NEW YORK — If anyone can be considered the foremost authority on the historic 1969 Stonewall uprising, it is Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, and for two simple reasons:
First, Lanigan-Schmidt, a snow-bearded 68, is among the few still alive who participated in the riots that ushered in the modern gay rights movement. As he can explain, many of those rioters were gay or transgender street youth who never made it past a brutal life on those streets. And if they did, they then had to face down AIDS just over a decade later.
And second, there’s proof he was there.
“I’m the skinny white kid in the striped T-shirt,” he says, looking at the photo taken by the Village Voice’s Fred McDarrah of a group of street youth during the second night of the riots. Lanigan-Schmidt can recall the others in the photo only by their street names. “That’s Miss Boston or Miss New Orleans, I forget which. Twiggy, Black Twiggy, Missy, Bésame, Drag Queen Chris.”
“All street kids,” says Lanigan-Schmidt, now a well-regarded artist, sitting in the Hell’s Kitchen studio he has lived in since 1975. “I don’t know of anyone who is still alive.”
Now that Stonewall has been named the first LGBT-related national monument by President Obama, the National Park Service will face the unenviable task of figuring out how to portray the role those street kids and others played during the six days of unrest in Greenwich Village. It won’t be easy. Still combustible 47 years later, the Stonewall uprising has a history that’s led to high-profile arguments, lawsuits and protests of its very own.
At a public hearing about the proposed monument in the Village last month, David Carter, whose 2004 book, “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” is regarded by many to be the most definitive account of the riots, told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis to be scrupulously accurate.
“It’s important that the LGBT civil rights movement be included in legitimate and valid U.S. history and civil rights history,” says Carter. And he’s worried that myths, instead of proven fact, will take hold.
The broad contours of what happened early in the morning of June 28, 1969, are generally agreed on: A police raid targeted the Stonewall Inn, whose clientele was largely gay men, along with some transgender men and some lesbians. But this particular raid on the sanctuary — a common incident at a time when homosexuality was very much considered deviant behavior and illegal in 49 states — did not go according to plan. Many resisted arrest.
Before long, a crowd gathered outside the bar. After patrons were seen being roughed up, there were shouts, including one of “gay power,” and then the shouting turned physical. Police and a small group of bar patrons were trapped inside the bar as the protest grew larger and angrier, with pennies, rocks and bricks heaved at police. “It was terrifying,” Seymour Pine, the New York Police Department deputy who led the raid, told PBS. “It was as bad as any situation that I had met in during the Army.”
A larger team of riot officers arrived, and the police and others trapped in the bar were able to escape. But the crowd swelled into the thousands, and the battle against the police extended into the early hours, and continued off and on for five more nights.
A gay rights movement quickly gained momentum. “The feeling of things being different started in the event itself,” Lanigan-Schmidt says.
But exactly what happened has become hotly contested.
Last year’s fictionalized movie “Stonewall,” by director Roland Emmerich, managed to unite nearly all key LGBT groups in condemnation of the film, which imagined a clean-cut blond Indiana teen as the hero — and the spark of the whole conflagration. It was crushed by critics (The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday called it “as lamentably flat-footed as it is inexcusably inauthentic”), and activists accused it of “whitewashing” the riots by minimizing the role of transgender activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
But who, exactly, deserves the credit? Could it, as a persistent theory (mildly alluded to in the Emmerich film) suggests, be Judy Garland?
In his 1997 book, “The Gay Metropolis,” journalist Charles Kaiser raised the prospect that a funeral service for Garland held on the first night of the riots on the city’s Upper East Side inspired a grieving gay fandom to stand up to police bullies. Kaiser points out that he was careful to characterize it as a theory and not fact, though he does say that even today, he hears from people who “definitely think it’s reasonable.”
Lanigan-Schmidt is not one of them.
“There are people who connect [Garland’s funeral] to the narrative of Stonewall, and you’re not going to tell them it doesn’t connect, so let them have it,” he says. “It didn’t start the riot off, believe me.”
Carter attacks the theory in his book, too, writing that “no eyewitness account of the riots written at the time” mentions Garland as an inspiration or cause. Both he and Lanigan-Schmidt point out that the street youth most responsible for the riots were more likely to be listening to rock and R&B — not Judy Garland.
Another prominent Stonewall icon has been Williamson Henderson, who founded the Stonewall Veterans Association. The group is a fixture of New York’s annual Pride Parade, known for motoring along in the vintage blue 1969 Cadillac that Henderson claims he drove to the Stonewall on that fateful night.
Henderson says the NYPD locked both him and the car up during the first night of the riots. He, too, has his skeptics, going back at least to 2000, when journalist Duncan Osborne of the LGNY news tabloid published a critical report of Henderson and the SVA that suggested he might not have even been at the Stonewall and that there was no record of any cars being towed. (Carter also found no evidence to support any of Henderson’s claims.)
Henderson sued for libel, but the case was dismissed. He brushes off the criticism today, saying, “There are questions about a lot of people.”
Another oft-repeated story is that violence in front of the Stonewall was sparked by police officers’ rough treatment of a lesbian patron being ushered out of the bar in handcuffs. Various accounts have the woman aggressively fighting back after an officer hit her with a billy club. “She was giving them their money’s worth,” one witness told Carter.
Many accounts from that night, including from two Village Voice reporters at the scene, credit this clash with launching the crowd into violence. But who is this mysterious woman?
She has never been identified. Many though, including LGBT activists and Kaiser in “The Gay Metropolis,” have suggested that woman might have been Stormé DeLarverie, a well-known lesbian entertainer at the time.
“The cop hit me, and I hit him back,” she told Kaiser.
But she also denied to Kaiser that she sparked the riots. DeLarverie was 48; none of the reports at the time mentioned that the woman was either middle-aged or of mixed race. Carter also dismisses the possibility in his book, writing in a footnote that, among other things, DeLarverie was far too famous in that community to have gone unrecognized in such a pivotal fight.
To Lanigan-Schmidt, though, the squabbles over who was really there that night are largely beside the point. He’s simply pleased at how far things have come.
His own story seems pretty typical of its time: He grew up knowing he was gay and feeling like an outcast in Elizabeth, N.J., and in his Catholic family.
“When I was a kid, I had the book of Catholic quotations. It’s actually a very subversive book — there are more quotes from Oscar Wilde in there than just about anybody. So I asked my father, innocently enough, ‘Who is Oscar Wilde?’ ” he recalls. “And with his eyes looking like pinwheels in hell, he says, ‘He was a homosexual!’ And I couldn’t understand why he was so angry.”
Desperate for an escape, he took a train to the city when he was 18 and never really looked back, almost immediately getting swept up in the Village street scene. He panhandled and worked as a messenger so that he could afford an apartment and began working on his art — mixed-media sculptures often made with discarded materials he salvaged from the street.
In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art put on a retrospective of his work, “Tender Love Among the Junk,” at its PS1 branch, praising him for exploring “gay sexuality, class struggle, and religion” through “a trashy opulence concocted from household items and dollar stores.”
His apartment is both stuffed and orderly, with small samples of his work placed among rolls of foil and collected swatches of fabric and sequins. It has the dark shimmer of a grungy Aladdin’s Cave.
He has his own theory of why the raid on the Stonewall prompted such anger. “It was the only place we could dance slow together,” he says. For that reason alone, “the Stonewall was sacred to me,” he says, and believes it was for others, as well.
When police tried taking that away on that night, he says, it was one push too far.
He’s also not particularly worried about who may or may not have participated in the riots. “There’s no way for me to know,” he says. “I can’t say they weren’t there because there were just too many people there.”
More important, Lanigan-Schmidt says, was the symbolism of “people getting together and making it a masterpiece of action.”
And naming the Stonewall a national monument, to him, still seems almost unimaginable. “It’s like me looking up the book of Catholic quotations and seeing Oscar Wilde’s name,” he says, except now “anyone looking at a list of national parks is going to see it.”