The most striking thing about the media coverage of the Stonewall riots — the 1969 uprising that was a turning point in the gay rights movement — is how offensive much of it was.
“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad” blared the headline on the front page of the New York Daily News. “Lilies of the valley” “pranced out to the street” when the cops showed up, the paper said.
“The police had difficulty keeping a dyke in a patrol car,” reported the Village Voice. And from inside the bar, where police and the Village Voice reporter were briefly trapped, “the sound filtering in doesn’t suggest dancing faggots any more.”
And if you’re wondering if those words were as derogatory then as they are now — “Yeah, these were not friendly words,” said historian Hugh Ryan after reading both articles. Ryan is the author of the book “When Brooklyn Was Queer.”
Both the Daily News and Village Voice stories were long and detailed, but the focus is on prurient descriptions of gay and transgender people meant to highlight their difference.
Consider the decidedly non-news lead in the Daily News:
“She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave. A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.”
We know now that most of the participants in the Stonewall Riots were gay men, though transgender women and lesbians also played vital roles. But more often than not in the Daily News story, the rioters are referred to as “lad[ies]-in-waiting,” “spokesman, or spokeswoman” and “girls.” Stonewall is described as a bar where “they could congregate, drink, dance and do whatever little girls do.”
Ryan says this may be shocking to read now, but he can’t say definitively whether the reporter is being intentionally offensive. Nowadays there is growing understanding of the difference between transgender women, like Laverne Cox; gay men who sometimes dress in drag, like RuPaul; and other people who just like to mess with ideas about gender by, say, wearing a dress and growing a beard.
For example, one of the rioters was a gay man named Martin Boyce who told Ryan that at the time of the riots, he was a “scare queen” — someone who “wore just enough drag to freak out the straights.”
“What does that mean in terms of how he would have been covered?” Ryan asked. Reporters may not have seen or known the difference between Boyce and transgender activists like Marsha P. Johnson. (Many newsrooms and journalism groups now have guides on how to cover LGBT subjects.)
Jerry Lisker, who wrote the Daily News article, died in 1993. Howard Smith, who wrote the Village Voice article and was a noted chronicler of the hippie movement, died in 2014. His New York Times obituary says many people first heard words like “Stonewall” from his reporting, without mentioning that Smith used gay slurs in the same report.
Coverage of Stonewall in the Times was certainly less salacious — and just less, in word count. A few hundred words describe the first night of the unrest under the headline “4 policemen hurt in ‘Village’ raid.” And the next day, when protests continued, a few hundred more words were printed under the headline “Police again rout ‘Village’ youths.”
The Washington Post was even more spare; toward the back of the July 1, 1969, edition, just 60 words follow the headline “N.Y. Homosexuals Protest Raids.” The Post didn’t mention Stonewall again for 10 years.
But according to Ryan, the fact it was covered at all is significant.
“Part of what is important about Stonewall is that it gets a certain amount of straight recognition,” he said.
That recognition was not accidental. Stonewall participants such as Jim Fouratt were actively seeking media attention.
Ryan said that when he spoke with Fouratt, the activist recalled, “The first thing I did when I got home from Stonewall is I picked up my Rolodex and I called everyone.” Fouratt, who was well-connected in the antiwar movement and music industry, called reporters and activists to amplify the impact of the riots.
Some of that coverage wasn’t exactly accurate. One of the long-standing myths of Stonewall — that it was sparked by the death of gay icon Judy Garland — springs from that coverage. While a few of the participants have told historians that, yes, they did stand outside Garland’s funeral earlier that day, Garland’s death had nothing to do with why they were rioting. Plus, most of the rioters were young street kids, not the older gay men more associated with Garland fandom.
In fact, the only mention of a Garland connection appears nearly two weeks after the police raid, in an insulting Village Voice column that began: “The combination of a full moon and Judy Garland’s funeral was too much for them.” The columnist then calls Stonewall “the Great Faggot Rebellion.”
“I think [the Judy Garland myth] persists because it’s a good story, because it’s easy to pass on ... and that makes it survive,” Ryan said, “But I do think it trivializes” Stonewall to repeat the myth.
The most important thing about Stonewall, though, wasn’t that it happened or that it made the newspapers. Three days into the unrest, Fouratt and his friends founded the Gay Liberation Front, a gay rights group that took a much more assertive approach than its forebears.
The next year, with other groups including the Gay Activists Alliance, the GLF organized the first pride march on the anniversary of the riots.
But the GLF held its first protest the previous year on Sept. 12, 1969 — against the Village Voice for using gay slurs in its coverage of Stonewall.
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