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American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

Forty-two years ago, "the forces of faggotry" rose up. As Lucian Truscott IV remembers writing those words in his Village Voice column, he notes that his use of the term “fag” was deliberate, that reclaiming the word helped to build the community.


American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Lucian Truscott IV, William Eskridge, Martha Shelley, Seymour Pine
Network: PBS
Director: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
Air date: 2011-04-25
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Sometimes when I go to schools, kids say that they're taught to be non-confrontational or non-participatory now, almost like it's not cool to have opinions and express them, which is sad. I hope we're coming out of all that.

-- Larry Kramer

Forty-two years ago, "the forces of faggotry" rose up. As Lucian Truscott IV remembers writing those words in his Village Voice column, he notes that his use of the term "fag" was deliberate, that reclaiming the word helped to build the community. In one sense, this community was obviously local, the gay men who spent their evenings at the Stonewall Inn -- and regularly endured police raids. Tired of the harassment and the abuse, the "forces" fought back on 28 June 1969, a long night that became known as the Stonewall Uprising.

As the documentary, Stonewall Uprising, recounts, "In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois." These acts were variously defined, and at times just "looking" homosexual was enough to offend. Attorney William Eskridge cites a "whole basket of crimes that people could be charged with," include an 1863 statute that called it a "crime in the state to masquerade."

This and other "crimes" are on display as the film opens with archival photos and footage that convey the simultaneous chaos and routine of the cops' raids. Seymour Pine, then the Deputy Inspector, NYPD Morals Division, remembers, "There were no instructions but to put them out of business." As Ed Koch (of all people) recalls, the nightly raids were responses to complaints by "people who objected to the wrongful behavior of some gays who would have sex on the street and the Village has a lot of people with children and they were offended." Indeed, Pine admits, he and his men considered the arrestees "social deviants."

When Pine's team went inside the Stonewall Inn on 28 June, they expected the usual, that patrons would submit again to being cuffed and hauled away. But that night, says Danny Garvin, "Something snapped, something was not right." Pine elaborates: "This time, they said, 'We're not going." Caught off guard, he and his men were unsure how to respond. "We didn't have the manpower and the manpower for the other side was coming in like it was a real war," he says, his eyes bright blue and his NYPD cap worn maroon. "And that's was it, it was a war." Truscott frames it historically: "This was the Rosa Parks moment," he says, "The time when gay people stood up and said, 'No.' And once that happened, the whole house of cards that was the system of oppression of gay people started to crumble."

The film -- which premieres on PBS' American Experience on 25 April -- underscores this change with a rolling piano score and more images of crowds in motion. Even photographs become mobile, by way of a zoom lens and figures seemingly animated, shifting and restless. "In the civil rights movement, says Martin Boyce, "We ran from the police. In the peace movement, we ran from the police. That night the police ran from us, the lowliest of the low. And it was fantastic."

The contexts for this remarkable moment were memorably draconian, illustrated in the film by vintage TV reports and "educational" films. These define homosexuality as an illness and "mental defect" in need of a cure, whether by shock treatments, castrations, lobotomies, and other tortures. William Eskridge describes this time as the "dark ages for lesbians and gay men all over America." Gay men and lesbians who resisted such efforts to "fix" them, who found a refuge in New York, recall their experiences. Martha Shelley remembers that psychiatrists tried to "talk you into being heterosexual," or used "aversive conditioning," for instance, they would "show you pornography and then give you an electric shock." No surprise, such treatments rarely had the effects intended. Shelley says, "I could look at a guy and say objectively, 'Well, he's good looking.'" But, she adds, "What finally made sense to me was when I first kissed a woman."

Shelley's experience is unusual in the film, which focuses on gay men (and these are white men, though the film shows photos of black and Latino gay men at the Stonewall Inn and the uprising). The resistance movement that was named and then gained steam in 1969 touched all kinds of individuals, in different ways. Shelley recalls the Mattachine Society (identified as a "Homophile Organization") used a mimeograph machine to get the word out, concerning meetings and strategies, as well as efforts to garner support from straight populations. "A few of us would get dressed up in skirts and blouses," she says, "And the guys would all have to wear suits and ties. And I did not like parading around [with placards and flyers] while all of these vacationers were standing there eating ice cream and looking at us like we were critters in a zoo."

Where the Mattachine Society emphasized fitting into a "mainstream society," the Stonewall Uprising changed that dynamic -- vividly. That night, says Village Voice reporter Howard Smith, he noticed activity on the street, visible from his office. "And the people coming out [of the Inn] weren't going along with [the arrest routine] so easily." Truscott describes a "rather tough lesbian" who was fighting back: "The harder she fought, the more the cops were beating her up, and the madder the crowd got." He and Smith grabbed their police press passes, hoping to avoid getting their heads "busted" as they observed and also took part in the event.

As the film's soundtrack music becomes increasingly ominous, Smith recalls the situation seemed more dangerous, as he went inside the Inn with a group of plainclothes policemen. The crowd grew in size and ferocity, says Smith. "Things were being thrown against the plywood, we piled things up to try to buttress it." The movement began in frustration and confusion, as "sides" were undefined and fires were literally lit. Pine says, "We did use the small hoses on the fire extinguishers, but we couldn't hold out very long." John O'Brien says, "I was very anti-police," having participated in other protests for other causes. "And this was the first time I could actually sense, not only see them fearful, I could sense them fearful."

The ominous music gives way to crowd noise, as Doric Wilson says, "There was joy, because the cops weren't winning. The cops were barricaded inside, we were winning." Boyce adds that the police started moving back: "That's what gave oxygen to the fire. Because as the police moved back, we were conscious, all of us, of the area we were controlling."

Wilson's description of the protest as one over territory, over space as a means to self-definition, is especially cogent: it's remembered in the name for the events that occurred over days (three or six, depending on which history you read), as well as in the increasingly organized politics that followed -- in parades that became annual events, in declarations of communities, refuges, and independence. The film offers an animated map of the block where the Inn was located, with routes and flames marked. "We were like a hydra, says Boyce. "You cut one head off, for the first time, the next person stood up." The community was understanding itself as such -- a group with power and voices and rights.

O'Brien smiles as he describes the scene: "Gay people were never supposed to be threats to police officers, they were supposed to be weak men, limp-wristed, not able to do anything. And here they were lifting things up and fighting them and attacking them and beating them." As Boyce notes, they were also singing "and doing a kick line: 'We are the Village Girls! We wear our hair in curls!'"

In the days that followed, the movement was solidified, as community members gathered again and again, to define their "area" and claim their rights -- to live, to dance and gather, to dress and behave as they wanted. As the film closes with still more familiar images -- pride parades showcasing people of color as well as rainbow balloons -- this particular area and this moment in history, at least, seem defined.

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