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.
Posted by That Hank at 4:07 PM