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Pride, CSD and Stonewall

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I’ve wanted to go to New York for Gay Pride for as long as I can remember. My friends who went would come back and laugh while telling me stories. I’d look at the photos in envy. It sounded like so much fun!

So why is there no Gay Pride in Germany? There is. It’s just changed names. You’ll see CSD, or Christopher Street Day (happening in Leipzig this week). In Austria it’s Rainbow Parade. Berlin’s CSD Berlin Pride parade started in 1979 and is the biggest in the country, next to Hamburg Pride and Cologne Pride.

With the pain of the Orlando shootings still fresh, it is a good time to look through the glitter and smiles to how it all started in the first place.

The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street was the first and only NYC gay dance bar in 1966. It was opened by the mafia who had an envelope ready for the police to collect each week to keep it from getting raided. There was no running water. Glasses were washed in tubs of water (like we do at voküs here). There was no liquor license and there were no fire exits. The toilet was generally backed up. There was no prostitution. What there was was dancing and that was the main draw; that and the fact that it was evenly mixed between black, white and Hispanics.

Stonewall Inn 1968, photo: Wikipedia
Stonewall Inn 1968, photo: Wikipedia

At this time it was common for the police to raid gay bars at least once a month. It sounds more like prohibition and speakeasies than the 60s scene, but gay bars even had secret shelves where liquor was hidden so that after the raid, they could go back to business as usual. Normally the owners were tipped off about the raids and they happened early in the evening to give the party plenty of time to continue.

These raids were not only about having no liquor license. It seems unfathomable now, but after WWII, there was a big push to “restore the prewar social order and hold off the forces of change”, according to historian Barry Adam. This included ridding it of “sexual perverts.” In 1950, a Senate investigation chaired by Clyde R. Hoey noted in a report, “It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons”. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a mental disorder. The FBI and the post office put anyone suspected of homosexual activities on watch lists.

This was the environment that forced homosexuals into the closet and it was also the environment that caused them to look for a place where they could just be themselves. New York’s Greenwich Village was one of the places a huge number of homosexuals moved to.

Saturday, 28 June 1969, a very different raid took place at the Stonewall Inn. There was no tip off and things were in full swing as it was 1.20 am. Rumor has it that the owners were making more money from blackmailing rich customers than they were from sales. Historian David Carter says since there were no kickbacks, authorities decided to close it down once and for all.

This time people did not cower. This time people fought back. Drag Queens refused to get in the paddy wagon. Sylvia Rivera, a self-identified street queen who had been in the Stonewall during the raid, remembered:

You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

This photograph appeared in the front page of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969, showing the "street kids" who were the first to fight with the police. photo: Wikepedia
This photograph appeared in the front page of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969, showing the “street kids” who were the first to fight with the police. photo: Wikipedia

This was not organised. It had been building up as a reaction to the systematic vilification of homosexuality.

Michael Fader explained, “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration… Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us…. All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.”

And not only did they not leave that night, but they came back the next. On the walls was sprayed “Drag power”, “They invaded our rights”, “Support gay power”, and “Legalize gay bars” and—regarding the status of the bar—”We are open.” The second night was much like the first. But this time it was different. It was different because gays and straights were there. And now there weren’t five or six hundred people, there were thousands. The police grew too. The original four (with backup) had grown to just over 100.

Beat poet and longtime Greenwich Village resident Allen Ginsberg lived on Christopher Street, and stumbled upon the jubilant chaos. After he learned of the riot that had occurred the previous evening, he stated, “Gay power! Isn’t that great!… It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves”, and visited the open Stonewall Inn for the first time. While walking home, he declared to Lucian Truscott,

“You know, the guys there were so beautiful. They’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”

The riots were less on Monday and Tuesday because of rain, but on Wednesday things were in full force again.

The Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, a designated U.S. National Historic Landmark and National Monument, as the site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. By Rhododendrites - Wikimedia Commons.
The Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, a designated U.S. National Historic Landmark and National Monument, as the site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. By Rhododendrites – Wikimedia Commons.

The events at the Stonewall Inn marked a change. They empowered the homosexual community to stand up and speak out. Sadly, there is still discrimination. Many are afraid to come out fearing the loss of family or jobs. I am embarrassed to be from North Carolina where they recently passed laws that force trans people to use the bathroom of their birth.

We’ve come a long way, but the fight is not over.

Maeshelle West-Davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums. Sound, video, photography, dance, performance and public art are the tools she uses to convey her message. Her work is a response not only to a physical journey, but an emotional one, as with all of us who walk along or beside our individual paths.

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