June 23, 2017: “AND THEN I DANCED: TRAVELING THE ROAD TO LGBT EQUALITY”

June 23, 2017 at 6:30 pm

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 2:

I was in the back of the bar near the dance floor, where the younger people usually hung out. The lights in the room blinked—a signal that there would be a raid—then turned all the way up. Stonewall was filled that night with the usual clientele: drag queens, hustlers, older men who liked younger guys, and stragglers like me—the boy next door who didn’t know what he was searching for and felt he had little to offer. That all changed when the police raided the bar. As they always did, they walked in like they owned the place, cocky, assured that they could do and say whatever they wanted and push people around with impunity. We had no idea why they came in, whether or not they’d been paid, wanted more payoffs, or simply wanted to harass the fags that night. One of the policemen came up to me and asked for my ID. I was eighteen, which was the legal drinking age in New York in those days. I rustled through my wallet, very frightened, and quickly handed him my ID. I was no help in their search for underage drinkers. I was relieved to be among the first to get out of the bar.

As a crowd began to assemble, I ran into Marty Robinson who had inducted me into something called “The Action Group,” and he asked what was going on.

“It’s just another raid,” I told him, full of nonchalant sophistication. We walked up and down Christopher Street, and fifteen minutes later we heard loud banging and screaming. The screams were not of fear, but resistance. That was the beginning of the Stonewall riots. It was not the biggest riot ever—it has been tremendously blown out of proportion—but it was still a riot, although one pretty much contained to across the street on Sheridan Square and Seventh Avenue. There were probably only a couple hundred participants; anyone with a decent job or family ran away from that bar as fast as they could to avoid being arrested. Those who remained were the drag queens, hustlers, and runaways and street kids like me.

People had begun to congregate at the door after they left the bar. One of the cops had said something derogatory under his breath and the mood shifted. The crowd began taunting the police. Every time someone came out of the bar, the crowd yelled. A drag queen shouted at the cops: “What’s the matter, aren’t you getting any at home? I can give you something you’d really love.” The cops started to get rough, pushing and shoving. In response the crowd got angry. The cops took refuge inside. The drag queens, loud and boisterous, were throwing everything that wasn’t fastened down to the street and a few things that were, like parking meters. Whoever assumes that a swishy queen can’t fight should have seen them, makeup dripping and gowns askew, fighting for their home and fiercely proving that no one would take it away from them.

More and more police cars arrived. Some rioters began fire-bombing the place while others fanned out, breaking shop windows on Christopher Street and looting the displays; somebody put a dress on the statue of General Phil Sheridan. There was an odd, celebratory feel to it, the notion that we were finally fighting back and that it felt good. Bodies ricocheted off one another, but there was no fighting in the street. All the anger was directed at the policemen inside the bar. People were actually laughing and dancing out there. According to some accounts, though I did not actually see this, drag queens formed a Rockettes-style chorus line singing, “We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls / We wear no underwear / To show our pubic hair.” That song and dance later became popular with a gay youth group I was part of, and months after Stonewall, Mark Horn, Jeff Hochhauser, Michael Knowles, Tony Russomanno, and I would dance our way to the Silver Dollar restaurant at the bottom of Christopher Street. We were going to be the first graduating class of gay activists in this country—indeed, most of us are still involved, and we’re in touch with each other to this day.