can become less pressing.

40 years ago - when Michael Jackson was 10 years old and was already an old hand at touring, when Farrah Fawcett was 22 and graduating from the University of Texas, a week after Judy Garland went to that big rainbow in the sky (and don't think that didn't have something to do with the angry mood that night) - 7 cops stepped up to the front of the Stonewall Inn, which didn't even have a back door or fire exits. As they did more than monthly, they announced, "Police! We're taking the place!" One of the officers called for the vans and backup, and they began to force the 200 patrons into lines. They ordered everyone to present ID, and those suspected of being in drag were told to follow a policewoman into the bathroom for a gender check.

40 years ago - not that long at all - those queers started to say NO. They refused to let the cops in their pants and under their skirts. They refused to show ID. The paddywagon was slow in coming that night, and people were already pissed. Revolution - on so many levels - was in the air in those years, and the "sexual deviants" had been through enough. That some of the cops were groping the lesbians under the excuse of a "pat down" sure as hell didn't help. Think about that - 7 or 8 officers in a room of 200 abused, bullied gays and the police were secure enough in their dominance that they went right on ahead molesting and harassing. That's how low on the social totem pole queers were those days.

About a third of the bar patrons were cut loose, shoved out the door to slink away and count their blessings. But they didn't. They started to taunt the police, snarking away, gathering a much larger (and mostly gay) crowd. As the wagons finally pulled up and the cops tried to get people into them, someone - god bless 'em - shouted "Gay Power!" Others began to sing "We Shall Overcome." A cop shoved a drag queen, and she hit him with her purse. Someone yelled back that those inside the bar were being beaten. The crowd reached into their pockets and pulled out the only ammo they had - pennies, bottle caps - and started throwing them at the police. Those were followed by bottles and rocks.

A butch dyke was dragged out of the club in handcuffs. She fought with four of the cops for long minutes, unwilling to be shoved into the van, bleeding from where she'd been struck in the head with a billy club. Finally, she turned to the crowd and asked, "Why don't you guys do something?" and the place fucking erupted. They battled back and forth, the crowd throwing bricks and garbage cans, turning over the paddywagon, slashing the tires on the cop cars. Do you understand? For the first time, the police were forced to retreat in the face of the queers they'd set out to brutalize and dehumanize.

All night, fighting raged in Greenwich Village. The queens set up kick lines, taunting the cops with songs and insulting rhymes, fading back when the officers attacked them with clubs and fists and firehoses, only to start up again when they moved down the street. The police chased a handful of young gay men around a corner, only to find themselves in full flight when they suddenly faced a wall of angry homos shouting, "Catch them!"

The next night was the same. Many people who were there say that they remember, as much as the riot itself, that suddenly people were kissing in the streets. Gays and lesbians were openly being physically affectionate to one another, not hiding in bars where you had to give your name at the peephole to get in. Allen Ginsberg was there that night, and, walking home, he said "Gay power! Isn't that great!... It's about time we did something to assert ourselves," and, "You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago."

40 years ago, the entire gay rights movement burst into life. Oh, there were inklings and struggling starts before, of course, and brave men and women who fought hard for change. But it was that night, when the queers fought back, that pushed it out in the open and started the boom. In their fight for the right to marry and the right to join the army, the mainstream gay movement would be wise to remember that it was people like Sylvia Rivera (a transsexual woman who began living in a community of drag queens on the streets at the age of 11, when kicked out of the house for being effeminate and who was there that night), that it was working class bulldaggers and homeless sissy fags and limpwrists and stone dykes, that led the charge.

So here's to those who fought back that night, the ones we know and the ones we don't, some nameless but none of them hopeless. Here's to kicklines in the face of police brutality, and swinging purses, and bleeding - if that's what it takes - to be able to love freely. 40 years. Truly amazing.

40 comments:

Windy Days said...

Thank you. This is amazing. And strong. Thank you so much.

B.E. Earl said...

I've been to the Stonewall a handful of times. The first couple of times I wasn't even really aware of the history. Just ignorance on my part. Gia and I stopped in for a drink last fall and struck up a conversation with an older guy who was there that night. Showed us the scars to prove it. Dunno if he was legit, but he seemed passionate about it.

Come so far with miles to go...

40 years to the day and police are being accused of using excessive force in a raid on a gay bar in Ft. Worth, TX. Go figure.

Windy Days said...

I linked to your post. You may be flooded with Lesbians tonight. You won't mind, right? :)

downtown guy said...

BE: very cool about getting to meet that guy. And at least today cops raiding a gay bar is newsworthy because something can be done about it, not something that is ignored and condoned.

Windy Days: Thank you! No, I don't mind at all. In fact, I hope folks comment. Tell their own stories.

adrienne said...

legend in new york is that sylvia rivera was the first queen to remove her high heel and hurl it at the police, in addition to running a food pantry and being the inspiration for the city's first shelter dedicated to housing gay and transgendered youth.

beautiful post.

downtown guy said...

She's a true hero. In a better world, kids would learn about her in American history class.

SJ said...

A fine piece of writing and a great tribute -well said! I'm so hopeful that in 40 more years, this whole business of marriage debate will be like ancient history to the next generation.

Ms. Moon said...

Hank. Wow. I'm linking this too.
Yes, yes, and YES!
I love you so much.

jothemama said...

Wow. Shivers up my spine.

Dawg said...

Well written :)

downtown guy said...

Thanks, y'all. I actually started composing this one at the beginning of the month, but I wanted to hold off until the actual anniversary.

kimber p said...

thank you for this post--beautifully and vividly told. I'm going to link to this so more people can see and read how far we've come because a room full of people decided that 'enough is enough'!!

kimber p said...

hey..i just posted about your blog and I'm looking for a "follow this blog" thingie on your page..am I missing it or something?

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Downtown Guy,
Great post. I am linking it on my blog. Hope that's cool.

I am a hug fan of your mama's. You are an excellent writer, just like her.

Love,

SB

downtown guy said...

Thanks, y'all. kimber p: I just added a "follow this" button. SB: I should hope to be as good a writer as my mama.

May said...

Thank you for writing this. We should be taught this in school and maybe one day we will be. It makes me feel so lame that I was aware of Stonewall, but I didn't really know what all went on, and I wouldn't've if you weren't my brother. You've always been the most important educator in my life, Bro. Thanks.

Syd said...

Thanks for enlightening me. I never knew about this. It seems we humans are always fighting against each other. I wish that would stop.

downtown guy said...

Glad to pass on the info. I agree.

Kori said...

What a great post; isn't it amazing how much can be accomplished in 40 years? So far to go, still, but...

Jude said...

Thanks for an excellent posting.

Tae said...

Thank you for the reminder of all that went before us to fight for what should have always been our right to be who we are and to love whom we choose. God Bless them all!

downtown guy said...

Thank you for reading.

honeyluna said...

I've never even heard of Stonewall before this. Thank god I have you and our other family to inform me of such important things.
And your writing is so strong and touching. Your style is so you and so great.

Lady Lemon said...

DTG - Really good stuff. I got chills reading this. Thanks for enlightening us.

downtown guy said...

Jess: queer history is all sort of amazing. There's no one central figure, like MLK, but dozens of individuals doing what needs to be done, usually with amazing style and unbelievable humor.

LL: Thanks!

Dragon said...

Awesome!! And to the next 40 years, hopefully we will be even further, maybe even with full freedoms.

downtown guy said...

Hear, hear!

juancho said...

Print. Submit. Far and wide. folks need to know what other folks have been through.

downtown guy said...

I dunno, I think this is all fairly common knowledge in the gay world, and most of the straight world doesn't give a damn.

EDP said...

This is great. That is all.

Petit fleur said...

You paint a vivid picture Hank, well done.

I'm thankful for those who put themselves out there for what is right. I wonder how I would react given an equal opportunity to righteously rebel.

Thank you for the history lesson. And for giving us faces and a story to reference and celebrate.

It's sad that there are still so many battles to be fought.

Sassy Britches said...

I came over from kimber p's and am so glad I did! This was a truly inspirational post...especially the reminder at the end that the "types" the community tends to label the most these days are the ones who started it all. Thank you.

downtown guy said...

EDP: Thank you.

PF: I agree, but look how far we've all come!

Sassy: I'm glad you came by! Yeah, I hate watching the gay community throw all the "undesirables" under the bus in their quest for mainstream acceptance.

C said...

wow. i had no idea. never knew the real story behind this. thank you for enlightening me. we think its barbaric today but our brothers and sisters from the past had it much worse.

god bless us all.


c

meli said...

That was brilliant! I felt like I was there.

downtown guy said...

Thank you! Would have been incredible, huh?

Joy said...

Informative and inspirational post! I learned about it from some blogfriends I read.

downtown guy said...

Thank you for coming by! Glad you liked it.

Angella said...

your mom linked this today. it's simply fabulous. thank you!

Juancho said...

During the nvqsion of Sarajevo in the '90's the first militia to organize a defense were criminals and mafia of all kinds. It was a true coalition of the willing. In the face of crisis, leaders emerge.