40 Years Later, Stonewall Riots Remembered

Forty years ago, gay street youth started a riot at a bar in New York City that would forever change the struggle for gay rights in America.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Marchers flooded the streets of New York this afternoon, 40 years to the day since a police raid on a bar called The Stonewall Inn sparked riots that ignited the gay rights movement.

Tomorrow, the leaders of that movement get an unprecedented audience with the president in Washington. President Obama will be marking the Stonewall riots and trying to ease concerns about his lack of action so far on issues like gay marriage and the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy.

Mr. JEFF DRUMMOND(ph): He promised to be, in his own two words, a fierce advocate for the lesbian and gay community, and he has been, in fact, a total disaster.

RAZ: That's Jeff Drummond marching in New York City today. Four decades ago, it was kids in those streets who started the Stonewall riots.

NPR's Margot Adler has some of their stories.

MARGOT ADLER: After years of raids on gay bars and years of beatings in the street, this was the night that gay people pushed back.

Mr. CARL SICILIANO (Executive Director, Ali Forney Center): Many of the people who sparked the riots were homeless street kids.

ADLER: That's Carl Siciliano, the executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which, today, provides housing for homeless gay youth. Fifteen years ago, when he was beginning to do this kind of work, he looked at all the Stonewall anniversary stories and realized that street kids, the kind of kids he works with now, had been forgotten.

Mr. SICILIANO: It made me angry. It was like, you know, gay street youth created this thing that's made things so much better for so many of us, and yet at that time, there was no shelter of a Covenant House. People of that time would get brutally gay-bashed and beaten when they tried to go to Covenant House.

ADLER: So for the 40th anniversary, Siciliano wanted to bring the former street kids and the current ones together. Many of the veterans of Stonewall are dead, but Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt is one who still remembers: If you were gay in the streets before Stonewall, your life was in danger.

Mr. THOMAS LANIGAN-SCHMIDT: People were dying all the time, and you didn't know how they died. They were just fished up out of the river.

Mr. MARTIN BOYCE: There was no support group.

ADLER: Stonewall veteran Martin Boyce.

Mr. BOYCE: We were scared drag queens. The police could beat you when they wanted to. Gay-bashing was a city sport.

ADLER: The Stonewall bar was one place you could be safe, and of course this was 1969, when the whole nation was in turmoil, but Boyce says unlike civil rights activists or feminists, gays rarely thought of themselves as a group. Homosexuality was either considered a crime or an illness.

In this documentary, produced for the 20th anniversary of Stonewall by David Isay, you can hear the voices of reporters, police and rioters.

(Soundbite of documentary film)

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Man #1: Within five to 10 minutes, there's probably several thousand people, and they're yelling: Kill the cops. Police brutality. We're not going to take this anymore. Let me out.

Unidentified Man #2: It's a group of persons attempting to uproot one of the parking meters, and they then use that parking meter as a battering ram to break down the door. They crashed it in.

Unidentified Man #3: I remember someone throwing a Molotov cocktail. I don't know who the person was, but I mean, I saw that, and I just said to myself in Spanish, I said oh my, god, the revolution is finally here, and I was just, like, started screaming freedom.

Mr. BOYCE: I think the night of the riot, we realized we were a group.

ADLER: Martin Boyce.

Mr. BOYCE: We wanted to be free. We just wanted not to be attacked, not to be tormented, not to be reminded every day that we were freaks.

ADLER: Joining Boyce and Lanigan-Schmidt on a recent panel are four young people who live at the Ali Forney Center. All are between 19 and 22; several are transgender. Siciliano, the executive director, draws them out with his own story. He says he came out to his Italian father in 1987; they haven't spoken since.

Mr. SICILIANO: One of the things that makes us as a people different than other peoples is that we're even alien from our families.

ADLER: And the young people pour out their stories. Angela Lewis(ph) is 21 and is studying mortuary science. She says her family doesn't accept her as gay or transgender.

Ms. ANGELA LEWIS: They have not accepted because they feel like it's so taboo, especially in the West Indian culture.

ADLER: They say dress like a boy when you come home.

Ms. LEWIS: No, I'm sorry. I only have skirts and stilettos.

ADLER: But here's the biggest difference between then and now: at the time of the Stonewall riots, you could get arrested for cross-dressing. Carl Siciliano.

Mr. SICILIANO: Nobody had jobs. Nobody was going to school. Everybody was on the street. Everybody was prostituting. Everybody was doing drugs.

ADLER: Of the four young street youth, all are working, and three are going to college. That's one of the real legacies of Stonewall that few people talk about.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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