Stonewall Vets

Stonewall Vets
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By Steve Weinstein

On June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village. This was hardly an unusual occurrence. Police were under pressure to close down bars catering to homosexuals, but it was common knowledge that, in return for regular kickbacks, they would tip off bar owners about raids ahead of time.

They would pick out from the crowd enough people — usually cross-dressers — to satisfy their superiors, take them down to the local precinct house, book them and give them a citation. The bars reopened later that night, and it didn’t take long for them once again to attract a crowd.

It had become so routine that people had come to expect it and wearily accepted it. The patrons might be weary of harassment, wary of arrest and fearful of the consequences if the newspapers published their names, but they had no alternative. Bars were the closest thing to a “safe space” at that time for gay men and lesbians to meet others like themselves.

On that steamy night in late June, however, things did not come off as the police had planned. In previous years, there had been spontaneous protests after raids in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But through a series of accidents and incidents that have since entered the realm of legend, the police raid on the Stonewall Inn became the touchstone for the modern worldwide gay-rights movement.

One of the big differences that turned Stonewall into a synonym for LGBT activism was geography. In the late ‘60s, the Village had become a hotbed of anti-war demonstrations, radical feminists and home of the anarchic Yippies. So perhaps it was inevitable that, as rumors spread of a confrontation with police, a large crowd gathered in front the bar that included people like the heterosexual folk singer Dave Von Ronk, who was swept up in the random arrests that night.

Today, the febrile activity outside the bar that took place for the next few nights is generally known as the Stonewall Riots. But for members of the Stonewall Veterans Association, it will always be called the Stonewall Rebellion (and woe to the interviewer who gets it wrong!).

SVA member Jeremiah Newton recalled how many people were skeptical that he had been there that night. “It’s kind of weird,” he said. “A year after the rebellion, I would tell friends I was there, and people were calling me a liar.”

William Henderson, SVA’s founder and longtime leader, estimates that, out of 66 original participants and witnesses, 40 remain. “Hardly anyone has died of old age,” he said. Rather, he noted, the vast majority of deceased victims of another, far sadder, cataclysmic event in the LGBT community, AIDS.

For the living SVA’s an annual conference brings them back to New York from as far away as California and Puerto Rico. This year’s conference will be held on June 20, destined to mark another LGBT milestone: That’s when a city commission is expected to give final approval on landmarking the Stonewall Inn. That will make it the first LGBT-specific such site. Already the first LGBT site on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, it will become the first such city landmark as well — something all veterans view as long-overdue recognition.


Photo credit: New York City Wanderings via photopin (license)

Over the years, Stonewall veterans have been interviewed by journalists, scholars and others eager to reconstruct every detail of the bar itself. It’s remarkable how much they remember. But then, the Stonewall stood out as the one place where everyone was welcome.

For Henderson, it served as an ad hoc community center and a second home to those ostracized by their families or fleeing intolerant small towns. Unlike other, more uptight gay bars, the Stonewall welcomed transgendered persons, effeminate men and butch lesbians. “It was very sociable,” Henderson recalled.

Above all, the Stonewall was the only place in New York City where people of the same sex could actually dance with each other. In other bars, dancing was either discouraged or not allowed without a member of the opposite sex between them.

“It was the only bar where we could slow dance,” recalled Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt in a recent interview. “That was totally revolutionary. Being able to dance with someone of the same sex changed everything in the way you felt about yourself. Because you were having an affectionate moment, you felt totally humanized. That had everything to do with the rebellion. It was totally spontaneous. We were angry that we couldn’t dance.”

Newton was among those who wandered into history that night. He had been hanging around in the Village when he passed under the Women’s House of Detention, a long-since demolished prison around the corner from Stonewall.

“The inmates were yelling down at people, lighting toilet paper and throwing it out the window,” he recalled. “They said something was going on on Christopher Street. Someone came up to me and said there was a riot.”

In the ensuing decades, Newton attempted to make history come alive for students at New York University, where he worked as industry liaison for film and TV until he retired, with seminars and slide shows.

Henderson continues to speak at high schools. He complains that, as the events of 1969 recede, younger gay men entering a world where they can increasingly take equal rights for granted have become increasingly blasé about their shared past. He hopes that a feature film to be released this fall, “Stonewall,” featuring a cast headed by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, will spark a renewed interest.

“A lot of kids are not interested in gay history,” Newton said. “I was thrilled to know there were people before me.”

Even so, he’s philosophical about LGBT youth and their relation to what for them is the distant past. “A lot of veterans are bitter about it,” he said. “But my teenage years were a lot of fun. I don’t want anyone sitting at my feet.”


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