Before Stonewall : Throughline Fifty years ago, a gay bar in New York City called The Stonewall Inn was raided by police, and what followed were days of rebellion where protesters and police clashed. Today, that event is seen as the start of the gay civil rights movement, but gay activists and organizations were standing up to harassment and discrimination years before. On this episode, the fight for gay rights before Stonewall.

Before Stonewall

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Before we get started, a quick heads-up - this episode contains language that some might find objectionable, including slurs. OK, onto the show.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Homosexuality is an enigma. Even in this era of old sexual mores, it remains a subject that people find disturbing, embarrassing. There is a growing concern about homosexuals in society, about their increasing visibility.

JIM KEPNER: The queens were the only ones that ever fought. The queens were the only ones that made the bars that the rest of us could sneak into, and we could be gay for one night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The dilemma of the homosexual - told by the medical profession he is sick, by the law that he is a criminal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We're going to do things - demonstrate and carry picket signs and be like Dr. King and take over. You know, we don't want to sit here in a closet anymore and play bingo. We can go out and do stuff and take over the world and change everything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Shunned by employers, rejected by heterosexual society.

ERNESTINE ECKSTEIN: I think it takes a lot of courage. And I think a lot of people who would do it will suffer because of it. But I think any movement needs a certain number of courageous martyrs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: At the center of his life, he remains anonymous, a displaced person, an outsider.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It was the match that started the renaissance of awakening, if you will. We stood up and were counted.



Hey. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR - before Stonewall.


ABDELFATAH: Exactly 50 years ago, on June 28, 1969, a gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn was raided by police - again. So many aspects of being gay were criminal at the time. Bars could refuse to serve homosexuals. And a lot of gay bars, including the Stonewall, were run by the mafia, who paid bribes to the police to stay in business. Gay patrons were frequently entrapped by plainclothes police for solicitation. They could be arrested for dressing as, quote, "the opposite sex." And all of this led to a climate in which gay people felt hunted by the police.

ARABLOUEI: So it was in this climate on June 28 that patrons of the Stonewall decided they'd had enough. They started days of rebellion that captured the attention of the city and the nation's media. They challenged the taboo of being identified as gay. They physically fought the police, refusing to passively accept their harassment. And today, Stonewall is seen as the start of the gay civil rights movement.

ABDELFATAH: But is it? To better understand Stonewall, we wanted to know what came before it. Who were the people and what were the events that set an example, ascending up to the prevailing harassment and discrimination of the time?

ARABLOUEI: Answering this question isn't easy. Gay history is hard to find. Gay rights organizations were often secret. Gay activists used pseudonyms in public. Harassment of gay people rarely made the news. And acts of defiance by members of the gay community made the news even less. But we met Eric Marcus, who offered us a window into that history. Eric runs an organization and podcast called "Making Gay History." Back in 1988, Eric was working as a producer for CBS News.

ERIC MARCUS: What I really wanted was to be on the other side of the camera out in the field doing stories as an on-air reporter. And I was told after speaking with an executive that they would never put an openly gay person on camera for CBS National. So I took this opportunity and left CBS and wrote a proposal for making what was then called "Making History."

ABDELFATAH: In two years, Eric found and interviewed dozens of people. And his book, "Making History," was published in 1992. Once done, he gave his audio recordings to be archived at the New York Public Library.

ARABLOUEI: Then, more than 20 years later, in between jobs, Eric checked in on the tapes he'd made and found that the New York Public Library had digitized them. And so he set about creating a podcast that would feature the voices of these little or unknown civil rights pioneers.

MARCUS: I hadn't listened to these stories in 30 years. To hear these voices again with these rich accents and language that people don't use anymore, and to hear stories that I'd forgotten, and to hear interviews that I'd completely forgotten was thrilling.

ABDELFATAH: "Making Gay History" was born. Eric said that one of his episodes was with a man named Jim Kepner. Kepner was a bit of a hoarder of materials from the early LGBTQ civil rights movement in California. Eric was talking to him about his collection but was struck by one of Jim's early memories of seeing a raid on a San Francisco bar in 1943.


KEPNER: The late spring of '43.

MARCUS: So Jim, in 1943, was going to a gay bar. And I think this may have been the first time he was at a gay bar.


KEPNER: When I was trying to come out, a friend had told me about the Black Cat in San Francisco. I was going to join my brothers and sisters for the first time. I was on a cloud of idealism, so high that I was walking on Montgomery four inches above the sidewalk. I got almost to the door. I think I touched the door. And all of a sudden, a whole bunch of San Francisco policemen burst through the door. I didn't see them coming.

I had by this time read eight or 10 novels, and I've read several accounts of bar raids. So I knew what was happening. I wanted to do something, but instead, I hid in the doorway across the street, feeling cowardly, feeling guilty. And the first view I got of my brothers and sisters was about 12 or 15 drag queens and 12 or 15 men, the kind that would now be called clones - San Francisco clones.

ABDELFATAH: Jim uses an old term here - clone - to refer to men who dressed in stereotypically macho clothes.


KEPNER: All of the clones were looking guilty as if they were being led to the fate which they so richly deserved. And all of the queens were struggling and sassing the cops. And it took me about a year and a half to understand why I felt good when I heard one of the queens scream at the policeman who was shoving her - don't shove, you bastard, or I'll bite your f****** balls off. That queen paid for that, paid in blood.

MARCUS: How? What? They beat her?

KEPNER: And beat two or three of the others. And I was still hiding in the doorway wanting to do something, wanting to shout something. I wouldn't have known what to shout. The queens were the only ones that ever fought. The queens were the only ones that made the bars that the rest of us could sneak into, and we could be gay for one night.

MARCUS: What we see over and over again through the early history in particular is that the people who challenged police oppression were those who had the least to lose. Those were often street kids. Those were teenagers who were thrown out of their homes who were making their living on the street as best they could. They were people who would call themselves today gender nonconforming who also had no place in the world. So in those years, and at Stonewall as well, the people who most quickly fought back against the police were gender nonconforming kids, drag queens, people who dressed in scare drag, those who didn't have regular jobs and regular homes.

ABDELFATAH: In this episode, we're going to hear about a few people and moments of resistance that came before Stonewall that aren't as well remembered. Coming up, how the fight for gay rights went from the streets of San Francisco to the White House.


ARABLOUEI: So at this point in the mid-1950s, the gay rights movement, according to Eric, was mostly made up of a group of outsiders with little to lose. But there was also another part of this very fragile movement - people with mainstream jobs from higher social classes with seemingly more to lose. These were people who were fighting for their place in the mainstream culture. And the people in this part of the movement created two of the earliest gay civil rights organizations and social clubs - the Mattachine Society for gay men and the Daughters of Bilitis for gay women - that had many local chapters that were led by people...

MARCUS: Like Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny. These are people who - I don't know why, and they couldn't explain it - they simply rejected the prevailing beliefs about gay people. Frank Kameny's one of my favorites because he was fired from his job in 1957 with the federal government. Eisenhower signed an executive order in 1953 banning homosexuals from government employment. And gay people were hounded out of their jobs, both in the military and in federal employment, during what came to be known as the Lavender Scare which was concurrent to the Red Scare.

Frank was fired in 1957. And he decided that his government had gone to war against him, and he would go to war against his government. And he led a one-man campaign to get his job back and fought all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1961. They didn't want to hear his case. And so he formed the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. And I loved talking to him because he was so certain of himself that homosexuality wasn't - it wasn't just not immoral, it was decidedly moral. And he had a plan. And he led the first public protest in front of the White House and the State Department.

He branded - he was once accused of trying to brand gay people like toothpaste. He insisted at these protests that people dress appropriately. If you want to have a job, dress like you want a job. And all the signs were coordinated. To look at the old pictures now of those protests, we think - people often look through the contemporary lens and are critical, saying these people were accommodationist or assimilationist.

But imagine 1965, when people are saying the most hideous things about homosexuals, that relations between two people of the same sex is illegal. You could be fired from your government job. You were considered mentally ill and sinful. And you go out in public with a sign saying that homosexuals deserve equal rights. Those people were brave.

ARABLOUEI: And there was a - someone in a photo of that protest named Ernestine Eckstein...

MARCUS: Yes...

ARABLOUEI: ...Right? Is that right?

MARCUS: ...Ernestine Eckstein.

ARABLOUEI: Who was she?

MARCUS: She was the holy grail for me in 1988, '89 when I was researching because here was this photograph of a protest in front of the White House. And an African American woman, the only one visible in this photo - and there were, you know, there were only, like, a dozen people in the protest. And there she is carrying a sign, and she's wearing cat's eye white-framed sunglasses. And I managed to find the name Ernestine Eckstein, which is a pseudonym. That's not her real name. I could not find Ernestine Eckstein, could not find her anywhere. It turns out - and my executive producer found the tape - there was an interview with Ernestine Eckstein. And there was her voice.


ECKSTEIN: It's a very funny kind of thing because I always had super strong reactions to women. This was a blank that had never been filled in by anything - reading, experience, nothing - through age 22, graduated, you know, from college and never know anything about it.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: And you didn't know there were other people who felt the way you did?

ECKSTEIN: No, I didn't.

ABDELFATAH: I imagine for someone like her, a black woman in the movement, I mean, she was facing a challenge on multiple fronts.

MARCUS: And she had a civil service job. So if she was recognized, she could lose her job. And she also posed for the cover of The Ladder, which was the magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian magazine. So they shot her in a way that she wasn't that easily identifiable. But, you know, it was considerable risk for somebody like that. And I cannot begin to imagine what it was like.

You know, I was scared when I went on television for the first time for my book. And I remember somebody calling in and saying, how can you just go on television and tell people that you're gay? But someone like Ernestine took enormous risks to go out there in public. But she really believed in the importance of being out.


ECKSTEIN: I personally consider myself very average and normal in every sense of the word, not radical. This, to me, is the way to be. Now, I think compared to other lesbians, my ideas are farther to the left. Most lesbians that I know endorse picketing, but would not themselves picket.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Do you believe in forms of civil disobedience for our movement at this time or in the future?

ECKSTEIN: Picketing, I regard as very - almost a conservative activity now, you know? Sit-ins, you know, and that kind of thing are the thing.


ECKSTEIN: Yeah. And all of it is an educational process of calling attention to the unjustness of the situation, which is the same thing the negro did.

Well, one thing I would like to see is a kind of respect for self-development among all homosexuals so that they can date in public, for instance, you know, openly, so they can react as other people do to situations publicly, you know, not become professional homosexuals, but feel a kind of freedom, you know? So I think it's a personal thing. I don't think this is part of the movement. I think this is a personal thing.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: But do you think that it's possible in the present climate of opinion for homosexuals who have self-confidence in themselves to do this openly?

ECKSTEIN: I think it takes a lot of courage. And I think a lot of people who do it will suffer because of it. But I think any movement needs a certain number of courageous martyrs, you know? You know, and there's no getting around it. You know, that's really the only thing that can be done. You have to come out and be strong enough to accept whatever consequences come.

MARCUS: So Ernestine set out a challenge for people in the movement in those days, but left the movement because she felt it wasn't moving fast enough. She dropped out of the movement in the late '60s. I know she was very frustrated. From what I've discovered recently, she was very frustrated with the movement - that it was too tentative. She was young. She was in her mid-20s. She brought all of her experience from the black civil rights movement with an awareness that the gay movement was nowhere near where the black civil rights movement was, so they couldn't use the exact same tactics. But she really wished that they would be more aggressive.

So there have always been visionaries, and they have challenged us to do things that we might not have imagined possible.


FRANK KAMENY: Basically what we're trying to impress upon people are two very similar things - that we are homosexual human beings and homosexual American citizens. Everybody always remembers the first word in both of those phrases, homosexual.

ARABLOUEI: This effort by Ernestine Eckstein and Frank Kameny to be visible was continued with what were called the Reminder Day protests.

MARCUS: So the Reminder Day protests were organized by a number of different groups, a number of different gay rights groups. In those days, they were called homophile organizations. They were held every July 4 in Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall to remind the American public that gay people did not have their constitutional rights...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This is at a time when people in my profession were in higher demand then they had been in all of human history, and I could not get a job specifically because (unintelligible).

MARCUS: ...Because they could be fired from their jobs, thrown out of the military. And this was a protest demanding those rights. And you see in the photographs - and there's even some film of these protests - you can see people marching in a very orderly way with coordinated signs. And the women are in skirts and heels, and the men are in suits and ties. And it was revolutionary.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Unintelligible) Everybody should get a chance to live their life the way they wish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are seeking for recognition, equality. We are seeking our human dignity.

MARCUS: Something interesting about the Reminder Day marches was people think that the first marches came in 1970 with the first gay pride march in New York, which was called the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, or march, in 1970. There were five Reminder Day marches, beginning in '65. The last one was just after Stonewall on July 4, 1969.

And then an organization - they voted to move the Reminder Day protests from July 4 to mark Stonewall - the last Sunday in June - and to do it for every year thereafter. So what most people don't know - and I only learned this through my research - was that the first Pride march in New York - and there was also one in Chicago and LA - those were the descendants of the Reminder Day protests.


ABDELFATAH: The Reminder Day protests were planned and strategic. But Eric said that across the country, there were countless people who, finding themselves caught up in some kind of crackdown, just decided to fight back.

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, how a couple of lawyers' lives were changed when they organized a dance and the police showed up.


ABDELFATAH: Evander Smith and Herb Donaldson were two San Francisco lawyers who were part of...

MARCUS: A 1965 - January 1 - fundraising ball that was organized by the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. I love that. That name - it just sounds...

ARABLOUEI: No, it's so great.

MARCUS: It sounds so retro.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah (laughter).

MARCUS: And it was organized to help fund the work of the council, which was formed by a group of progressive ministers in San Francisco. And it was a costume ball.


HERB DONALDSON: Evander and I were involved in meeting with the police to make sure that there wouldn't be any police interference because at that time, the police took a position that the only time you could dress up in drag was on Halloween. And this was going to be a gala affair in which, if you wanted to go in drag, you could. It wasn't Halloween. And then the police went back on their word.

EVANDER SMITH: But they told us in advance that they had changed their minds.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: So what actually happened, then, that night?

DONALDSON: We were the attorneys there at the door, and we were there to make sure that everything was on the up-and-up so that there couldn't be any reason to make any arrests.

SMITH: Right.

DONALDSON: And then they started coming in, making inspections. They were the plainclothes police. They would come in - I remember there was a fire inspection.

SMITH: That's right. We had several...

DONALDSON: There was a health inspection.

SMITH: Right.

DONALDSON: And I think it was about the fourth inspection. We just said...

SMITH: Where we said, that's enough inspections for one night.

DONALDSON: That we said no. If you want to come in...

SMITH: And either give us your ticket or the search warrant.

DONALDSON: And it was - it really was completely unplanned. They didn't know what to do, and we didn't know what to do.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Were you standing facing each other or...


SMITH: We were frightened.

DONALDSON: We were just standing there, and they were standing there because, you know, they didn't know what to do, either.

SMITH: They didn't. They didn't believe that we would stand them up.

DONALDSON: They could have gone right past us, except they...

SMITH: They didn't know what their rights were.

DONALDSON: They were they were afraid of us, too.

SMITH: Right.

DONALDSON: Then all of a sudden, there were - a whole bunch of police in uniform came. I thought that, you know, when police arrested you, they said, you're under arrest. And I just...

SMITH: And they never did tell us that.

DONALDSON: And they grabbed me, one on each side. And I said, am I under arrest? And what a silly question - am I under arrest? They were - and they'd already hauled you off to the...


DONALDSON: ...Paddy wagon. And then they put us in jail.

SMITH: They sure as to hell did.

DONALDSON: But for a while...

MARCUS: There was a court case, and it led to dramatic changes in San Francisco. There were new organizations formed. I knew nothing about this ball, and I just love hearing Evander and Herb talk about this event. They were both young attorneys. One worked for himself. The other worked for a fancy law firm.


DONALDSON: Sometimes, Evander and I will talk. And the kids coming up now - they can't - I tell you, they can't enjoy their freedom as much as we have because they take it for granted - that it was always like this, that they could walk arm-in-arm and kiss on the street and so forth. And, I mean, I've represented several couples who were arrested for having a hand on the other's knee in a bar, having something as innocent as that.

And I'll tell you, when we went home, Jim and I - we went to bed. And I was so touched because he said, oh, I'm so proud of you - because I was really feeling kind of low because I thought - I mean, there goes my legal career.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: This is Jim, your lover.



DONALDSON: Poor Evander was fired from his job.

SMITH: I got up early the next morning, went down to get the Chronicle.

DONALDSON: And of course, they had our names.

SMITH: And there it was on the front...

DONALDSON: Page - names and addresses.

SMITH: And I was sick, and I thought, oh, s***. When I went to work after having been arrested, boy, just - my own secretary - nobody would have anything to do with me. I knew something was wrong.

So I then thought, well, there is nothing short of a total earthquake to sink the city that will keep me from being fired. Therefore, you know, I think I'll go out with my self-respect. You know, I can be very effective on my feet. So I took this show away from them. Everybody was frightened. In a courtroom, I'm not frightened, but I was frightened then because, well...

DONALDSON: There goes your security.

SMITH: Yeah, I was just concerned my economic security was at stake.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Do you any regrets about that dance, about being arrested?

SMITH: None whatsoever. You know, it was a - one of the peak experiences. I mean, sometimes peak experiences - you experience them afterward. But it was. You're right. Now, having agreed to that - and I wholeheartedly do - and that arrest has affected me materially. I've never been one to lead the parade. It exacerbated my feeling of insecurity and being less worthy than I think people should be able to be. Herb - it was like water off a duck's back for him.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Now, what was the significance of the dance?

DONALDSON: The significant - boy, it galvanized the gay community into action.

SMITH: Absolutely.

DONALDSON: One of the things that was really humorous is that the police made this estimate - there were 70,000 homosexuals in the city. No, they weren't. But when they advertised all over the - I mean, it was carried on the wire service that there are 70,000. You've got 70,000 others out in the country who want to come and join that 70,000 here.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: So that's what the wire services carried on this...

SMITH: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, the San Francisco - the police estimate - the population was 70,000 - hasn't stopped growing yet as a consequence.

DONALDSON: That's right. I mean, we're still coming (laughter).

SMITH: I honestly think that it was the match that started the renaissance of awakening, if you will.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: So Stonewall, which happened in New York, really was quite late.


DONALDSON: It was because this was as much a confrontation. It didn't have the - some of the violent overtones, but we stood up.

SMITH: And were counted.

ARABLOUEI: So after the ball on January 1 and it changed things in San Francisco, were they remembered for that activism? Did that kind of color their life from that point on?

MARCUS: Evander's - when I interviewed Evander, who was Native American, he talked about how it really changed his life, and not in good ways. It really hurt him. He felt very bad about the arrest. He was fired from his job. He went to work with Herb Donaldson after he was fired, but he kept a low profile. Herb Donaldson, however, went on to become a judge - openly gay - one of the first in California who was openly gay to be made a judge. So he remained very active. So certainly, they were known - Herb Donaldson much more than Evander because Evander kept a low profile after that.

ABDELFATAH: At almost the same time that Herb and Evander were getting attention in San Francisco, new activists were trying to find ways to address problems particular to New York City. Dick Leitsch got involved in the Mattachine Society because of a relationship he had with someone who was already a member. Dick and his friends were part of a new guard, and they quickly began to push the organization to be less of a social club and more of an advocacy organization.


DICK LEITSCH: It was really in transition because half of it was this bunch of old farts, and they spent all these years sitting there. And they had bridge parties, and they had bunco parties and were looking so desperately for a pat on the head.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Who were they looking for - who did they want the pat on the head from, and why did they want it?

LEITSCH: Anybody, anybody - just somebody to say, it's OK to be gay, honey. It's OK to be gay. Sure, you're worthy, honey. You're as good as anybody else. Don't let them knock you down just 'cause you're queer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: What characterized the radicals? What did they want there different?

LEITSCH: Julia was out. She wanted to - she was the only politician. I mean, he wanted to build voting blocks and do all this kind of stuff. And Craig and Randy wanted to demonstrate and carry picket signs and be like Dr. King and take over. You know, we're going to do things. I mean, we're not going to sit here in a closet anymore and play bingo. We can go out and do stuff and take over the world and change everything. And so I kind of hung out with them, and I caught it, you know? I caught the fever.

We'd always wanted to demonstrate. And these old farts - no, no, you'll go to jail. People will throw rocks at y'all on the street. You'll get beat up. You'll get bashed. And somehow, everybody else was picketing. Why shouldn't we?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: This was at a time when everyone else was protesting...

LEITSCH: Everybody...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...For civil rights. It was a...

LEITSCH: Yeah, I mean, the blacks were marching all through Selma and all that kind of stuff. And, I mean, everybody was marching and demonstrating. And why the hell shouldn't we be? Oh, no, no, no. People hate fairies - you know, they'll throw rocks at you.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Did they think it would destroy Madison? It would destroy the gay...

LEITSCH: Oh, it was going to destroy the gay world. It was going to bring down the wrath of God on everybody. Of course - they had good reason to believe this, you know, because it has gone through the McCarthy years. They had good reason to believe this.


LEITSCH: ...Put him down for it because, I mean, they had gone through a very bad time when, you know, as soon as they found out you were gay, you were fired from your job. You couldn't work. You couldn't work in Hollywood. You know, if you were gay, you were probably a communist, and communists couldn't work in Hollywood. You certainly couldn't work for the government. You couldn't work for anybody that had a government contract. You couldn't work for IBM or somebody like that who wanted to work with the government, who wanted a government contract. And you would get fired on the spot. So they had a good reason to be scared.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: But why weren't you scared? Why wasn't...

LEITSCH: I never had enough sense to be scared. You know, that's what it - a lot of times people used to say to me, you're very brave. And it's not that I'm very brave, I was just too damn dumb to realize I was making a fool of myself, you know.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Was it because you were young?

LEITSCH: I guess it was because I was young and didn't have any sense.

They used to have these crackdowns constantly, particular around Times Square, where they're going to get the homosexuals and derelicts off the streets, always having these cleanups and these sweeps and these things. And what they were doing - these cleanup things of using police entrapment, and they make a lot of arrests. They had this vice squad, and they were like traffic cops. They worked on sort of commission. You know, these cops were plainclothes cops. They're out on the streets eight hours a day. And the only way you could tell these people were working was by the number of arrests they made. And it came to a point where if you wanted a promotion, you better have a lot of arrests.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: How would they entrap people? What was the...

LEITSCH: Well, they had a formula that they would have - they would write in their notebooks - these little black leather notebooks cops carry. And when they got to court, no matter what actually happened, they would come up with a form of the story because they would arrest, you know, 10 or 20, and they'd get them all mixed up. They couldn't remember Tom from Jim from John. And so they'd just read this little formula on their notebook. Oh, you know, he did approach me. And he did touch me upon the genitals. And he did invite me to go to his house for sexual purposes.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: So all it required was - it was just a pickup, and that was...

LEITSCH: Yeah. You know, a lot of them were hired for their looks. They were good-looking cops. And they would go to bars and stuff. And they would get picked up or said they got picked up. And they'd arrest you and take you to court and ruin your life. A lot of the people who got arrested particularly in the subway and in the park were like closet queens, priests and doctors and stuff like that who couldn't hang out, you know, at like Julius's or someplace - didn't want to be seen in the gay community. And it was at that time that we decided we would have our sip-in because the liquor law said that a licensee has the duty to keep his place orderly. If he lets it become disorderly, he loses his license.

And so they would use this disorderly conduct statute and entrap gay people and then use that against the bar owners to close the bar. So we decided that that was a violation of our right to freely assemble. And we talked to Frank Kameny about it, talked to everybody about it. And the consensus was that, yes, we had to do this. And yes, we had to get good press coverage. But we couldn't invite the television people because the presence of television cameras and all that recording equipment could make a place disorderly. And so we should just stick with the print media.

And so we sent telegrams to all the newspapers and magazines saying we were going to do this the next day at noon at a place called the Ukrainian American Village on St. Marks Place because they had a sign on the front door saying, if you're gay, stay away. And a number of places had that for obvious reasons. And so we just said that was the place. So we announced that we're going to do this the next day at noon.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Can you tell them you're coming?

LEITSCH: No. And, of course, being gay, we were late. So we got there about quarter past 12. When we arrived, Ukrainian American Village was boarded up with the gates down. And all this press were standing around. I said, I got a great idea. I said, you that preacher who got arrested at Julius's like last week or the week before? They won't serve us. And so we all went around to Julius's, and we walked in. (Unintelligible) make us a drink. And we handed him a little note. He said, what does it say? I don't have my glasses, so I can't read it.

Somebody read the note to him, and he covered the glass with his hand. He's like, I can't serve you if you're gay. You know that. You're with the Mattachine Society. You know it's against the law to serve homosexuals. And we got busted last week. We got cops sitting in the damn door. We got to go to court - no, no, no, no, we can't serve you.

And I looked around at all these sissies sitting at the bar. And I thought, carry on, girlfriend. So we didn't get served. And so the press, you know, puts his name, took these pictures. And the Times did a story and all that. And so we got our coverage. And we were very pleased with ourselves. How can you not serve food and liquor to homosexuals? Don't they eat and drink? And people were talking about it. It was on the talk shows. It became kind of an issue.


ARABLOUEI: Coming up - how years of struggle built to the Stonewall uprising, and how years of organizing made Stonewall the event we remember today.


ABDELFATAH: You know, it's interesting hearing all these stories, which are very dramatic and...

MARCUS: Oh, they're great stories.

ABDELFATAH: ...And some of them didn't make the headlines. I'm wondering then, why Stonewall? Just a few years after most of these events...


ABDELFATAH: ...Happened, why did Stonewall become such a turning point for this movement?

MARCUS: In part because we look back now and see it as that. Stonewall wasn't Stonewall at the time, although in New York City, people fighting back against the police oppression in those numbers was exceptional. One of my favorite quotes comes from a man named Damien Martin, who wound up founding an organization called Hetrick-Martin Institute for the protection of lesbian and gay youth - now known as - in the late '70s. He recalled being in a cab going through the Village a day or two after the beginning of the uprisings. And he said the police had a look on their faces as if they'd been bitten by their favorite pets. The police were accustomed to gay people running. Fags didn't fight back against the police, which made it exceptional.

So Martin Boyce is one of the people who was at Stonewall who's my favorite storyteller about Stonewall. He's now 71. And he said the morning after - he was at the riot, it was in the papers, it was on the radio - his father was a cab driver who knew his son was gay and was supportive of him said, well, it's about time you fags fought back.

So that was exceptional. The police weren't accustomed to being chased by young homosexuals, so that made it exceptional. It was also the moment in time when confrontations with the police were not unusual. There was organizing in the immediate aftermath. And then there were the people who organized the first pride march, which happened in 1970, in June of '70. And that branded Stonewall as this event to be marked with this pride march, which was the successor to the Reminder Day protests. And people were told to mark that anniversary every year thereafter. And over time, Stonewall just simply came to represent gay people fighting back or the fight for freedom. It means lots of different things to different people.

Many of the organizers had had years of experience in the movement. And if not in the gay rights movement, they had experience in the black civil rights movement or the women's movement and the anti-war movement. I like to say that the organizers will inherit the earth. So if not for the organizers who channeled that rage right after Stonewall and created new organizations that could address the inequities, Stonewall wouldn't be remembered.

ARABLOUEI: Do you think that the focus on Stonewall, I mean, as important as you just - it is as you laid it out - do you think by focusing on it the way that we do that we miss something important about gay civil rights history?

MARCUS: Oh, my God, yes. I had such a contentious relationship with Stonewall. I really had to reconcile. And of course, Stonewall can't talk to me.


MARCUS: But I was so pissed off at Stonewall for having sucked the air out of the room from the rest of the history and that all of these people who were involved before Stonewall were ignored because of this myth that everything began at Stonewall that in my book, I decided to play Stonewall down. And I so played it down that I didn't give it its rightful place. I didn't recognize that I was looking at Stonewall through my own lens.

It's worth focusing on Stonewall. Stonewall is a great entry point, but it's unfortunate that in the few high school textbooks - history textbooks - that say anything about gay people, it mentions Stonewall, Harvey Milk, marriage, AIDS, and that's it. And I think that we should use Stonewall as an entry point to the history and put it in its rightful place, in a context. The Stonewall story is a much bigger story than just a couple of people who we argue over who might have thrown the first rock or the first cocktail glass.

We look at the very few pictures that are available - and there's no film, just a few pictures - we look at those pictures, and they're kids - 17 years old, 16 years old, white, black, mixed race, Hispanic, mostly homeless. And they were the ones who challenged the police and also the ones who died the soonest. They died in the '70s from drug overdoses, from being murdered, and then in the '80s from AIDS. So when people ask why are there so few people alive today to interview, most of them are dead.


ABDELFATAH: That was Eric Marcus. His podcast is called "Making Gay History."


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This show was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me. And...




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Unintelligible).


ABDELFATAH: Original music was produced for this episode by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Greta Pittenger.

ARABLOUEI: Sara Burningham.

ABDELFATAH: And, of course, Eric Marcus.

ARABLOUEI: If you liked this episode, please write us at, or find us on Twitter @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.