StoryCorps 505: Remembering Stonewall
Michael Garofalo (MG): Hey there listeners. We are going to do something a little bit different on the StoryCorps podcast this week. In just a minute, I’m going to pass things off to NPR’s Ari Shapiro. A couple of years ago, Ari sat down with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay to talk about Dave’s very first radio documentary from 1989. It’s called ”Remembering Stonewall” and it was the first documentary ever about an event that marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement in America. Here’s what happened: in June 1969, police raided a popular gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn. Raiding gay bars was a common thing at the time, but what was uncommon was the reaction. Instead of running away, the patrons–many of them Puerto Rican drag queens–stood up for themselves. The protests continued for six days and the event came to be known as the stonewall riots today the stonewall inn is a national historic landmark, but when Dave made his doc many of the people involved in the uprising never told their story before. We got that full documentary for you to hear on the today on the podcast. But first, let’s listen to Ari and Dave discuss what inspired it.
Ari Shapiro (AS): Hi Dave.
Dave Isay (DI): Hi Ari, how are you doing?
AS: I’m good. So, why did you choose to tackle Stonewall for your first big radio documentary?
DI: I got into radio just by a series of flukey events. It was a little bit of a crazy 24 hours where I found a story and I recorded it. I was headed to medical school and I dropped out within those 24 hours because I knew I found my calling. maybe three months before that, I found out my dad was gay. It was completely shocking to me. I had not a clue. Which is actually kind of odd because my dad was a psychiatrist and he only saw gay patients. But I thought it was like a civil rights thing, you know, and it did not occur to me. So, it was really devastating to me because we had been a very close family and the feeling in the family was that there were no secrets and obviously there was a very big secret.
DI: Right when I got into radio, things were strained between us. He told me that in the West Village in 1969, there had been a riot where young, gay, transgender mostly black and Latino kids had fought against the police one night and that it was the start of the modern gay rights movement. I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I kinda thought about it a little bit and I decided I think I’m going to make my first radio documentary and this will be it.
It was 1989, so the 20th anniversary of Stonewall was coming up and I thought that I would do a documentary to mark that. And I found a guy named Michael Schirker who is a young amateur oral historian. He was an archivist who worked at, I think, the Dance Theater of Harlem. And together we set out to find everyone we could who could talk about it. And it was the first oral history of Stonewall, and I think for all of these people it was the first time they ever been interviewed.
AS: When you initially decided to go and interview everyone who was involved with Stonewall, were you just thinking this was a great story or did you actively think this is a way for me to connect with the events who shaped who my dad is?
DI: I just thought it was a great story. You know, except for my dad, I had never talked to anybody who was openly gay. I mean, things have changed. I mean, the microphone, as you know, Ari, gives you the license to go places and talk to people that you might not have otherwise met or talked to. And I met just some of the most fierce, committed, beautiful human beings who had fought at Stonewall.
AS: Fierce in both meanings of the word.
DI: Absolutely. I met Seymour Pine, who was the commanding officer who had never spoken about this before.
AS: You mean the commanding officer of the police force, the police who raided the bar?
DI: That’s right, he was the commanding officer of the group of officers in the moral squad who came and raided the bar. And as you hear in the documentary, he had been in Vietnam and he had never been as frightened as he was on that night when these young drag queens fought back.
AS: This is an incredibly ambitious project for anyone to undertake, let alone as a first project. Did you have any idea what you were biting off?
DI: For me, it didn’t feel ambitious. It just felt fun. It’s like what an unbelievable privilege to be able to go to these places just meeting these amazing people who completely blew apart all stereotypes that I had so I was just in heaven.
DI: I did 50 interviews and five of them ended up in the documentary. Someone once described it as like carving a statue in a walnut, just an unbelievable amount of work to create a very little thing. I remember that I did an interview with someone and he didn’t end up being the doc and the guy must have owned a movie theater somewhere in the village. I remember sitting in the movie theater seats and I had my tape recorder and I turned it on and I said ’You know, this is kind of a moment for me because this is my first interview for my first radio documentary and, you know, here we are. He looked at me and he said ’You know this is not about you.’
DI: And he was totally right. That maybe has been the motto of all the radio work since then. It’s a hell of a lesson, right? you learn those lessons and you never forget them. You never make that mistake again.
DI: I made the documentary and I dedicated it to my dad. And that was the beginning of a very quick healing process from thereon in. And it wasn’t until you kind of put the thing together and play it for your dad and say this is for you that the importance of it personally starts to emerge.
You know my dad who was a very well-known psychiatrist who did a lot of work on gay rights, he got sick very quickly a couple years ago. He was diagnosed with cancer and died four days later. He actually died on the anniversary of stonewall. And it was on the anniversary of Stonewall the next year that we launched OutLoud in honor of my dad. This is very, very personal work for me.
AS: Did you keep in touch with the people who you interview for the documentary?
DI: I did. I became very close to Sylvia Rivera, who was kind of Rosa Parks of the gay movement. And if I have a handful of heroes and I really only probably have a handful, she is one of them. She died of liver cancer maybe 15 years ago. I really loved her. She taught me a lot. Her motto was always, ’revolutionary love.’ She had a very rough background, a very rough life. But she was completely dedicated to helping Black and Latino Trans street kids and I was completely inspired by her and she completely changed my life and taught me what a hero looked like.
AS: It amazes me that 20 years after Stonewall you were the first person to tell these stories. Did people as you were doing these interviews consider stonewall the beginning of the modern gay rights movement or was that something that emerged in hindsight, perhaps partly because of your documentary?
DI: No, everybody knew how important the movement was. All of the original gay rights groups after Mattachine Society and the ones who came before Stonewall; that’s when all the groups formed, The Gay Activist Alliance and all these other groups. So within the gay community, everybody knew that stonewall was this moment and in the last part of the documentary it’s people talking who were not at stonewall about the impact that it had on them. So there is a Vietnam vet who was in Vietnam and sees in stars and stripes the first mention he’d ever seen of gay people that wasn’t for being arrested or that they fought back and he saw in that moment that he was going to come out as gay when he came back. There’s a woman who was in a nunnery and heard about Stonewall and left to show up on the second night of the riots and then became a very well-known archivist. I meant he community knew that this was the moment. I think the recognition outside of the community I think that people didn’t know. I feel the same way with the OutLoud project in general. You know, what we are doing with OutLoud is many interviews with people who were alive in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the stories of regular people and what it was like for them to be gay and lesbian in those days it’s just a wall of silence. It basically doesn’t exist and part of the drive here is to make sure that we get these stories while they’re still around.
DI: I’m thinking as I say this that there is a wonderful book that a woman did with her dad. She’s a folklorist named Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. She had a dad who grew up in a little town in Poland, a shtetl called Opatów it was wiped out during the second world war and she spent 40 years interviewing him about the shtetl and had this amazing oral history and he had been ah house painter and she convinced him when he was about 75 to start painting and he turned out to be an incredible folk artist. He did this project where he painted every house every person in apt and she put it together in a book with the oral history so they re-created this town that was wiped off the face of the earth. I did an event with them when it came out—he was very old then; he died soon thereafter—but I asked him to sign my book and he was probably 90 and he signed it, ”Without a past, there is no future.” And I think that is something to keep in mind as we are doing this work.
AS: through remembering Stonewall and StoryCorps OutLoud you have basically had a hand in documenting every major event in American gay history. Do you have any insight from that overarching view?
DI: The insights are that the gay community has been through unbelievable struggles, just unimaginable kind of struggles. And that it was met with both courage and tremendous humor, like, no matter how bad things got. You know I feel like one of the things I have come to think in StoryCorps is that it’s people who have been through the hardest things that are kind of the collectors of wisdom in our culture and to me that means the gay lesbian, bi trans, that that community has a hell of a lot of wisdom and a hell of a lot of things to teach us
AS: Dave Isay, Thank you for your time and for all of your work on these important issues.
DI: Ari, thank you so much for being a part of this.
AS: Let’s listen to the documentary: Remembering Stonewall.
Geanne Harwood (GH): I’m Geanne Harwood, and my age is 80.
Bruce Merrow (BH): I’m Bruce Merrow.
GH: I don’t know if it’s really true, but now people do refer to us as the two oldest gay men in America. We do, I think, have maybe a record relationship of almost sixty years together.
Being gay before Stonewall was a very difficult proposition because we felt that in order to survive we had to try to look and act as rugged and manly as possible to get by in the society that was really very much against us.
Randy Wicker (RW): My name is Randy Wicker. I was the first openly gay person to appear on radio in 1962 and on television in 1964 as a self-identified homosexual.
In the year before Stonewall people felt a need to hide because of the precarious legal position they were in. They would lose their jobs. There was a great hostility socially speaking in the sense of people found out you were gay, they assumed you were a communist or a child molester or any of another dozen stereotypes that were rampant in the public media at the time.
Jheri Faire (JF): I’m Jheri Faire and I’m 80 years old. I started a gay lifestyle in 1948, when I was around 39 or 40.
At that time, if there was even a suspicion that you were a lesbian, you were fired from your job. And you were in such a position of disgrace that you slunk out without saying goodbye even to the people that liked you and you liked. You never even bothered to clean your desk. You just disappeared. You just disappeared — you went quietly because you were afraid that the recriminations that would come if you even stood there and protested would be worse than just leaving.
Sylvia Rivera (SR): My name is Sylvia Rivera. My name before that was Ray Rivera, until I started dressing in drag in 1961.
The era before Stonewall was a hard era. There was always the gay bashings on the drag queens by heterosexual men, women, and the police. We learned to live with it because it was part of the lifestyle at that time, I guess, but none of us were very happy about it.
Seymour Pine (SP): My name is Seymour Pine. In 1968, I was assigned as Deputy Inspector in charge of public morals in the first division in the police department, which covered the Greenwich Village area. It was the duty of Public Morals to enforce all laws concerning vice and gambling, including prostitution, narcotics, and laws and regulations concerning homosexuality. The part of the penal code which applied to drag queens was Section 240.35, section 4: ”Being masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration; loiters, remains, or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked . . .”
[Pine continues reading under Rivera’s voice and then fades out.]
SR: At that time we lived at the Arista Hotel. We used to sit around, just try to figure out when this harassment would come to an end. And we would always dream that one day it would come to an end. And we prayed and we looked for it. We wanted to be human beings.
Red Mahoney (RM): My name is Red Mahoney. I’ve been hanging out drinking, partying, and working in the gay bars for the last thirty years. In the era before Stonewall, all of the bars, 90% of the bars, were Mafia controlled. There wasn’t that many gay bars. You’d have maybe one, two uptown on the Upper East Side. They would get closed down. Then there’d be one or two on the west side, they’d get closed down. In midtown there’d be one, two, three, maybe open. As they would get closed down they would move around. And they were dumps.
Joan Nestle (JN): I’m Joan Nestle, co-founder of what is now the largest collection of lesbian culture in the world. The police raided lesbian bars regularly, and they did it… they both did it in the most obvious way, which was hauling women away in paddy wagons. But there was regular weekend harassment, which would consist of the police coming in regularly to get their payoffs. And in the Sea Colony, we had a back room with a red light. And when that red light went on it meant the police would be arriving in around ten minutes. And so we all had to sit down at our tables, and we would be sitting there almost like school children, and the cops would come in. Now depending on who was on, which cop was on, if it was some that really resented the butch women who were with many times very beautiful women, we knew we were in for it because what would happen is they would start harassing one of these women, and saying, ”Ha, you think you’re a man? Come outside and we’ll show you.” And the woman would be dragged away. They’d throw her up against a wall and they’d say, ”So, you think you’re a man, let’s see what you got in your pants.” And they would put their hand down her pants.
RM: The Stonewall? Oh, that was a good bar. That was. Just to get into the Stonewall, you’d walk up and you’d knock on the front door. You’d knock and the little door would open and ”What do you want?” ”A Mary sent me.” ”Good, come on in girls.” You know. The Stonewall, like all gay bars at that time, were painted black. Charcoal black. And what was the funny part, the place would be so dimly lit — but as soon as the cops were gonna come in to collect their percentage or whatever they were coming in for, from it being a nice, dimly-lit dump, the place was lit up like Luna Park.
SP: You felt, well, two guys — and that’s very often all we sent in would be two men — could handle two hundred people. I mean, you tell them to leave and they leave, and you say show me your identification and they all take out their identification and file out and that’s it. And you say, okay, you’re not a man, you’re a woman, or you’re vice versa and you wait over there. I mean, this was a kind of power that you have and you never gave it a second thought.
SR: The drag queens took a lot of oppression and we had to . . . we were at a point where I guess nothing would have stopped us. I guess, as they say, or as Shakespeare says, we were ladies in waiting, just waiting for the thing to happen. And when it did happen, we were there.
[Sound of footsteps, outside sounds.]
DI: On Friday evening, June 27, 1969, at about 11:45, eight officers from New York City’s public morals squad loaded into four unmarked police cars and headed to the Stonewall Inn here at 7th Avenue and Christopher Street. The local precinct had just received a new commanding officer, who kicked off his tenure by initiating a series of raids on gay bars. The Stonewall was an inviting target – operated by the Gambino crime family without a liquor license, the dance bar drew a crowd of drag queens, hustlers, and minors. A number of the bar’s patrons had spent the early part of the day outside the Frank Campbell Funeral Home, where Judy Garland’s funeral was held. She had died the Sunday before. It was almost precisely at midnight that the morals squad pulled up to the Stonewall Inn, led by Deputy Inspector, Seymour Pine.
SP: There was never any reason to feel that anything of any unusual situation would occur that night.
SR: You could actually feel it in the air. You really could. I guess Judy Garland’s death just really helped us really hit the fan.
SP: For some reason, things were different this night. As we were bringing the prisoners out, they were resisting.
[Riot sounds in the background.]
SR: People started gathering in front of the Sheridan Square Park right across the street from Stonewall. People were upset — ”No, we’re not going to go!” and people started screaming and hollering.
SP: One drag queen, as we put her in the car, opened the door on the other side and jumped out. At which time we had to chase that person and he was caught, put back into the car, he made another attempt to get out the same door, the other door, and at that point we had to handcuff the person. From this point on, things really began to get crazy.
Robert “Birdy” Rivera (RR): My name is Robert Rivera and my nickname is Birdy, and I’ve been cross-dressing all of my life. I remember the night of the riots, the police were escorting queens out of the bar and into the paddy wagon and there was this one particularly outrageously beautiful queen, with stacks and stacks of Elizabeth style, Elizabeth Taylor style hair, and she was asking them not to push her. And they continued to push her, and she turned around and she mashed the cop with her high heel. She knocked him down and then she proceeded to frisk him for the keys to the handcuffs that were on her. She got them and she undid herself and passed them to another queen that was behind her.
SP: Well that’s when all hell broke loose at that point. And then we had to get back into Stonewall.
Howard Smith (HS): My name is Howard Smith. On the night of the Stonewall riots I was a reporter for The Village Voice, locked inside with the police, covering it for my column. It really did appear that that crowd – because we could look through little peepholes in the plywood windows, we could look out and we could see that the crowd – well, my guess was within five, ten minutes it was probably several thousand people. Two thousand easy. And they were yelling “Kill the cops! Police brutality! Let’s get ’em! We’re not going to take this anymore! Let’s get ’em!”
SP: We noticed a group of persons attempting to uproot one of the parking meters, at which they did succeed. And they then used that parking meter as a battering ram to break down the door. And they did in fact open the door — they crashed it in — and at that point was when they began throwing Molotov cocktails into the place. It was a situation that we didn’t know how we were going to be able control.
SR: I remember someone throwing a Molotov cocktail. I don’t know who the person was, but I mean I saw that and I just said to myself in Spanish, I said. oh my God, the revolution is finally here! And I just like started screaming ”Freedom! We’re free at last!” You know. It felt really good.
HS: There were a couple of cops stationed on either side of the door with their pistols, like in combat stance, aimed in the door area. A couple of others were stationed in other places, behind like a pole, another one behind the bar. All of them with their guns ready. I don’t think up to that point I had ever seen cops that scared.
SP: Remember these were pros, but everybody was frightened. There’s no question about that. I know I was frightened, and I’d been in combat situations, and there was never any time that I felt more scared than I felt that night. And, I mean, you know there was no place to run.
SR: Once the tactical police force showed up, I think that really incited us a little bit more.
Martin Boyce (MB): My name is Martin Boyce and in 1969 I was a drag queen known as Miss Martin. I remember on that night when we saw the riot police, all of us drag queens, we linked arms, like the Rockettes, and sang this song we used to sing. (singing) ”We are the Village girls, we wear our hair in curls. We wear our dungarees above our nellie knees.” And the police went crazy hearing that and they just immediately rushed us. We gave one kick and fled.
Rudy (R): My name is Rudy and the night of the Stonewall I was 18 and to tell you the truth, that night I was doing more running than fighting. I remember looking back from 10thStreet, and there on Waverly Street there was a police, I believe on his… a cop and he is on his stomach in his tactical uniform and his helmet and everything else, with a drag queen straddling him. She was beating the hell out of him with her shoe. Whether it was a high heel or not, I don’t know. But she was beating the hell out of him. It was hysterical.
Mama Jean (MJ): My name is Mama Jean. I’m a lesbian. I remember on that night I was in the gay bar, a woman’s bar, called Cookies. We were coming out of the gay bar going toward 8th Street, and that’s when we saw everything happening. Blasting away. People getting beat up. Police coming from every direction — hitting women as well as men with their nightsticks. Gay men running down the street with blood all over their face. We decided right then and there, whether we’re scared or not we didn’t think about, we just jumped in.
[Song and riot sounds.]
SR: Here this queen is going completely bananas, you know jumping on, hitting the windshield. The next thing you know, the taxicab was being turned over. The cars were being turned over, windows were shattering all over the place, fires were burning around the place. It was beautiful, it really was. It was really beautiful.
MJ: I remember one cop coming at me, hitting me with the nightstick on the back of my legs. I broke loose and I went after him. I grabbed his nightstick. My girlfriend went behind him — she was a strong son of a gun. I wanted him to feel the same pain that I felt. And I kept saying to him, ”How do you like the pain? Do you like it? Do you like it?” And I kept on hitting him and hitting him. I was angry. I wanted to kill him. At that particular minute I wanted to kill him.
SR: I wanted to do every destructive thing that I could think of at that time to hurt anyone that had hurt us through the years.
MJ: It’s like just when you see a man protecting his own life. They weren’t the ”queens” that people call them, they were men fighting for their lives. And I’d fight alongside them any day, no matter how old I was.
SR: A lot of heads were bashed. But it didn’t hurt their true feelings — they all came back for more and more. Nothing — that’s when you could tell that nothing could stop us at that time or any time in the future.
DI: The riots were well covered in the media. The New York Daily News featured it on the front page. There were reports on all of the local television and radio stations. By the next day, graffiti calling for gay power had started to show up all over the West Village. The next night, thousands of men and women came back to the Stonewall to see what would happen next. While a couple of trash cans were set on fire and some stones were thrown, the four-hundred riot police milling around outside the bar ensured that the previous evening’s violence would not be repeated. But on this night, gay couples could be spotted walking hand in hand and kissing in the streets. Just by being at the Stonewall — surrounded by reporters, photographers, and onlookers — thousands of men and women were proclaiming that they were gay. The crowds grew and came back the next night and for one more night the following week. What happened at the Stonewall on those nights helped to usher in a new era for gay men and lesbians.
GH: When Stonewall happened, Bruce and I were still in the closet, where we had been for nearly forty years. But we realized that this was a tremendous thing that had happened at Stonewall and it gave us a feeling that we were not going to be remaining closeted for very much longer. And soon thereafter, we did come out of the closet.
Jinny Appuzo (JA): My name is Jinny Appuzo. In 1969 I was in the convent. And when Stonewall hit the press, it hit me with a bolt of lightning. It was as if I had an incredible release of my own outrage at having to sequester so much of my life. I made my way down, I seem to recall in subsequent nights being down on the, you know, kind of just on the periphery looking. An observer — clearly an observer. Clearly longing to have that courage to come out. And as I recall it was only a matter of weeks before I left the convent and started a new life.
Henry Baird (HB): I am Henry Baird. In 1969 I was in the US Army, a specialist 3 stationed at Long Bend Post near Saigon, in Vietnam. I remember I was having lunch in the army mess, reading the armed forces news summary of the day, and there was a short paragraph describing a riot led by homosexuals in Greenwich Village against the police. And my heart was filled with joy. I thought about what I had read frequently, but I had no one to discuss it with. And secretly within myself I decided that when I came back stateside, if I should survive to come back stateside, I would come out as a gay person and I did.
SP: For those of us in Public Morals, after the Stonewall incident things were completely changed from what they had previously been. They suddenly were not submissive anymore. They now suddenly had gained a new type of courage. And it seemed as if they didn’t care anymore about whether their identities were made known. We were now dealing with human beings.
JF: Today I live in a senior citizen apartment building. What’s different now is that I can be free. I have a daughter who is a senior citizen and my son is 58. They know about my homosexuality. My three grandchildren in their thirties know about their grandmother. I have a great-granddaughter who at the age of ten learned that Grandma Jheri was a lesbian and she thought that was most interesting. And yet I still don’t have the personal courage to not care if these yentas in the building know that Jheri’s a lesbian.
SP: Well, I retired from the police department in 1976. Twenty years have passed. I’m going to be 70 in a few months. I still don’t know the answers. I would still like to know the answers. I would like to know whether I was wrong or whether I was right in ever thinking that there was a difference, in ever thinking that maybe you shouldn’t trust a homosexual because something is missing in his personality.
JN: The archives of lesbian culture, which surrounds us now and was created four years after Stonewall, owes, at least for my part, it’s creation to that night and the courage that found its voice in the streets. That night, in some very deep way, we finally found our place in history. Not as a dirty joke, not as a doctor’s case study, not as a freak — but as a people.
SR: Today I’m a 38-year-old drag queen. I can keep my long hair, I can pluck my eyebrows, and I can work wherever the hell I want. And I’m not going to change for anybody. If I changed, then I feel that I’m losing what 1969 brought into my life, and that was to be totally free.
AS: That’s Remembering Stonewall, Dave Isay’s documentary about the Stonewall riots of 1969. I’m Ari Shapiro.