Stonewall Rebellion A Marker For Gay Rights, Progress

Forty years ago this week, police raided the popular Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. Such raids were not uncommon at the time, but patrons of the establishment expressed outrage over the practice. The heavy rioting and protests that followed would later become known as The Stonewall Rebellion, which is credited with birthing the modern gay rights movement. Danny Garvin and Martin Boyce witnessed the riots and offer thoughts on how the movement has evolved 40 years later.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, which many believed sparked the modern, gay-rights movement. It began on June 28th, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. At the time, police raids of gay bars were common. The lights would go on, patrons would scatter, anxious to protect their privacy and their safety. But this time, patrons of the Stonewall fought back. Six nights of rioting and demonstrations followed, six nights that set the stage for the development of a formidable civil rights movement.

For this week's Wisdom Watch, we're speaking to two men who were there. We'll ask them about what that experience meant to them and what their lives as gay Americans are like four decades later. We have to warn listeners that some language may be offense. New York City natives Martin Boyce and Danny Garvin were outside the Stonewall Inn when the police vans arrived that night in 1969, and they join us now from our New York bureau. I'd like to welcome you both.

Mr. DANNY GARVIN: Thank you.

Mr. MARTIN BOYCE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Martin, I want to start with you. Why was Stonewall such a popular place to hang out?

Mr. BOYCE: Well first of all, it was all about location. I mean, it was like right on Christopher Street, and you could do slow dancing there. It was the only place where you could do slow dancing, and it was like a real bar. And our peers were all in there.

MARTIN: Danny, what about you? Were you a frequent Stonewall patron?

Mr. GARVIN: Yes. I'm probably the first person who could say that they had been in the Stonewall on opening night and on closing night. I just got out of the Navy. I was 18, and I was around the block at a bar called Julius', and someone said to me, what are you doing here? Why aren't you with all the chicken around the corner at this bar that just opened? And I went around there, and it was the Stonewall, and it was…

MARTIN: What was a chicken?

Mr. GARVIN: It was the terminology back then for a young, gay person.

MARTIN: Young, gay person, okay.

Mr. GARVIN: As opposed to an old hen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, I see.

Mr. GARVIN: So I was a young chicken.

MARTIN: So you went to check it out, and?

Mr. GARVIN: And I walked - you had to go over there, and you had to knock on the door, and they had to slide open the door to check out who was outside there. And then you went inside, and you had to sign your name into a book, and there was dancing at the back of the bar. But then on the side, you went to these two other doors, and there was a large dance floor, where I saw all these people doing the Jerk and Mickey's Monkey and line dancing, and I'm saying, oh, this is never going last. Dancing with men, this is never gonna last, and I freaked out, and I left.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. GARVIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARVIN: I was still coming out.

MARTIN: Well what was that like, though, and forgive me for - I hope this doesn't sound like a stupid question, but you had to go through all these doors just to get to a dance floor. Was that just the way it was?

Mr. GARVIN: Bars would only last for a few weeks, and then they would be shut down usually. So it was usually by word of mouth that you heard of another bar opening up. The Stonewall had a good run, for almost three years there, which is a rarity.

MARTIN: Martin, Danny was telling us that just - bars would only last a couple of weeks. Did you expect to be raided if you went to a bar?

Mr. BOYCE: No, you didn't expect to be raided, but you could be raided. You knew that.

MARTIN: So what happened when the police arrived? Martin, I wanted to stick with this. What happened? You were down the street. You weren't right at the inn at the time that the police arrived. What happened? What set it off?

Mr. BOYCE: Well, there was a lot of commotion that we noticed down the block, and that's where Stonewall was. And a number of people passing would say, I think they're raided. I think they're raided. So we decided to go and see what happened.

At that point, the paddy wagon started pulling out, and as they pulled out, we were left with the police in front of us. We were forming like an arc around the door or like an amphitheater, and then we started, like zombies, to move forward, and as we kept moving forward, they all of a sudden started moving backwards.

In other words, they blinked, and then we looked at them as if, you know, Dachau was liberated, and there was nothing between us and our former captors. And we just kept going until they barricaded themselves in the Stonewall. Now they were prisoners of the situation.

MARTIN: Do you remember what that felt like? Did you feel like you won one?

Mr. BOYCE: No, not at all. It was the beginning. You know, it was just curiosity. I was watching the police eyes through the speak-easy hole, and they were laughing at first, and they thought it was humorous. But there was a tinge nervousness and a growing sense of alarm when they started smashing the door down and lighting it on fire.

MARTIN: They lit the door on fire?

Mr. BOYCE: There were Molotov cocktails that were thrown that night. There were garbage cans (unintelligible) they were throwing through the window that were on fire.

MARTIN: Danny, pick up the thread from there. Were you at the Stonewall that night, or were you…?

Mr. GARVIN: I was walking, running over to it. The paddy wagon had arrived. I was in (unintelligible) on Bleaker Street, and I was walking over there. I was talking to a friend of mine. We were talking about revolution because we really thought that a revolution was going to come about by the Black Panthers or by the Young Lords. We didn't consider that a revolution would take place within a gay society. And to realize at the time of The Stonewall, we were still considered sick by the American Psychiatric Association, and all states except Illinois had laws against homosexuality. So you could be arrested for just holding hands with a man on the street or kissing a man on the street.

MARTIN: Danny, did you fight that night? Did you...

Mr. GARVIN: I, as a pacifist. I screamed pig, I screamed copper, I ran. I can't kill a cockroach to this day, so I'm not going to pick up a brick and throw one at one, but I would taunt.

MARTIN: Martin, what do you think set it off?

Mr. MARTIN BOYCE: Frustration, years of frustration. Looking at these police's faces who tormented us and ridiculed us and treated us, at best, tolerated us, and treated us as were subhuman. It was those faces all the time, framed by those - all the blue cloth, the badge, the hat. Every time we saw them we knew there was trouble or could be trouble.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Danny Garvin and Martin Boyce. They were there at the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York. It's an event that is widely viewed as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Martin, to that point, that was the first night - first couple of nights - and you know you had just - you had had enough, or you had just had enough. But did you have a sense that there was more to it than letting off your frustrations at being mistreated? Did you have a sense, well wait a minute, you know, why are we being treated like this? Or, you know what I mean, how did it become from a couple of nights - a street disturbance to something bigger?

Mr. BOYCE: Well, that took time. You know a riot is a kinetic thing and a thing of movement and a riot is so totally complete. But what happened in that little square was an implosion that we couldn't manage to control any longer. It was all a matter of chance - chance, will, and determination - then once we started it, to finish it.

MARTIN: And could you talk a little bit more, Danny started talking about this, at the time most states had laws on the books making - saying that homosexuality was illegal, there's was no employment protection. So Martin, could you just talk a little bit about your life? I mean were you worried about being arrested at that time? Were you worried that - you know what I mean? How did you live? I mean if you had a relationship did you go out of here to keep your family from knowing? How did you live?

Mr. BOYCE: Well for me it wasn't like that. My father did know and my father always kept a little container with bail money in it. So he figured that sooner or later something's going to happen to me, leaving the house in scare(ph) drag like that. And so he just had a container with money in it and allowed me to call him. I could call him and he would come down and you know, get me out of jail if it was necessary. But I was never arrested.

MARTIN: So he was okay with you? You felt acceptance?

Mr. BOYCE: Oh yes.

MARTIN: What did you do for a living, if you don't mind my asking?

Mr. BOYCE: No, I was a student. My mother was an invalid. I would take care of her and in return, my father paid for my college.

MARTIN: So did you feel a sense of cramped possibility? Do you know what I mean? Did you feel that like your whole scope - you know how Martin Luther King wrote about the shadow of inferiority, watching it closing in on his children's faces, realizing all the things that he was going to have to tell them they could not do? Do you remember that?

Mr. BOYCE: Well, yes. But it was not inferiority that we felt. It was lack of opportunity. I think very few gay people felt any kind of inferiority.

MARTIN: Danny, what about you? You say you were a hippie pacifist. You were living in a commune at the time, but what about you and your sense of yourself as a gay man? You were just coming out at that time. You were - and you had been in the Navy, and what did you think your life was going to be?

Mr. GARVIN: I thought I was going to settle down, get married, have 2.3 kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARVIN: My idea of, at the time we called them homosexuals, were either very effeminate men who worked in hairdressing parlors or older men who would sit in movie balconies in 42nd Street or in subway men's bathrooms. So it seemed like a deviant lifestyle to me. I didn't know anybody who was my age until two sailors brought me to Julius's Bar and I got to meet other gay men who were closer to my age. And then I went to Stonewall, there they were all 18, 19 years of age. So there was no gay and lesbian community center back then. So if you were a young kid and you came out, the only choice you had was to go to a gay bar.

MARTIN: What do you think Stonewall changed?

Mr. GARVIN: The whole action of that night was we never realized how connected we were as a community. That it didn't make a difference if you were a drag queen, or if you were a leather queen, or if you were just a young kid, or if you were an older person over 30, we were all fighting for a right, at least to me to get back into the bar, to be able to dance, not be oppressed. You know, to be able to have the rights that these heterosexuals are claiming they have. I think that's what we were fighting for, what we're still fighting for 40 years later.

MARTIN: Martin, what about you? What do you think Stonewall changed?

Mr. BOYCE: Yes. I think before Stonewall there were really homosexualities. I mean like the scare drag queens like me sometimes would be mistreated really by older gay guys or what they call A-gays or regular gay guys, because we were giving them a bad image. We were divided that way. But all of us, in some way, knew something about ourselves and the thing that Stonewall changed is that our individual pride reached a consensus and now we had a group pride.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip for you. Earlier this week, President Obama invited hundreds of leaders from the LGBT community to the White House for an event marking the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. I'm sure that's something you may have thought you'd never see - but he did. And let's play a little bit of his remarks. Here's what he had to say.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago. But I say this, we have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps.

MARTIN: Martin, I'm going to go to you first. There are those who say on the one hand, that is amazing. Who would've thought, in my lifetime, that the president of United States would be welcoming members of my community to celebrate this event? On the other hand, people say you know that progress is still too slow - still baby steps. What do you say?

Mr. BOYCE: Yes. Because when you're in the battle, and even as we had begun the battle and towards now the later part of our lives, this battle's not finished, it's a two-prong situation now. It's not only how homosexuality is treated in our nation, it's a worldwide problem. There now is a universal gay problem in the sense that, all right, we've helped each other in the city, and then of course, across the country, and now around the world. I mean people are being still tortured and still killed in some countries, and it weighs heavily on our minds.

MARTIN: Danny, what about you?

Mr. GARVIN: I was just thinking of the guy who got beat up this week on East 85th Street for being gay and fag-bashed on the street and how these words that Obama would say would feel to him. And say, you know, wait. Be patient. Now (unintelligible) is still being fag-bashed, not on a Gay Pride, and not on the Upper East Side on East 85th Street.

MARTIN: There are those as you know, who don't even agree with President Obama's relationship of the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement for other people in this country. They just say I don't see the connection. And there are those who just say look, you know for - and they associate the gay rights movement with white men like yourselves and others might even say privileged white men who have no other issues to worry about. Would you talk about that? Martin, will you talk about that?

Mr. BOYCE: Oh yes, I yes. Yes, because the militant fighters in Stonewall and the ones that really made it possible, we were all working class or many of us poor. Some of them were destitute. The great fighters were mostly destitute. I guess you could say they had little to lose in fighting, but they also had a higher aspect of frustration because they had to make their money on the streets somehow. I'm sure some of them turned tricks and everything, so you can imagine the danger they were in from the vice squad, the police, and so on. In David Carter's book on Stonewall, there's a photo booth snapshot of me, Birdie, and Thomas Lankan(ph) Schmidt. Birdie is a Puerto Rican black person. We were integrated. I mean we didn't have that problem.

MARTIN: But you see what I'm saying? That when peoples think the gay rights movement now, I don't know that people primarily think of it as a diverse movement.

Mr. BOYCE: Yes, I think you're right. I don't think they do because I mean you know the organization was left to the middle class and that's very different. I mean I had a friend - Jerome, a black friend who's 30-years-old, it's about 10 years ago, he did not know Stonewall occurred. Because African-American gays are fighting their own battle. They had not completed that battle yet, but they're determined to do it. But it takes much longer. It's hard to get rid of cultural mores and some ethic groups feel it stronger than others.

MARTIN: Danny, what do you say about this for those who say I don't see the connection between your struggle and the civil right struggles of others? I see this as a, you know, a group of white men, privileged men who can look after their own - yeah...

Mr. GARVIN: That it's a mental condition.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...yeah, their own stuff and really don't see it as connected to a broader rights movement. What do you say to that?

Mr. GARVIN: A broader rights, I've heard it stated that way. I've heard it stated very clearly that way. I get so angry when I hear this. You know it's like but if you're going to tell me that, then don't tell me that all men are created equal, you know? Just tell me that the Constitution's not true. If you're willing to tell me that, then I'll settle for that that this is the way this country's run. But as long as that's written down there, all men are created equal, I believe that all men and women are created equal and have the same rights.

MARTIN: What would be the fulfillment of the movement for you?

Mr. GARVIN: Complete equality. If I walk down the street, I have a partner here. We're together 17 years. We never became domestic partners or anything now. But if I got hit by a car and I'm rushed to an emergency room, he can not get into see me where my family could, and they can make all the decisions. And 17 years, that wouldn't happen to a straight person.

MARTIN: Do you think that you will see that in your lifetime?

Mr. GARVIN: Oh yes. I think we are angry enough now. I think we are tired of this. We are tired of seeing good men and women discharged from our services. We're so intelligent, such brave fighters and such good Americans - to lose it over this don't ask, don't tell, and yet you're screaming that you want to win this war or bring a country to a democracy. You are losing excellent school teachers at times in certain parts of this country. You're losing some great clergy people. I think yes, I will see it in my lifetime. I think I'll probably be in a wheelchair, but I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARVIN: ...but I will see it in my lifetime.

MARTIN: Martin, what about you? What would be the fulfillment of the movement for you? And do you think you will see it in your lifetime?

Mr. BOYCE: I hope to see it in my lifetime. I mean I'd like to see an integrated society, a society in which this is no longer a question. You don't have to get on a radio show to explain anything about white males or this or that. Just that, you know, we're people. Maybe other aspects could be discussed, but not basic human rights.

MARTIN: Martin Boyce, Danny Garvin, they both participated in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion; it was a pivotal event in the development of modern gay rights movement. They were both kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BOYCE: Thank you.

Mr. GARVIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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