The first I ever heard about the Stonewall riots was in college when a fellow student, a gay man, mentioned it in a letter to the editor of our campus newspaper. Never heard of it before.
Today, twenty years later, college history professors and the media are giving Stonewall much closer attention. Pres. Obama mentioned it in his second inaugural address. Current events have brought the struggle for homosexual rights to increased relevance. The 2010 PBS American Experience documentary, Stonewall Uprising, is timely. For anyone wishing to gain understanding of how LGBT rights arrived at its current place in American debate, the film is a must see. http://video.pbs.org/video/1889649613/
In June of 1969, police raided a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in New York’s Greenwich Village. Gays and lesbians were used to this kind of encroachment, but this time they’d had enough. A riot ensued. Bar patrons, who outnumbered law enforcement, resisted police efforts to shut them down.
Stonewall Uprising features telling interviews with participants in the uprising as well as a retired New York police officer who led the raid.
Around half the documentary is back-story. It shows that antipathy and unsympathetic views toward consenting adults’ sexual practices were much more pervasive 50 years ago, if not as talked about as today. Black and white public service announcements and television news programs of the time depicted homosexuals as perverts, social pariahs. In one chilling scene, a detective charged with maintaining “public morals” speaks harshly in a paranoia inducing diatribe against homosexuals before a large room of sober-faced, scary-eyed teenagers.
“If we catch you with an avowed homosexual, your parents will be the first to know,” the man says.
The historical background is the most interesting aspect of the documentary. It gives context, showing how Stonewall was inevitable – the reaction of people who were tired of being pushed around.
Watching this documentary, it becomes clear why so many LGBT people today are vocal in fighting for its rights. Traditionally, they had no rights. A McCarthy-like atmosphere hung over the lives of gays. An individual could lose a job, get arrested and be outed in the newspaper. A person’s life could be ruined over his or her sexual orientation.
Hatemongering against homosexuals exists today among a vocal and virulent religious right. However, majority public opinion has evolved today into a view favorable toward equal rights for LGBT people (e.g.) gay marriage and freedom from discrimination. But with each decade we look back to, we find more intolerance until we’re back in the 1960s. Today we associate vituperation and homophobia with the lunatic fringe. Back then, hatred was standard.
I have heard that friendships among LGBT people tend to be tighter than those in the heterosexual population. After seeing this documentary, I see why. Along with police harassment, violent assault was commonplace. People wound up in wheelchairs; they were beaten so savagely. LGBT people come from a culture and history in which it’s imperative that they watch each other’s backs.
But life was never the same after Stonewall. There were no more comparable police crackdowns. Gays and lesbians, who had been pushed into the underground, came out and embraced their own identities.
“There was no going back,” one of the Stonewall participants said. In the most poignant moment from the film, a small gay pride parade turns into a march of roughly 2,800 people.
“We became a people,” one man said. “All of a sudden I had brothers and sisters, which I didn’t have before.”
More than 40 years later, homophobia, like racism, is still around. The Religious Right may be a minority, but it’s a loud, pugnacious one that still holds a degree of power. Certain politicians still get a bang out of exploiting hatred and paranoia.
But they’re losing more elections. They are losing their grip on the public consciousness. The time is ripe for LGBT people to enjoy the same legal protection, the same rights as other Americans. Stonewall is just a small window into what they have endured to reach this point.
Best line: “It eats you up inside, not being comfortable with yourself.”
This is a line from Raymond Castro, one of the participants in Stonewall. He died in 2010 after helping with this documentary, as did Seymour Pine, the retired NYPD officer who led the raid on Stonewall. In his final years, Pine was regretful and publicly apologized for his role in the police crackdown.
Out of the Past: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights in America – This is a documentary about Keli Peterson, a Utah teenager who formed a Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school in 1996 and encountered statewide backlash. Through her story, the film goes into the history of gays, lesbians and their battle for equality in America.
Anyone and Everyone – This documentary, made for PBS in 2007, explores the reaction of parents when their children come out. The film looks at families from a multitude of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The Laramie Project – Originally a stage production, this play was adapted to the screen and aired on HBO in 2002. Shot to resemble a documentary, this film features the reactions of townspeople from across the spectrum about the 1998 beating death of a young gay man, Matthew Shepherd, in Laramie, Wy.
Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter. This journalistic and historical treatment of the riots may be the definitive account of Stonewall. It covers the same ground as Stonewall Uprising, but at 352 pages, it contains much more detail.