Jonathan Neale and Nancy Lindisfarne.
The most important event in the long history of lesbian, gay and trans liberation happened on a summer night fifty years ago. It was not direct action, civil disobedience, a meeting, a march, a court case, an election or a strike. It was a riot led by underage sex workers, which was the point, and why that night changed the world.
In 1969 the Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in New York City, in the beat and bohemian neighbourhood on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. ‘The village’ was also a homosexual haven – men heard about it from all over the country and came to a place where they could find others like themselves and be a little bit open.
Homosexuality was illegal in 49 out of the 50 United States. Men and women were deep in the closet. The lavender scare of the 1950s had lost even more people their jobs than the red scare. Persecution had been deepening through the 1960s, particularly arrests on the street and in gay bars. Working class communities were more tolerant of openly effeminate men than professional communities and workplaces, which were very hostile.
In this intolerant world, the Stonewall Inn was special. There were, as far as anyone could tell, more homosexual men and women in New York City than anywhere else in the country. San Francisco maybe had a bigger proportion of gays and lesbians, but it was a much smaller a city. And Stonewall was the only gay bar where you could be fully yourself. In the other places, you could dance in the dark, but when the lights came on without warning, you had to sit down abruptly. At the Stonewall, the lights stayed low.
The bouncers at the other bars had rules. No one could enter who looked too feminine, or too young. We need to be clear what we mean by feminine here, because times and words have changed so much. Contemporary witnesses say that many patrons at the Stonewall were queens, even ‘screaming queens’ and ‘flame queens’. So many people are likely to assume now that those were drag queens, and men in women’s clothes. A few were, and most were not. In 1969 a queen meant a man who looked effeminate, but far less so than David Bowie, Freddie Mercury or Prince in their prime. Bell bottoms trousers, a loose shirt with flowers on it, maybe a necklace and a head band, a bit of blush – that would do it. Small touches were enough to be called a queen and noticed on the streets of New York.
You could dress like that and walk like that and get into the Stonewall. The bouncers let young men in. There were many gay, effeminate teenage boys in New York. Some of them still lived at home, but many had been kicked out or left. They heard about the village and came from all over the country. They lived homeless, on the streets, further uptown mostly, and made a living hustling – stealing and prostitution. They were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and they often only had the clothes they stood up in. They were out, flamboyant, tough, and terribly vulnerable inside. Most gay men would have nothing to do with them, even the drag queens. In the village, gay men with homes threw bottles out the window at them. The Stonewall was the only bar that would let them in.
There were women in drag too, though not so many. And some lesbians. They were important in starting the riot. Continue reading