In the wee hours of June 28, 1969, a typical raid of a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village led to an atypical response from the gay men and lesbians, drag queens and drag kings, transgender and gender-nonconforming people inside. They fought back — over several days. And by doing so, they ushered in the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
The events surrounding that historic moment are chronicled in “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America” by veteran journalist and historian Charles Kaiser. The United States today for LGBTQ people is a world removed from what it was in the New York of the 1960s. A time when you were jailed for who you were and who you loved.
“Gay life in New York City, as it was in the rest of the United States and indeed the rest of the western world, was invisible to everyone except those participating in it,” Kaiser told me during a special edition of “Cape Up.” “Generally speaking, if you were a gay person you did everything in your capacity to keep it a secret from your friends, from your family and from anyone else who wasn’t gay.” That’s because it was a crime to be LGBT.
What made matters worse is that arrest wasn’t the only potential consequence for being outed. “There were so many newspapers in New York and all across the country who would print the names of anybody who was arrested in one of these raids,” Kaiser recounted. “And once your name was printed in the newspaper, the odds were enormous that you’d be fired from any job that you had in any profession.” But when the cops attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn, the patrons ditched the relative safety of invisibility to unleash a never-going-back rebellion.
“What happened more than anything else is a cross-dressing lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie” threw the first punch, Kaiser said when I asked him what happened at the mob-owned bar. “Stormé says, ‘The cop hit me and I hit him back.’” And then Kaiser read from his book what DeLarverie told him about that night, a recounting he told me “is the best description in my mind of what was really going on that evening.”
Stonewall was just the flip side of the black revolt when Rosa Parks took a stand. Finally, the kids down there took a stand. But it was peaceful. I mean, they said it was a riot, it was more like a civil disobedience. Noses got broken, there were bruises and banged up knuckles and things like that, but no one was seriously injured. The police got the shock of their lives when those queens came out of that bar and pulled off their wigs and went after them. I knew sooner or later people were going to get the same attitude that I had. They had just pushed once too often.
“You have to remember what all of these people at that bar in 1969 had experienced the previous year in 1968, which was the greatest year of mayhem and upheaval in the history of the United States in the post-war period,” Kaiser explained, “starting with a Tet Offensive in Vietnam, followed by [Eugene] McCarthy’s near win as an antiwar candidate in New Hampshire, followed by [President] Lyndon Johnson’s stunning withdrawal from the presidential race at the end of March, which produces this huge surge of hope which is destroyed four days later when Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated at the beginning of April and then Bobby Kennedy is assassinated at the end of June, etc., etc.” But there was more at work.
“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve studied it, it is clear to me that the most important element in the success of the gay movement was the success and the example of the Black Civil Rights movement. First of all, it was the incredible courage of everybody in the Black Civil Rights Movement who was willing to go out into the streets and get beaten up and get murdered in order to make America a more free place. So we had that incredible example in front of us,” Kaiser explained. “Having watched it for nine years throughout the [1960s] . . . gay people in 1969 were finally ready to emulate their black brothers and sisters and fight back. But we must always remember that it was our black brothers and sisters who were the first to declare that not all power in the United States should belong to straight white Protestant men.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Kaiser talk more about the Stonewall rebellion, the importance of Frank Kameny in the years before 1969 and the importance of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, and his wife Michelle, who Kaiser says “were the first people to give the gay rights movement the same status really in public life as the black civil rights movement had enjoyed.” Adding, “it felt uncannily right the arc of history had bent so dramatically towards liberty and justice for all during Barack Obama’s presidency.”
But is the nation ready enough for an openly gay president that it would vote for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president? Kaiser is an emphatic yes.
“My theory is that if George Bush II was bad enough to make our first African-American president possible, Donald Trump is certainly horrendous enough to make the first openly gay president possible,” Kaiser said. “And I think that whipsaw effect is entirely within our grasp."
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