Wednesday, August 17, 2011

'Stonewall Uprising': The Story from Those Who Lived It

Before yesterday, if I would have been asked to free-associate with the word 'Stonewall,' I would have replied: watershed incident in gay history, gay people fighting back on a police raid, what we're harkening to when we march in Pride parades.

But I did not know the half of it until I watched the documentary 'Stonewall Uprising,' trailer below.

This film is incredible for many reasons. Firstly, the narration (matched with amazing archival footage from 1969) is almost all interviews with gay men, lesbians, a transgender woman and a police officer who were there for the Stonewall uprising; no omniscient narrator summing things up neatly. You feel the humiliation, pain and bafflement they felt growing up in a society so hostile to LGBT people, where you risked bodily harm, being fired from your job, and public humiliation (they would publish your full name and age in the paper if you were arrested) for simply wanting to socialize with people of your own sex. Secondly, these amazing interviewees provide the context of the time; what it was like for them to grow up being constantly told by society that they were sick, demented and pedophiles.

Some of the many things these folks were up against in NYC included a law against "masquerading," which meant that if you weren't wearing at least three articles of clothing "of your gender," you could be arrested. According to a law professor interviewed, in the late 60s, 500 LGBT people were arrested in NYC each year for "crimes against nature." Between 3,000-5,000 were arrested in NYC each year for "solicitation or loitering crimes," the targets almost always being LGBT people. Gay bars were regularly raided.

But in June of 1969, something snapped, and Stonewall patrons decided they were sick and tired of being downtrodden and humiliated when all they wanted to do was drink a beer, dance some slow dances, and meet people. Six police officers came into the bar in the height of the evening, and started to make arrests. But, as one of the interviewees reports it, a tough lesbian started fighting back. The police started beating her, and the crowd became livid.

Until that moment, to live a gay life in NYC, you had to run to survive. You had to run out of bars when the police came, you had to run when people tried to beat you up. As one of the interviewees explained, "we weren't supposed to be threats to the police, we were 'weak wristed'," until the night when the patrons decided they were not running away any more. The police were overwhelmed, even when they called in back-up. There was violence, attacks, counter-attacks and even a can-can line to mock the police; the people felt their collective power and it felt so good: "There was no going back now. We had discovered a power we didn't know we had," explained another interviewee.

The battles continued for multiple nights after the first one, with the LGBT folks holding their ground. They then decided to take the fight out of the Village, and march throughout NYC, to Central Park. It was the first gay pride parade, and one participant called it the "first gay run" because it was incredibly scary: it was daylight, it was in the middle of Manhattan, and it was an unapologetic display of pride. At first there were 400 people marching, and one of the leaders in front turned around to see that the crowd had swelled to 2,000.

He had tears in his eyes talking about it, it was so powerful to behold.

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