Log Cabiners routinely discredit the Stonewall Revolution of 1969 since it involved multiracial drag queens and gay guttersnipes rioting against police brutality. Well, to paraphrase Philip Seymour Hoffman’s diva doyenne in "Flawless," they should get on their Banana Republican knees and kiss the ground our insurrectionist foremamas and forepapas walked on.
By putting down their purses and pummeling the nightstick-wielding lackeys of Mayor John Lindsay’s political machine, which had scaled up a crackdown on "degenerate" watering holes as part of its reelection campaign, the Stonewall habitués accomplished more on that one summer night in Greenwich Village than the sum total of buttoned-up efforts by the gay suits of the day. Sucking up to conservatives never has and never will do a damn thing for gay rights, as "Stonewall Uprising," a PBS "American Experience" production, makes clear.
"Stonewall Uprising" gives us a good taste of what LGBTs were up against less than half a century ago. Prior to Stonewall, homosexual activity was illegal in all states but Illinois. In an effort to discourage transvestism, New York began to enforce a hitherto obscure statute that one had to wear at least three articles of clothing from their gender (as one old queen reminisces, the third article would inevitably ruin any drag queen’s outfit). If a bar served anyone suspected of being gay, it could legally have its license revoked. All across America, public high school students were forced to attend all-school assemblies where God-fearing autocrats admonished that witch-hunts were underway and sodomites would be found and prosecuted by the law and the Lord. Psychiatric facilities subjected homophiles to electroshock therapy at best, and castration or lobotomies at worst. And, of course, exposure or even suspicion of gayness was grounds for firing, as it still is in 29 states today.
Luckily, gays had Greenwich Village. You still had to watch out for cops, but so did every other downtown freak, be they beat, hippy and/or queer. The mafia-run Stonewall Inn, located next to The Village Voice’s erstwhile offices on Christopher Street, was a hub of gay life. The mob may have watered down and overcharged for all the booze, which it pilfered from trucks, but at least they gave pariahs a place to go. The Mattachine Society had also formed nearby to persuade the nation’s straights that the only thing gays wanted was the right to form consensual relationships, not to do anything so wacky as to marry or adopt children. But most Stonewall denizens had long abandoned all hope of societal tolerance, much less respect.
Yet, by that fateful night on June 28, 1969, the cops had made one too many raids on the Stonewall Inn. And the Stonewallers fought back with a strength and ferocity that the NYPD never saw coming from a bunch of limp wrists. One year later, the first-ever gay pride parade would take place beginning on Christopher Street, attracting thousands of supporters and spurring on undreamt-of reform.
Since the media avoided coverage of the Stonewall revolution, little photographic evidence from it exists and the uprising has walked through more myths than Zeus himself--chief among them being that it was Judy Garland’s death that set off the whole struggle. Unfortunately, "Stonewall Uprising" does not investigate the Judy claim, but it does succeed in impressing upon us just how far we’ve come, thanks to the rumbles of a ragtag rabble, despite how much farther we still have to go in our fight for equality.