Lucian K Truscott IV remembers forty years ago today.
Across the street from the Stonewall, a crowd of maybe 100 was watching the police march out a dozen or so bar patrons and employees into a paddy wagon. The young arrestees paused at the back of the waiting paddy wagon and struck vampy poses, smiling and waving to the crowd.
This was not the way gays were supposed to behave when they were arrested, and the officers started shoving them with their nightsticks. People in the crowd yelled at the police to stop. The officers responded by telling them to get off the street. Someone started throwing pocket change at the officers, and others began rocking the paddy wagon. Then, from the back of the crowd, beer cans and bottles flew through the air. In a hail of coins and street debris, the paddy wagon drove away with two patrol cars, and the remaining officers retreated inside the Stonewall, locking the doors behind them.
Soon enough, loose cobblestones from a nearby repaving site rained down on the bar’s windows. An uprooted parking meter was used to ram the club’s doors. Someone lighted a wad of newspaper and threw it through the bar’s broken window, starting a small fire. The policemen inside the Stonewall put it out with a fire hose, which they then turned on the crowd.
Instead of dispersing, the people in the street cavorted sarcastically in the spray, teasing the officers with suggestive come-ons. A few moments later, patrol cars came screaming down Christopher Street from Sixth Avenue. And at approximately 2 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, the gay men decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. The clash outside the Stonewall went on for 48 more hours and become famous as the riots that started the gay-rights movement.
Amazingly, there was no TV coverage and only a few paragraphs in the city’s daily papers.
Not so any more. On the editorial page of the New York Times, Frank Rich criticizes the President for failing to step up on gay rights.
On Monday, President Obama will commemorate Stonewall with an East Room reception for gay leaders. Some of the invitees have been fiercely critical of what they see as his failure, thus far, to redeem his promise to be a “fierce advocate” for their still unfulfilled cause. The rancor increased this month, after the Department of Justice filed a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the most ignominious civil rights betrayal under the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
The Obama White House has said that the Justice Department action was merely a bureaucratic speed bump on the way to repealing DOMA which hardly mitigates the brief’s denigration of same-sex marriage, now legal in six states after many hard-fought battles. The White House has also asserted that its Stonewall ceremony was “long planned” even though it sure looks like damage control. News of the event trickled out publicly only last Monday, after dozens of aggrieved, heavy-hitting gay donors dropped out of a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser with a top ticket of $30,400.
In conversations with gay activists on both coasts last week, I heard several theories as to why Obama has seemed alternately clumsy and foot-dragging in honoring his campaign commitments to dismantle DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The most charitable take had it that he was following a deliberate strategy, given his habit of pursuing his goals through long-term game plans. After all, he’s only five months into his term and must first juggle two wars, the cratered economy, health care and Iran. Some speculated that the president is fearful of crossing preachers, especially black preachers, who are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. Still others said that the president was tone-deaf on the issue because his inner White House circle lacks any known gay people.
Richard Bowes has another memoir of the event.
It's odd to be old enough to remember history. The Stonewall Riot always makes me feel like a citizen of Concord awakened by musket fire on that crisp April morning and wondering what the commotion was.
Stephen Colbert dedicates an entire episode to Stonewall, too.
Oh, and in my town we're having a parade.