Queens of the Night: What Really Happened at the Stonewall Inn?

In the early-morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, at a dive on 53 Christopher Street, the homosexual intifada began. Street queens, trannies, and at least one tough dyke fought back against the cops who had raided, once again, the Mafia-controlled Stonewall Inn—which opened in the spring of 1967 and, significantly, was the only gay bar in New York City that permitted men to dance with each other.

Homo history is bifurcated pre– and post–June '69, evident in the titles of the documentaries Before Stonewall (1984) and After Stonewall (1999). Though questionably structured, the value of Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's doc Stonewall Uprising—based on David Carter's 2004 book, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution—is that it focuses on the during, assembling minute-by-minute recapitulations of those who were there, fleshing out a historical moment that remains surprisingly underdocumented.

That the riots marked the beginning of the modern gay-and-lesbian movement is indisputable. But, as with most seismic events, almost everything else about Stonewall remains uncertain. Did the riots last three days, as the press notes for Stonewall Uprising assert? Or five, as historian Martin Duberman's essential 1993 account Stonewall (which inspired a fictional 1995 drag-queen fantasia directed by Nigel Finch) attests? Or six nights, as the New York Times claimed last year in an article marking the 40th anniversary of the insurgency on Christopher Street?

Davis, best known for the 2001 documentary Southern Comfort, about a transman dying of ovarian cancer, and Heilbroner occasionally muddle matters even more. The 19 talking heads (gays, journos—including former Voice writers Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV—cops, historians) are often identified only once; determining those who were actual habitués of the bar, particularly on June 28, 1969, and those who weren't becomes confusing—a particular liability for a film that stresses the importance of firsthand, eyewitness accounts. Virginia Apuzzo, listed only by her name in the film and described unhelpfully in the press notes as "formerly the highest-ranking lesbian in the Clinton administration," speaks eloquently, if vaguely, about the horrors of lavender life in the '50s and '60s—amplified in the film by excessive clips from virulently homophobic PSAs of that era—but says nothing about the Stonewall Inn, or gay-bar culture, at the time. Similarly, Martha Shelley—whose crucial role in the post-Stonewall activist group Gay Liberation Front you can learn about from Google but not this documentary—memorably says of the dangers of same-sex love: "I would go through fire, I would go through hell, for those kisses."

Whether or not Shelley went through fire and hell at 53 Christopher Street remains unaddressed. And for a film that celebrates the courage of the long-marginalized who fought back, who ushered in the whole concept of gay pride, is Ed Koch really someone you want to talk to?

The memories of those who were definitely there during those momentous days in late June are undeniably powerful, their fury still white-hot 41 years later. "Our goal was to hurt the police. I wanted to kill those cops," remembers John O'Brien, one man on the front lines. Another, Martin Boyce, recalls how the geographic specificity of the bar's location (further elucidated in Carter's book) allowed the Stonewallers to become a "hydra": "We were in control of the area." The cops—many from the outer boroughs and not familiar with the West Village's zig-zaggy grid—had trouble containing the rioters.

But are their voices best served by the messy documentary in which they appear? Tellingly, it's not the queers, but a cop—Seymour Pine, the 90-year-old retired NYPD morals inspector who led the raid on the Stonewall Inn—who gets the last word.

 
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