Saturday, June 28, 2014

Stonewall, June 1969: "The liberation is underway"

"We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We show our pubic hair ...
we wear our dungarees
above our nelly knees!"

(Chant at Stonewall, June 1969)

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn. For those of a particular and increasing age, the Stonewall Inn riots, in New York's West Village, June 27-28, 1969 seem an improbable long time ago. 

The police who harassed the bar crowd that gathered to observe the memory of Judy Garland (she had died on the 22nd and a memorial service held on the 26th) were met by Stonewall patrons who refused to show I.D. one more time, including Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist. What happened afterward has been called by many names -- a riot, an uprising, a beginning -- but it began, as many historical events do, at a point when the ideas of the past collide with the idea of a future.

Allen Ginsberg, never one to miss the action of whatever kind, was eventually drawn to The Stonewall Inn to make the scene. As it was reported in Lucien K Truscott IV’s controversial Village Voice account:

“... Allen Ginsberg and Taylor Mead walked by to see what was happening and were filled in on the previous evening’s activities by some of the gay activists. 'Gay power. Isn’t that great!' Allen said. 'We’re one of the largest minorities in the country –- 10 percent, you know. It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.'
Ginsberg expressed a desire to visit the Stonewall ('You know, I've never been in there') and ambled on down the street, flashing peace signs and helloing the TPF. It was a relief and a kind of a joy to see him on the street. He lent an extra umbrella of serenity to the scene with his laughter and quiet commentary on consciousness, 'gay power' as a new movement, and the various implications of what had happened.
I followed him into the Stonewall where rock music blared from speakers all around a room that might have come from a Hollywood set of a gay bar. He was immediately bouncing and dancing wherever he moved.
He left, and I walked east with him. Along the way he described how things used to be. 'You know, the guys there were so beautiful –- they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.' It was the first time I had heard that crowd described as beautiful.
Outside the Stonewall Inn, June 27-28, 1969

We reached Cooper Square, and as Ginsberg turned to head toward home, he waved and yelled 'Defend the fairies!' and bounced on across the square. He enjoyed the prospect of 'gay power' and is probably working on a manifesto for the movement right now. Watch out. The liberation is underway.
As David Carter has pointed out: 'Ginsberg's characterization of the change that the Stonewall Uprising had brought about was so trenchant that when the early gay activist Allen Young interviewed (him) for the literary magazine, Gay Sunshine, the only question that (he) asked him about Stonewall was the circumstances behind Allen's statement.' Allen's reply:
'I wasn't there at the riot. I heard about it, and I went down the next night to the Stonewall to show the colors. A crowd was there, and the place was open. So I said, the best thing I can do is go in; the worst that can happen is I'll calm the scene. They're not going to attack them while I'm there. I"ll just start a big "Om". I didn't relate to the violent part. The trashing part I thought was bitchy, unnecessary, hysterical. But, on the other hand, there was this image that everybody wanted to make that they could beat up the police, which apparently they managed to do. It was so funny as an image that it was hard to disapprove of, even though it involved a little violence'." ...

Whatever happens next in the national discussion of same-sex marriage is anyone's guess (in 2011 one opponent called the law's passage in New York state a victory of "the last of the low-hanging fruit"), but more arcane lawsuits and loud accusations of Supreme Court politics are sure to follow.

The passage of legislation permitting same-sex marriage is in a slow-motion, stately procession -- state by state the national (and legal) mood is changing, even as the road ahead still seems a long one. It will be a different world to imagine that what was once too scandalous to speak openly of in a court of law will one day be the subject of that court’s august deliberations.

(1969 Stonewall photo from the Columbia University archives)

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