Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.
The Stonewall riots lasted six days, but they have reverberated for half a century as the founding moment of the L.G.B.T.Q.-rights movement. Like any historical symbol that is asked to carry so much significance, Stonewall sometimes bears its weight uneasily. Not everyone is comfortable embracing a Mafia-owned bar that catered explicitly to gay men as the heart of a remarkably diverse political movement. For others, the unquestioned dominance of Stonewall-as-origin-story unfairly consigns a series of earlier uprisings to historical oblivion. Nonetheless, the riots survive as a powerful example of resistance in the face of repression—the historian Martin Duberman has called them “the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history”—and Stonewall remains an inescapable symbol for queer Americans. While so much could be said about the historical importance of the riots and the political gains that have followed in their wake, Harper’s Magazine has taken a more personal approach to marking the fiftieth anniversary of that early morning raid, asking eight writers to respond to the simple but surprisingly fraught question: What does Stonewall mean to you?
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.
T Cooper is the author of seven novels, as well as the memoir Real Man Adventures.
Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You. His essay “Sons and Lovers” appeared in the February 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
T Kira Madden is the author of a memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.
Eileen Myles is the author of twenty-one books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, Evolution.
Darryl Pinckney is the author of two novels, High Cotton and Black Deutschland, and two works of non-fiction, Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature, and Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy.
Brontez Purnell is the author, most recently, of the novel Since I Laid My Burden Down.
Michelle Tea is the author of the collection Against Memoir, winner of the 2019 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.
The Age of Glitter
By Darryl Pinckney
I don’t remember noticing when the riot happened in June 1969. I flunked geometry that year and was still in the deepest disgrace when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July. That autumn the politically advanced at my Indianapolis high school were whispering about joining the Days of Rage riot in Chicago. Just before junior prom, I’d gone on a double date to see The Boys in the Band, and my date smiled at what I was not yet prepared to admit.
I can remember the Gay Liberation Front at antiwar demonstrations. The group passed out leaflets dense with analysis and demands. Huey Newton had urged the Black Panther Party to work with the Weather Underground, the women’s movement, and the gay-liberation movement; nevertheless, to be gay felt as isolating on the left as anywhere else. It took me a while to understand that a Trotskyite group was trying to recruit me. My minder was exasperated that his black front referred to Angela Davis during a radio interview. She of the Communist Party USA had few open admirers in the Socialist Workers Party. I refused to attend any more meetings after he explained that homosexuality would wither away along with the bourgeois state because it was just an expression of its decadence. I auditioned for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the Renaissance choir.
In 1972, Joe Donovan—he had long, dark hair, a beautiful voice for madrigals, and would die of AIDS—announced in the corridor of the eighth floor of Hartley Hall, “This is the Age of Glitter.” Bette Midler’s hit record was playing loudly somewhere on the floor. She was free, Joe was free, but, so no one would see me, I took a roundabout path to the monthly gay dance on the other side of campus, as if there could be much question about a druggy, sodden black English major in thick wire-rimmed glasses. For some reason, I dreaded the derision of black macho in particular. When I look back and see myself taking the back way around Low Library, in order not to happen on the cohort of future black physicians and black attorneys that once fell into a mocking silence as I passed, I am ashamed of my shame. Just before the United States entered World War II, my father got kicked out of Fisk University for calling the French teacher “a queer,” adding that he knew the professor’s name was pronounced Cotton back in Augusta, Georgia, where he came from, not Cotin. My father played football for Fisk, but not for Morehouse, where he ended up the next day, the day he met my mother.
I’d transferred from jock-dominated Indiana University because, in spite of the tribal judgment in my head, New York was the answer. I didn’t need courage, only my father’s money for tuition and cigarettes. Joe Donovan would just be arriving at the gay dance in Earl Hall when I was fleeing the green strobe light for Greenwich Village, my bell-bottoms spreading out on sidewalks—and where are the platform shoes of Glitter’s yesteryear? I’d get crushes on strangers kind enough to stop and give me directions. I had a crush on a curly-headed boy in the bursar’s office who advised me to go to the Firehouse, the SoHo headquarters of the Gay Activist Alliance. I went to one meeting and guessed, decided, I’d never fit in. I think I’d been too friendly, too corny for their vibe, for a black guy with a big afro. Never mind, I was free at last, and no one knew me or anyone I knew.
I remember George Stade saying, in his lecture on Huysmans’s À rebours, “Try to imagine, those of you who are straight,” and the class was delighted, caught off guard, and I saw one of the nicest guys I ever made a fool of myself over also savoring the personal freedom of student life in New York, his head thrown back in laughter, luxuriant hair down the back of the wooden chair. It was 1974 and I wasn’t furtive with myself or anyone else—in New York. I was happy, in New York, and the Age of Glitter was also the Age of Discovery as class after class, performance after performance, revealed how queer high culture was. I was unwilling to unhook Mahler from Visconti and Mann. So who is this Alma? Collegiate parties were not like the bars in that one always went home with someone, often straight, and sometimes the gender was not predictable. In those days, New York was a dangerous city, and Columbia had trouble competing with other Ivy League schools because it was perched on a cliff overlooking Harlem and its housing was grim. An admissions dean told me they went for the weirdos, the kids who may have fucked up, but could do one thing like nobody else, had one gift that redeemed them. Many white kids were proud to be freaks and in that liberal university context gay was cool, okay, your bag. Here is my black gay friend . . .
The drinking age in New York was eighteen, and I didn’t go to Julius’—that packed Greenwich Village bar featured in the opening scene of The Boys in the Band—faithfully anymore. Soon an old hand, I went on weekends into lots of places and left each after a few minutes. My straight friends liked Peter Rabbit, at the end of West 10th where the black river waited, a Brechtian dive, as we saw it, of sawdust, real seamen, and talentless drag queens. I went to several places that were probably like Stonewall, and not just downtown—neglected, Mob-owned joints surprised by what gay and youth culture looking for space and cheap drinks had turned them into. Ancient regulars, neighborhood relics, old-time alcoholics, male and female, sitting across from the new clientele of benny and lude users getting their groove on at the pool tables.
The years go by, a history of different moods and different kinds of music, leaving me with one of the leading collections of empty matchbook covers from Manhattan gay bars and gay clubs of the 1970s. Gay culture was a parallel universe, an elite world, and before everything changed, before cocaine, before the life to come—I found in my father’s papers the draft of a resolution he must have submitted to an NAACP subcommittee in 1984 calling for support for AIDS patients who were losing their insurance—there were unforgettable, seemingly endless hot summer nights when Christopher Street hummed with the voices of boys, hundreds of boys walking around (not many women, it’s true, a divisive issue in the early days of gay liberation), boys hanging out, applauding Rollerena, an old guy in large butterfly glasses, a white wig, and a ball gown, weaving in and out of traffic on roller skates, tapping the hoods of cars with a wand, yelling back at teens from someplace who’d come to Christopher Street to jeer, and the boys answering back, kicking tires, their voices raised, not taking shit, brothers of Stonewall whether we knew it or not.
The Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman
By Eileen Myles
The opportunity to write about Stonewall provokes in me mainly a big ehh and a shrug. As a they lesbian I get a lot of offers in and around June and this is the big June. There’s a lot of “weighing in.” I’m heavy with it now. I was mulling all this in London last week while strolling through a Diane Arbus show at the Hayward and there was Stormé DeLarverie and the photo was captioned “The Lady who appears to be a gentleman.”
Arbus’s titles fascinated me as much as the photos themselves since they seemed to be these nineteenth-century inventories of what the shot holds and when she refers to trans people you get the lingo of the time, e.g., “Female impersonator holding long gloves” and so on. The photo is the photo but the need to proclaim the apparent deception is part and parcel of the expository nature of her work. They are here because the performance of a lady being a gentleman or a man in dress and makeup is just right up there with “a Jewish giant at home with his parents.” And, I think that the document, the photo itself, say in the case of Stormé, outweighs the unseemly description. There’s a faint echo of the lady is a tramp, but instead we get something elegant. That’s the twist. And it keeps twisting. This lady, legend has it, may’ve been who or what really triggered the Stonewall Rebellion on June 28, 1969. Apparently a kid Stormé knew was being kicked and pulled into the paddy wagon and so they punched a cop, trying to help him. And look what happened. A revolution, for sure. That keeps twisting. Trans people are increasingly front and center in the ongoing question of how “we” (the L.G.B.T. community and to a lesser extent the world in terms of how it “apprehends” us) understand gender and sexuality and Stonewall is framed more and more as an event in which trans people, in particular trans P.O.C. (most notably Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera) very much participated, and increasingly they are the face of the moment as opposed to the perennial focus on white gay men. And that’s a relief . . . yet there is also this lesbian, this butch lesbian, as they like to call Stormé, who might’ve thrown the first punch, and as a they lesbian myself I like seeing him first. “He” was Stormé’s chosen pronoun and he didn’t seem to have a problem with the word “lady” either. All of which is just the tip of this anarchistic thing. So let me say it. What I want from the grand Stonewall moment if I can have anything is first of all an inclusion of F.T.M. (female-to-male) people when we speak about the revolution in gender that is happening in our time. In the occasions of trans people being celebrated in the media and in art the focus is almost entirely on trans women and I’m wondering if that’s because masculinity (the port that they departed from) is so precious and the unimaginable act of negating it is, if not a crime, an explosive and radical act. But what about attaining it, or simply putting it on? What about my epaulets? It’s interesting that female masculinity or simply masculinity performed is greeted with the most severe ostracization. He’s simply not there. And this coincides with the history of lesbians butch or femme in terms of our collisions or non-collisions with the law. In Russia sodomy was a crime, and then sodomy was legalized, and now it’s a crime again. But for lesbians there and globally it’s treated like mental illness and he’s simply put away and zapped until he agrees to be she again. Or we get raped back. Globally it’s called corrective rape. In our culture it’s still a commonplace to say she needs the right man, or a good stiff dick. Joan of Arc was burned for being in drag, that was her crime. In her first trial she agreed to stop wearing men’s clothes and in jail where she was constantly threatened with violence and rape they took away her female clothes and left some men’s duds, perhaps a nice rugby shirt, jeans and some socks, a pair of loafers. She put them on to protect herself from sexual assault and the rest is history. I remember the anger directed at me by the man who ran the bowling alley (1965) when I walked into the ladies’ room with my Sassoon do because I simply produced a male affect when I got the same haircut all the other girls had. There just was this secret self in me not so deep but held down anxiously in order to escape some punishment I knew I would receive for not entirely being female, but a wily boy-man. At a moment in time when the environment is being raped by our criminal president, when Gaza is being bombed with impunity, when P.O.C. are routinely detained, shot, in America, for the crime of being themselves, not white, when Native people are only a blip on the history of the country that stole its land from them, and Mexico, we need a wall to keep those fuckers out . . . I would like to claim a piece of this Stonewall moment for standing quietly and sullenly with the queerest piece of all, the experience of feeling male every day and being asked when I order my coffee is that all you’d like, Ma’am, or at a table of very mixed-gender people how are you ladies doing. Is that it, Miss. Or the stewardess goes how are you doing, Sir, and then what would you like, Sweetie, turning to me. “I,” as I understand myself, am invisible. What would I like? I would like an entire upending of rules, an erasure of what’s polite, a celebration of a gendered public self as a given, self-description accepted or not commented on, parceled, incarcerated by your need to categorize being the polite rule, or my absolute preference today, Honey, no gendered greeting at all. I’d like to be him, I’d like to be them, I’d frequently want to be left alone as human, a person drinking their coffee, free and unmarked in the world, celebrating fifty Stonewall years of being part of everything as themself, an inchoate adult citizen, intact and holding it all. Not so much left alone as left alive.
Stonewall Was a Riot
By Michelle Tea
It’s 1994 and I’m drunk, raging through the streets with a bunch of queers, late at night, San Francisco, summertime and the air is breezing with wafts of night-blooming jasmine, those trees with the crusty-looking blossoms that smell so sweet, such a metaphor for my life here right now, twenty-three years old with some kind of busted purple crew cut for hair, my heart just broken by a girl; I’ll write a book about it. I’m with friends. Kadet is there, she learns I’m not wearing any underwear—it’s just not a priority, financially—and she pulls from her bag a pair she stole that day from Macy’s, wow, this is community, I am in awe of people brave enough to shoplift but there is something polished and moneyed about Kadet that allows her to glide beneath the stink-eye of department store employees, even though she is a butch dyke with her short, short hair and swinging wallet chain. Stonewall happened twenty-five years ago, so that’s the theme for S.F. Pride this year: san francisco to stonewall: pride & protest. What a joke. Some actual queers, as opposed to gays, made a bunch of stickers that shout stonewall was a riot, because it seems like a lot of people have forgotten that, think it’s an opportunity for them to buy rainbow-colored tchotchkes, why did rainbow have to be our color, ugh, I would prefer black as in I wear black on the outside, ’cause black is how I feel on the inside—that would be Morrissey, very gay, and by that I do not mean happy. Pride has turned into a party, and though we do all like to party here, will be drunk in the streets all weekend, not to mention doing enough
ecstasy to tolerate the horrid house music at that gay-boy white party I’ll get kicked out of for taking my shirt off and exposing my female titties never mind that every single guy in the place has his shirt off, their white torsos glistening with sweat, everyone in their own drug bubble in the groove of their repetitive dance moves, tranced out and super high, am I the only one who thinks white parties are racist? I don’t think so, I think my crew of people, dykes, girls for now, but not forever—they know it’s sort of gross and racist, too, and they all leave with me when I get ejected for taking my shirt off because I, too, am high and sweaty, and I want to feel the cool breeze on my solar plexus as I dance to this awful music. Who is this girl with us who is sort of cute, sort of butch, but keeps wanting to get in a fight with me about the stonewall was a riot stickers, wants to get in a fight with me about corporations, which at this point are not yet people but we can see it coming, corporations will be granted full legal personhood while trans people, the people who actually rioted that night at Stonewall, will not be seen as human, right? And this gay girl who is almost cute wants to fight with me about, like, Am I against Starbucks even though they give health insurance to partners of gay baristas, Am I still against Starbucks, and I do not want to talk about Starbucks with this person, everyone should have fucking health insurance, like even if you do not work at Starbucks, I shouldn’t have to work at a corporate coffee chain to get a Pap smear and an H.I.V. test, okay? This girl is like from another planet, probably Los Angeles, the streets are crawling with out-of-town Pride revelers, you pick them up as you move through the street, they just join up with you and follow you to the next party, all weekend long. When you think like I do people always want to argue with you, like being the tough guy at the bar all the pip-squeaks want to go toe-to-toe with. But I’m not trying to convince anyone to boo the cops when they march in the Pride parade, I just want to find the other people who are booing them and razz the patriarchy in peace, okay? Cops in the Pride parade, I mean, come on, cops? Who do you think is arresting trans women hooking in the Tenderloin, like raping them, seriously, sexually abusing sex workers, trans and not trans, everybody knows this, never mind racial profiling, making Latino boys line up against the wall on Valencia, everyone has seen this, and Stonewall, which we are supposedly commemorating this year and every year since Pride began as a way to remember Stonewall, to remember when trans women and drag queens and nelly faggots and bulldaggers—people whose common denominator, if you think about it, was the fact of their gender nonconformity, not their homosexuality—Pride is when we remember that these genderqueers had to fight back against cops and get their asses kicked, get bloodied and arrested and even have to register as sex offenders, like they’re pedophiles or something, but these people did it because their lives were on the line, not their health insurance or their 401(k)s but their ability to live, their fucking all-American pursuit of happiness. And it wasn’t just Stonewall, no offense to all the freaks who fought there, but New York really thinks it’s the center of the universe, what about the riots at Compton’s Cafeteria three years before Stonewall when—guess who? Cops!—were messing with—yep, trans women, because the owner of the diner didn’t want these magical queens scaring away “normal” clientele so they started charging them an extra fee and they were like hell no and the cops came in and a queen threw a coffee in a pig’s face, and they broke the plate glass windows, the queens did, and when the cafeteria replaced them the queens broke them again because that cafeteria hadn’t learned to behave, and this is what Pride is about, the Cooper Do-nut Riot in 1959 when drag queens and hustlers chased the cops back into their cruisers with weaponized doughnuts, coffee cups, and trash. Then there were the protests at the Black Cat (1967) and the Patch Bar (1968), when queers took to the streets to fight back against police raids. Miss Major who fought at Stonewall has spent her life fighting the prison-industrial complex, fighting cops, because she can’t forget who the enemy is (or, at the very least, who will fight the enemy’s battles for them), Miss Major being a black trans woman, and so I boo the cops for all the Miss Majors then in 1994, crashing from speed, up all night, and twenty-five years later, sober, I don’t go to Pride, I mean blech, but I still boo the cops, because stonewall was a riot.
Bringing It Home
By Garth Greenwell
I was born in 1978, so the riots were well before my time, and in pre-internet suburban Kentucky there weren’t many sources of information about gay life. Probably I learned about Stonewall in my early teens, when I started looking for evidence of that life in libraries and bookstores and, just a little later, in bathrooms and parks. I knew that the riots were important, and I had a vague sense that they had allowed queer people greater access to dignity, to an understanding of our sexuality as a source of solidarity and not just as a diagnosis, though I wouldn’t have used those terms then.
My first real idea of what the riots were like probably came from Nigel Finch’s 1995 film, Stonewall. The film is tonally incoherent but not without its charms, especially Guillermo Díaz’s performance as the drag queen La Miranda and the strange moments when she and her friends break out in marvelously queer musical numbers. Certainly Finch’s version is better than Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film of the same name, which is a disaster of whitewashing, earnestness, and bizarrely retrograde homophobic stereotypes. Neither is as good as the accounts I found, around the same time I saw Finch’s film, by writers such as Edmund White, who describes Stonewall in essays (his collection The Burning Library was one of the most important books of my youth) and fiction (the riots serve as the backdrop for the final pages of The Beautiful Room Is Empty). Distinctive in White’s telling is a sense of the riots’ implausibility and joy: the first shouts of “gay power,” he says, were greeted with laughter, and the parking meter the queers used as a battering ram broke open, to their delight, like a piñata full of dimes.
The irreverence White emphasizes was important, since the only gay politics visible to me in Louisville in the early Nineties was the politics of respectability, embodied by the occasional activist on the local news arguing that the humanity of lesbians and gays—our essential sameness with everyone else—entitled us to the protections of an antidiscrimination law. (The Louisville Fairness Ordinance would finally pass in 1999.) Those were, and remain, important arguments, but they felt somewhat irrelevant to my adolescent self, since they excluded so much of the gay life I knew and loved. They excluded the friends I made in Cherokee Park, where I spent nearly every spring and summer night hanging out and having sex and singing show tunes to car-radio accompaniment. Who wanted anything to do with a respectability that consisted of the right to fight in disastrous wars or (though hardly anyone in Louisville dreamed of this then) to live in the kind of monogamous marriage that had made my parents’ lives such hell? Who wanted the indignity of a grudging tolerance?
Stonewall might have served as a kind of counterpoint, except that, by the early Nineties, respectability had come for the riots, too. Local history had turned into national myth. How strange that those queens, dancing their cancan line at the riot police, have been folded so seamlessly into an arc of respectable civil-rights progress stretching from the early homophile associations to Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that extended same-sex marriage rights across the United States. There’s a danger in such accounts of history, which seize on single events as iconic. They occlude conflict, diversity, and competing interpretations; they tame the chaotic, polysemous events of June 1969 by reducing them to a chapter in the flattering story America tells about itself as moving, as if by some inevitable force of progress or indelible trait of character, toward greater equity. When we make icons out of particular moments, we create a false history of social movements: for every moment we make famous through retelling, we leave countless stories untold.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of the riots or deny the debt that every queer in America owes to them. But for a kid in Kentucky, Stonewall—even as recounted by White and others who were there—represented, at best, a kind of aspirational gay life, a bevy of uppity queers fighting for their decidedly unrespectable libidinal community. That aspirational life had very little to do with the gay life I actually had. For me, as a young queer in the American South trying to imagine a future, Stonewall wasn’t the history I needed.
When I left home at sixteen, I was convinced that Kentucky didn’t have a queer history. I was also convinced I never wanted to return, and for over twenty years, I hardly did. But a writing project has led me back, and last summer I spent six weeks exploring the Williams-Nichols Archive at the University of Louisville, an extraordinary collection of newspaper clippings, pamphlets, fliers, and oral histories about queer life in Kentucky. I was stunned to realize how little I knew and how much there was to know. This shouldn’t have been a surprise: of course queer people are everywhere. But our stories are so often lost because of active antipathy or passive neglect. It’s difficult to overstate how powerful it was to see the evidence of that legacy—from the young men who wore green carnations for Oscar Wilde’s Louisville lecture in 1882 to the heroic AIDS activists of the 1980s and 1990s.
Ever since I left, I’ve thought of my home state as something I escaped, a place to avoid and renounce. Discovering a local queer history has transformed Kentucky—and therefore my own childhood and youth—into something I can reclaim. Half a century after Stonewall, I want to spend more time in the Williams-Nichols Archive, and also to read historians working to preserve local stories and keep reality from turning into myth: scholars and journalists such as Hugh Ryan, E. Patrick Johnson, Samantha Allen, and Jaime Harker. The best way to honor the rebellious queens of Stonewall is to bring queer history home.
A Place to Dream Out Loud
By Alexander Chee
I don’t remember exactly when I finally decided it was time to go inside the Stonewall, as the bar was known after it reopened in 1990. When I arrived in New York in the early Nineties, it was a curiosity, a mediocre bar placed on the site—really half the site—of a legendary moment of political resistance. Going there never entered into the calculus of my early days exploring the city. There were so many places for the young gay man I was to go, and the West Side was not my style. I hadn’t yet developed a fondness for show tunes and piano bars, and the leather scene always seemed a little bit of a scam—the one night I had to check a cowboy shirt for being too colorful, I was over it. I eventually came to love the multilevel disco and piano bar called The Monster, but I only discovered it because of the crush a friend had on someone who worked the door. To my mind, the Stonewall seemed staid by comparison, with its name that sounded like a restaurant in Connecticut, someplace I might have taken my mother for chowder.
Back then, New York gay bars were often Mafia-owned. The Mafia owned gay porn distribution too, and this was just another way our culture didn’t belong to us. I vividly remember a woman describing herself as the daughter of a gay-bar owner in Manhattan: “I told the kids at my school in Long Island that I knew Marilyn and Liza, Diana Ross and Cher, all of the stars. And then I got older and found out they were just drag queens.” All of this was code for, “My father was a Mafia man.” I used to amuse myself by imagining gay mobsters with secret or not-so-secret obsessions, but the real reason they were in the business was that there was money in it. I don’t know whether that’s still the case, but it’s worth reflecting that, before we insisted on owning our stories ourselves and got told there was no money in it, money was indeed made. I say this because at some point I learned that the Stonewall was one of those Mafia-owned bars.
By the time I heard this story about the bar and the stars, the AIDS epidemic was almost a decade old. I had come out to New York from San Francisco, and I knew very little of Stonewall. I knew it was a bar that was raided, and that the raid had inspired an uprising against the police. It was common to see a banner in the Pride parade with the word “Stonewall” in it. And my short visit on that night in the Nineties may even have been on Pride. The parade ended there—all of us marching our way to the bar, a reenactment of the days of rioting but in the form of floats and families and corporate sponsors. I recall thinking, at the door, This bar is a part of your history, just go inside.
Inside I found an ordinary gay bar, like so many, part of something I thought of then as white gay culture. In those days, it was normal for me to enter a bar and find a stack of flyers by the door with white men on it, a magazine with white men on the cover, and posters on the walls featuring white men. A crowd of mostly white men would look me over, or not, depending on their tastes. To walk through the crowd at Stonewall and find not a part of your own history but the same scene you’d been trying to escape since you came out—one you maybe never really took seriously because it never seemed to take you seriously—this was the most alienating part. I used the bathroom, had a drink, and left.
If I could go back to that night and find my younger self, I might tell him that the first Stonewall was named for a memoir by an anonymous lesbian. That it was, at the time, the only place gay men in New York could dance, before or after being arrested on a given night. Or that trans people of color were some of the fiercest fighters during the riots. I might have told myself the stories that would let the place belong to me the way it does now, even though I still don’t think I would have stayed for the second drink.
I wanted to find some visible sign of the revolution there, something in the air. I wanted to connect to that radical spirit. I still do. Gay bars for me then were places I often felt judged, excluded, or objectified in ways I wasn’t always comfortable with. I might see friends but I might also see enemies, or I would make a new friend and wind up making out by the jukebox before heading off to wherever we were going next. I now know that most of this was about my relative youth, but it was also about the gay bar as a place to dream out loud, if you were lucky. To invent the future of our desires as well as the present, in an outfit, or on a go-go stage, or on a dance floor, dancing to a new song or an old one.
This year, I want to go back and do it over. Get a drink and imagine myself finally getting to dance with someone I desire, to a song I like or even love, after years of hiding what I want, and then the police coming through, arresting me, taking me away as the bartenders go on like nothing happened. I will ask myself what it would feel like if that had happened for years, and was even expected. Ask myself, if that kept happening, what I would do some night when I finally couldn’t stand it.
That, But Not That
By T Cooper
Finally free to be me! is what looped through my twenty-three-year-old brain upon landing in New York in the mid-Nineties. At last, I had found my people: heavily muscled gays in tank tops strolling down Eighth Avenue beneath rainbow flags whipping in the breeze over every third establishment; hard lesbians with shaved heads and beat-up Doc Martens holding hands and making out on street corners; homos of every stripe enjoying late nights at Clit Club in the Meatpacking District, or Meow Mix on Houston, or the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. The whole city, it seemed to me, was buoyantly, boisterously gay. Exactly what I came for.
I plunged headfirst into the scene, fit myself right in (not to mention outfitted myself): I still remember the musky bouquet of the black shoe polish I routinely applied to the three-buckle, heavy-duty leather boots I bought on lower Broadway the week after I moved to the city. I wore those boots every day, even through that first summer when the thermometer pushed a hundred and there were brownouts and I had no A.C. in the tiny sixth-floor tenement walk-up I rented on the Lower East Side. I wore those boots for, I swear, eight years, until my ad hoc repairs succumbed to the deterioration of the soles, the heavy silver buckles ripping from the uppers.
Fuck you, Mom! Remember that thing you told me when I was in ninth grade, and we were lying in your waterbed, and Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt was on, and Dad came in all somber and sighing, pressed mute on the TV, and I sensed instantly I was in for some sort of “talk,” and before I knew it, you were telling me about your friend Arlene, the character actor who sometimes guest-starred on The Love Boat and M*A*S*H, and how the lesbian “lifestyle” she lived, and the one it seemed like I was surely on the path to living (because I was, in your opinion, getting too close to a new friend at school), would only bring me hardship and unhappiness as an adult? Well, you were wrong, Ma. Look how content I am now among my gays in New York City!
Except all of that was a lie. Okay, not all of it. But most.
Because those lesbians and gays of mid-Nineties New York were not my people. In fact, the first time I walked by the Stonewall Inn (after learning that it was ground zero for the entire notion of gay pride), I felt . . . nothing.
Well, that’s not completely true either. What I really felt, if I’m honest: repulsion. As in, that’s not me.
As in, could my mother and father have been right?
And if I’m not that, then what the fuck am I?
I never felt compelled to attend a single Pride parade in NYC. Didn’t see myself in the topless dykes on bikes, nor at the Dangerous Curves women’s dance party after the march. Nor alongside the hairy gays in harnesses gyrating beneath vodka advertisements on the floats. I couldn’t graft myself onto those or any of the other rainbow-flag-clad conveyances rolling down Fifth Avenue.
I did go to Dyke March with some friends once, and there is a photo of me from that day, my arm slung around a girlfriend at the time, with marchers continuing down the block behind us. I am wearing a white ribbed Hanes A-shirt, jean cutoffs, short hair that’s a bit longer on top, greasy and mussed, because I’m twenty-three and who gives a toss what I look like, right? And, of course, I’m in my signature black boots.
My coworker from the magazine where I was working as an assistant editor took the photo; she had been watching the march from the sidelines and spotted me in the crowd. I remember her calling us over somewhere before Washington Square Park and snapping it, then presenting me with a four-by-five print the next week in my cubicle.
I can’t adequately express how much I hate that photo. I hated it immediately then, even if I didn’t know exactly why. But I hate it more now. I hate my red, chunky face, which looks years older than it actually was. My chest is concave, like I’m trying to fold into myself, and unlike anybody else in the photo with or around me, I don’t look happy, or liberated. Because I’m not. Not completely.
Back then people assumed I was a lesbian, a dyke, or worst of all: a gay woman. Because there were no other options. But I never said that’s what I was, never “came out,” never used those terms to describe myself. The only thing that made vague sense at the time was “queer,” a designation that countered what many of us viewed as the homogenization and corporatization of gay culture. In direct contrast to Pride, I found myself more drawn to the electricity and irreverence that crackled through Tompkins Square Park when the drag queens would show up for the annual Wigstock parade each summer. But to me, “queer” still ultimately connoted sexual attraction—it signified who you wanted to fuck, and how, but not who you were. I always marveled at how my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters were able to locate their identities in relation to other people. The math everybody else seemed so proficient at—raised as a girl + attracted to girls = lesbian—simply did not add up for me. Because the more I let other people define me, the less it felt like I was real, or that I even really existed.
And then one day, I went to a reading in the basement of the old A Different Light bookstore on West 19th Street in Chelsea, where Kate Bornstein was signing her new title, My Gender Workbook. It was probably the first time I (knowingly, consciously) heard the word “transsexual” (perhaps she said “transgender,” but I remember it as “transsexual,” because that’s what we used back then). She signed a book for me, scribbling something about how whatever I’d just said made her blush—and that I was a cute boy.
Cut to: me at Century 21 across from the World Trade towers, copping my first three-pack of Calvin Klein boxer-briefs (à la Marky Mark grabbing his junk in the Herb Ritts photos). Soon thereafter, I started a drag king troupe, performing with a few friends on the Northeastern college circuit and all over NYC. Just before stepping onstage one night at the Slipper Room, on the Lower East Side, I (knowingly) met my first real live transsexual dude. He was in town from Germany and changing shirts in preparation for a cabaret performance after us. There were scars across his perfectly flat chest, and he had a mustache that wasn’t affixed with spirit gum. Despite the language barrier, I asked a handful of questions and got a couple of answers, and it became eminently clear who that unhappy person in the A-shirt, cutoff jeans, and beat-up black boots was—a man, trapped in a woman’s body.
No, I wasn’t!
There I go, lying again. I wasn’t “a man trapped in a woman’s body,” like on Maury Povich or Montel Williams. That’s a stupid notion. But I was a man—who suddenly needed to figure out how he was going to become one.
There were so few resources for people like me, like all of us in the nascent T category that was, even as late as 2007, deliberately left out of a federal bill seeking to prevent employment discrimination against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. (Good luck on your own, transsexuals!) I know it seems hard to believe now, when those four letters, L.G.B.T., roll off even our ersatz president’s tongue, but we trans folks were the outcasts among outcasts.
I still cringe a little every time I see the blue-and-yellow Human Rights Campaign equal-sign sticker on cars and laptops, because that organization for so many years actively spurned the T (like, “Those freaks?”) whenever we asked to be included in their quest for equal rights and protections. And, of course, the Mattachine Society of the Fifties and Sixties was doing the same a generation earlier. Throw us off the boat so it’ll have a better chance of making it to port without all that extra weight (then maybe circle back later, half-heartedly scanning the surface for the few of us who survived, bobbing out there alone for so many years, waiting for someone to toss us a life preserver).
Only—and this has just begun to be illuminated in recent years, at least in a mainstream way—we Ts have been fighting alongside the Gs and Ls who didn’t want to fight for us all along. In fact, if it weren’t for us, Stonewall might not have happened, the bar itself might’ve ended up quietly shuttering like so many NYC gay establishments of yore, their owners finally throwing their hands up in the face of years of police raids, discrimination by the state liquor board, and ironfisted Mafia extortion and control.
It was transgender warriors such as “street queens” Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and countless other cross-dressers, transvestites, drag queens, transsexuals, and stone butches, who actually ignited the uprising in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969—and kept it going for days. It was they who had been fed up with near-constant police harassment and arrests for not wearing enough “gender-appropriate” attire—three pieces minimum was the law—that matched the sex listed on their I.D. documents. (Stonewall, by the way, was one of the only gay bars that would even allow these types of folks in—and they were relegated to a special room in the back.)
Nobody knows who threw the first bottle (brick, stone, coin) at police. Some say it was Sylvia. Others say Marsha—or one of the other trans women who showed up that night. Neither Sylvia nor Marsha would take credit over the years, though Sylvia always maintained she threw the second Molotov cocktail, and Marsha certainly threw a glass or two at a mirror.
Then there’s Stormé DeLarverie. I didn’t hear the name until I began wading through the world as a man, not too long after meeting that German guy on the L.E.S. Or maybe I did hear the name, but I didn’t really listen.
DeLarverie was a male impersonator, drag king, stone butch dyke, female-to-male transvestite (she’d be housed under the transgender umbrella today). Born in 1920 and raised in New Orleans, the child of a wealthy white man and a black woman who was a servant in his house, Stormé traveled the world, performing and singing as a male tenor for most of her life. She rode ponies in the circus, worked as a bouncer for the Mob in Chicago, emceed the Jewel Box Revue in the Fifties and Sixties, and dressed and comported herself as a man among the rest of the cast of men performing as women at venues such as the Apollo Theater. Her suits were always impeccably, enviably tailored, her hair a tight fade from her neckline up to a valiant widow’s peak.
That early morning at Stonewall, as arrests continued and the crowd swelled outside the bar, legend has it that a police officer initially mistook Stormé for a cisgender man, shoving her and yelling, “Move along, faggot.” But Stormé had had enough, and resisted—so he clubbed her in the face with his baton. She hit him back, hard. Other officers jumped in to restrain her. They threw her into a police car. Handcuffed and bleeding from the head, Stormé escaped to the cheers of onlookers before officers finally wrestled her back into the squad car. As the door slammed shut, she screamed into the crowd: “Why don’t you guys do something?”
And they did. With those words, the crowd erupted into a mob—and changed the dialogue, and thus history, for millions of L.G.B. (and T.) people around the country, and, one could argue, the world.
These days when I walk by the Stonewall Inn, I feel the opposite of repulsion. I see Stormé fifty years before, laying out a cop, right on the sidewalk there. She’s in men’s undergarments, and dressed on the outside like I probably would’ve been if I were alive at the time, living life like I might have—spending as much time as possible onstage, under the lights, simply being seen for what she was: a guy with a story to tell. I also wonder whether I would’ve had the courage to throw that punch at the cop. I’d like to think I would have.
This (Lipstick) Color Doesn’t Run
By Brontez Purnell
Growing up as a little precocious baby gay in Triana, Alabama (population 496), I was pretty sure I was the only queer, anywhere. Then my mom got a cable box and I stumbled on the Independent Film Channel and all of a sudden, BOOM! I had people! Omg! There’s homos EVERYWHERE! (Well, everywhere, I thought, except Triana, Alabama.) And they make movies? Documentaries? HISTORICAL DRAMAS EVEN?! Keep in mind, this was 1996 or ’97, and you couldn’t just livestream a go-go boy somewhere. We were the younger siblings of Generation X and we were suffering. I had a film Rolodex of pirated videotapes of onscreen boys I liked to ogle at my leisure. Oh honey, it was quite a pantheon. There was Ewan McGregor who showed his wiener in virtually every movie he was in in the Nineties, and to this day, I thank him for it. There were the make-out scenes in Beautiful Thing, a movie that sparked my summer obsession with Mama Cass, and let us not forget that like three seconds when you could see the tip of Bruce Willis’s penis in Color of Night. These boys were great and all but at the top of my queer-boy-crush club was (drumroll, please), duh, Guillermo Díaz—the Nineties alternative Latino dreamboat I was certain would be my husband one day.
My teen crush on Mr. Díaz was so obsessive it bordered on unholy. At the tender age of fourteen (fifteen? Hell, who remembers), I saw this twink in Party Girl and knew I had to get to New York to marry him—wait—did he even live in New York? (This is pre-pre-Google, mind you.) I mean, it seemed like he lived in New York. Anyway, he had everything, he was a DJ, he had a badass attitude, a black go-go girlfriend, and best of all he lived with Parker Posey! I was SMITTEN! But there was nothing that could have prepared me for what I saw him in next.
Stonewall, the 1995 film, was kooky, there was a lot of lip-synching, my crush Mr. Díaz was, like, a really pretty girl in it, and also—I learned something! What I saw was that there was another world. This other realm. People like me had friends. I had to get there. Granted, the movie was depicting a scene from like twenty-seven years earlier, but I knew the energy was out there. I knew they would be waiting for me. I saw Guillermo Díaz’s character, La Miranda (who near as I can place was loosely based on Sylvia Rivera), do this thing that I never forgot. It made me cry. The cops raid the Stonewall (this is before the historical riot), and La Miranda refuses to wash off her makeup. The asshole cop sees La Miranda still in face and dunks her head into a bin of dirty bar water and tells her to wash it off. La Miranda’s face is wet and she is visibly shaking but looks forward, pulls out her pink lipstick, and reapplies it right in front of the cop—and he takes her to jail. It was that moment. That move where she reapplies. THAT . . . THAT IS WHO I WANT TO BE, I thought. This (lipstick) color doesn’t run, hunty. I knew if I got to a gay bar I would meet someone like her, I knew all I had to do was get there, but dear Goddess, how?
I was on tour with my band GRAVY TRAIN!!!! in the early 2000s when I saw the Stonewall Inn for the first time. I had left Triana at age nineteen, and eventually settled in Oakland, California. My band had a two-day stop in New York, and I and a group of homosexual gentlemen were stomping through the West Village, and a friend casually tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s the Stonewall Inn.” I, like, gagged. I don’t understand why I always thought it would be pink and covered in glitter or something. But ah, if you wanted to see glitter you had to go into the bar. The people, the people were what made it an institution—the people are the glitter! To be quite honest I don’t really remember who was there, or the demographic, what was playing on the jukebox, what I was wearing, or the name of the guy I gave a blow job to in the bathroom.
I just remember the lights flashing, people dancing around, and thinking that I was a long way from Triana and that being a homosexual was the wisest choice I had ever made.
Back in the Bay after the tour ended, I worked at a twenty-four-hour diner in the Castro where the waiters dealt cocaine. I met every 2:30 a.m. bar-ejected queer who came in wasted to buy greasy diner food or score blow. I lived at a punk rock warehouse, where everyone’s band played and also where everyone bought drugs. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday at the Lexington, a lesbian bar in the Mission; I hung out at Aunt Charlie’s in the Tenderloin, which is a few blocks away from Compton’s Cafeteria.
But in the years since I first arrived, people seem to have stopped partying quite as hard. The Lexington has closed. The Gangway has closed. Cabel’s Reef bar has closed. I don’t see many people out these days. Rising rents, online dating culture, more and more people I know moving into alcohol and drug recovery. The internet became the drug of the masses, and it seems people would rather connect there than make love in the streets. I also think queers getting the right to marry changed the whole social dynamic of where we hang out and why, like a societal pressure valve was released. We were granted some form of “normality” and didn’t necessarily have to hang out at dive bars as much. But the cost has been a loss of a certain type of community. I miss being reckless at clubs with all my friends. Sure, sometimes terrible things happened. Bad hookups, spending all my money on martinis, having the clap every other month of my life. And that time in 2011 I got gay-bashed in Oakland at what had been the old gay black club and I ended up in the hospital—a reminder that maybe not so much has changed. But at least it gave us a chance to fight back, together, even if we lost.
The most recent time I went to the Stonewall Inn was right after the Pulse nightclub shooting. I was frozen numb that something this fucked up could still happen. It felt like five steps forward followed by a huge leap back. Some people were silent, others were crying, lighting candles, holding one another. There were flowers and altars in front of the club. I thought about that famous night I saw dramatized on film so long ago and lamented that I couldn’t really think of a solid group of queers who would still get drunk and help me fight the police if we had to. I dunno, it just seemed like we still needed places to be—and we still needed to be ready to defend them.
By T Kira Madden
I’m twenty years old, a college student, when a woman I’ll call Anastasia takes me to Stonewall for the first time. Anastasia is a high-femme in fishnets and a peacoat. In a Russian accent that puddles my insides, she says, What do you want from me? I want you to tell me what you want. But I don’t know what I want. All I know is that I met Anastasia at a bar one week ago, and then I was buying her drinks, and she was thumbing my knee as if it were a worry stone under the table, saying, Dyke, I’m a dyke, are you—and she kissed my neck and I asked her to do that again and now we’re here, in this place, with light flooding a pool table in the center of the room. I don’t know. Anastasia says, Let’s play then, and leans with the pool cue, and it occurs to me already that this is a Moment. This is a Moment offering a Choice—to bend into her body, reenact every clichéd pool table scene, make it something new, ours, something mine, or to leave, go back to my boyfriend’s apartment, slip on his boxers, brush my teeth, apologize. You two make a sweet couple, says a stone butch in the corner, chalking up a cue, and I say, Oh, I’m not—before Anastasia breaks the triangle and sends a striped ball home.
It’s 10 p.m., and I’m walking Christopher Street with H, my butch horseback-riding instructor, a few days before she will leave New York, our sneakers crunching on rock salt. We’re drunk. I don’t understand yet why I had to get so drunk before seeing her, or why she had to do the same. She’s smoking a Red, and I’m wondering whether this is a first date or a final goodbye, and then we reach the place we’d both been winding toward without ever discussing it, without ever deciding, neon rainbow pulsing in the window. We walk past the pool table—I hate pool, I say—and make our way up the stairs where two queens are singing “My Heart Will Go On,” their sequined dresses flashing in the spotlight, a full-on Titanic revue. In the dark, on a cushioned bench, I feel wired enough to hold H’s hand, to finally, really, look at her. Shaved head and teeth shining, a hardscrabble cowboy. I am not sure I’ll ever see her again. H grips my face with both her hands and we kiss and kiss until the lights ease on, until it’s closing. Something opens in me—something kaleidoscopic and vast—and we leave with our arms wrapped around each other, emboldened and swaying through sheets of snow.
Sometime between Utah and Pennsylvania, as the numbers tick in and the streets quiet, but before it’s officially declared, I leave my own election party and walk. I’m still wearing my dead father’s army tag necklace for luck. I’m crying in the checkout line of a drugstore because the cashier won’t let me buy a pack of cigarettes without an I.D., and I’m saying, I am old enough to destroy myself, believe me, until she hands over the pack, waves me off.
It’s an end-of-the-world kind of walking. I watch the results on television screens through West Village windows; I watch them zap off, one at a time. When I arrive at the Stonewall door, a group of people are collapsed into each other, weeping. We smoke. We know. We offer cigarettes to each new person arriving, most of them alone. We don’t say much at all.
Inside, the place is decorated for a celebration—balloons, confetti, stomped traces of celebration. The TV behind the bar is booming, until someone hops over to turn it down. The drinks are free tonight, says bartender Chuck, and we all cry into our monstrous sadness. At 2:50 a.m., he begins his speech, and we all watch for a while until we, too, turn the television off. To fill the silence, someone sings a full-throated ballad. We turn to the queen singing, her eyes closed, the room vibrating with glow. It’s a song I had never known, and one I have never heard since.
It’s the coldest night of winter, and I have the film, the cameras, the tripod, the proper equipment. H and I will be married soon, and what I want is to give her a real love letter, a print of our beginning, something to hang on our walls, something at which to point, saying, Look—here’s where. I set up across the street, in Christopher Park; I find the aperture, crank dials for long exposures. I want to capture motion. Bodies. I want the swarms of people rushing in to find heat.
In the viewfinder, the neons are beaming, focused properly, faux icicles hanging over the letters. Still, I am surprised by the plainness. The simplicity of the frame. No evidence of coins thrown or swinging arms; no history or in-between; no carnations wrapped in cellophane piled up on the sidewalk; those collapsed years, all the befores befores befores.
My nose bleeds into my scarf so I move my equipment inside. I let my body adjust to the red-dark, the warm. Leaning against the mirrored wall, reloading film, I watch a couple dance, spinning around each other in a choreographed jag.
Take our picture, they say, waving. And I do. I lift the camera, count down in threes. Hold the shutter till it clacks.