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Posted By Subaltern Queer

Village Voice Stonewall Coverage

Given that the Stonewall Inn was raided about once a month, what made the raid on 28 June so different from all of the rest, in term of the result that night and the remarkable long-term effects? Why did this particular raid engender such a strong reaction?

Asking this question is significant because 1969 was a very different era. Today people across the world can watch protests unfold 24/7 on cable news. Even more significant, we are able to bypass any media 'filter' and see photos and videos of events posted by almost anyone. And protestors can phone or text or tweet to let all of their friends know what's happening in real time.

In contrast, even if you lived in New York and read the mainstream papers, you would not have realized that something big was happening. The big newspapers gave very little attention to the story and what they wrote was 100% from the viewpoint of the police.

The first story published (in the New York Times) was very brief. It was titled "Four Policemen Hurt in 'Village' Raid" and began with "Hundreds of young men went on a rampage in Greenwich Village shortly after 3 A.M. yesterday." So much for the supposed 'liberal' bias of the Times!

All of the major newspapers reported the story exclusively from the perspective of the police. That meant that the 'riots' were portrayed as 'violent uprisings' by gay people, who (as we noted yesterday) were criminals.

Since gays could be arrested as criminals, their names and their crimes would be reported in the 'police blotter'. "Mom and Dad, I'm gay" is a cakewalk compared to being outed in the Times. You would likely lose your job and certainly your reputation.

Exactly two weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court made it illegal to treat LGBTQ+ employees differently from other employees. Up until that time, only in about half of the states were you protected. In the other half, you could be fired (or never hired) simply because you looked or sounded gay. Of course, the employer was not required to tell you that your supposed 'gayness' was the reason for being first.

In contast to the major New York newspapers, the story was given significant coverage front in The Village Voice. There were at least two reasons for that. One was simply that the Voice's office was just a few doors down from the Stonewall Inn, making the story hard to ignore. Another was that Howard Smith, a reporter for the Voice, ended up being trapped inside the bar, while Lucian Truscott (another reporter for the Voice) was outside.

Truscott's version of the story privileged the police perspective and was decidedly anti-gay. While it may sound shocking to us today, the Voice did not allow same-sex personal ads. So it was not quite so 'liberated' as one might think.

However, Smith's version gave 'voice' to the protestors. He pointed out that the protestors were simply “objecting to how they were being treated.” They were tired to being treated like criminals.

Michael Fader explains the feeling behind the protests in such a moving and forceful way that he is worth quoting at length:

We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration. . . . Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us. . . . All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it's like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.

And that's how the movement began. One might say that it's how most movements of protest begin. "We've had enough of this shit. We may have taken it before, but we're not going to take it anymore. From now on, we demand that we be treated like human beings, rather than as animals and criminals." As Sylvia Rivera put it: "You've been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it's our turn!"

Movements start and then start to be taken seriously when it becomes clear that 'business as usual' is no longer possible. Once freedom is in the air, it's hard to put it back into the bottle.

But there is something even more significant about Stonewall in terms of becoming a movement. As someone out walking his dog that night noted: 

The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted. . . but the fairies were not supposed to riot. . . no group had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill."

Moral of the story: Don't Mess with Fairies. The police are no match for them. Besides, fairies can riot and still look fab.

 

 
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