By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Considerations of modern queer history often hinge upon the Stonewall riots of 1969 as the genesis of the gay rights movement. The violent demonstration has become a symbolic start of the LGBTQ community’s battle for equality, with folks all the way up to the Commander in Chief referencing it as a watershed moment for civil rights. However, it’s important to remember that the riots weren’t always considered in such high regard — as reporting from the time demonstrates with shocking, almost hilarious clarity.
On July 6, 1969, The New York Post ran an account of the Stonewall Riots by reporter Jerry Lisker which vividly conveyed the awe, disdain, and confusion of the dominant culture of the time when considering the riots. “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad” opens with a vivid, lascivious description of one rioter:
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.
Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt. New York City experienced its first homosexual riot. “We may have lost the battle, sweets, but the war is far from over,” lisped an unofficial lady-in-waiting from the court of the Queens.
“We’ve had all we can take from the Gestapo,” the spokesman, or spokeswoman, continued. “We’re putting our foot down once and for all.” The foot wore a spiked heel.
Lisker continues with details and context of the raid:
According to reports, the Stonewall Inn, a two-story structure with a sand painted brick and opaque glass facade, was a mecca for the homosexual element in the village who wanted nothing but a private little place where they could congregate, drink, dance and do whatever little girls do when they get together…
Last Friday the privacy of the Stonewall was invaded by police from the First Division. It was a raid. They had a warrant. After two years, police said they had been informed that liquor was being served on the premises. Since the Stonewall was without a license, the place was being closed. It was the law.
All hell broke loose when the police entered the Stonewall. The girls instinctively reached for each other. Others stood frozen, locked in an embrace of fear.
Only a handful of police were on hand for the initial landing in the homosexual beachhead. They ushered the patrons out onto Christopher Street, just off Sheridan Square. A crowd had formed in front of the Stonewall and the customers were greeted with cheers of encouragement from the gallery.
The whole proceeding took on the aura of a homosexual Academy Awards Night. The Queens pranced out to the street blowing kisses and waving to the crowd. A beauty of a specimen named Stella wailed uncontrollably while being led to the sidewalk in front of the Stonewall by a cop. She later confessed that she didn’t protest the manhandling by the officer, it was just that her hair was in curlers and she was afraid her new beau might be in the crowd and spot her. She didn’t want him to see her this way, she wept…
Police said there were over 200 people in the Stonewall when they entered with a warrant. The crowd outside was estimated at 500 to 1,000. According to police, the Stonewall had been under observation for some time. Being a private club, plain clothesmen were refused entrance to the inside when they periodically tried to check the place. “They had the tightest security in the Village,” a First Division officer said, “We could never get near the place without a warrant.”
…The men of the First Division were unable to find any humor in the situation, despite the comical overtones of the raid.
“They were throwing more than lace hankies,” one inspector said. “I was almost decapitated by a slab of thick glass. It was thrown like a discus and just missed my throat by inches. The beer can didn’t miss, though, “it hit me right above the temple.”
Police also believe the club was operated by Mafia connected owners. The police did confiscate the Stonewall’s cash register as proceeds from an illegal operation. The receipts were counted and are on file at the division headquarters. The warrant was served and the establishment closed on the grounds it was an illegal membership club with no license, and no license to serve liquor.
The story also includes a truly fascinating slice of gay social history: a young couple’s consideration of what the Stonewall riots meant for the wedding of two of their friends:
[Bruce and Nan] both said they were refugees from Indiana and had come to New York where they could live together happily ever after. They were in their early 20’s. They preferred to be called by their married names, Bruce and Nan.
“I don’t like your paper,” Nan lisped matter-of-factly. “It’s anti-fag and pro-cop.”
“I’ll bet you didn’t see what they did to the Stonewall. Did the pigs tell you that they smashed everything in sight? Did you ask them why they stole money out of the cash register and then smashed it with a sledge hammer? Did you ask them why it took them two years to discover that the Stonewall didn’t have a liquor license.”
Bruce nodded in agreement and reached over for Nan’s trembling hands.
“Calm down, doll,” he said. “Your face is getting all flushed.”
Nan wiped her face with a tissue.
“This would have to happen right before the wedding. The reception was going to be held at the Stonewall, too,” Nan said, tossing her ashen-tinted hair over her shoulder.
“What wedding?,” the bystander asked.
Nan frowned with a how-could-anybody-be-so-stupid look. “Eric and Jack’s wedding, of course. They’re finally tieing the knot. I thought they’d never get together.”
In 1914, trade unionist Nicholas Klein addressed the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, stating to the assembled activists that when it comes to the dominant culture’s response to struggles for civil rights, “first they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” Foreshadowing this effect, Lisker’s account ends with a prophecy of the future of the struggle: “The police are sure of one thing,” he notes. “They haven’t heard the last from the Girls of Christopher Street.” In this, Lisker was absolutely correct.