Stonewall reflections (Part 1)

This June, The Corning Museum of Glass and I Love NY! celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall Uprising. This is part one of a two-part blog post that details the impact Stonewall has had on our world, including the world of glass. In Part 1 we revisit the historic events surrounding Stonewall, the birthplace of the LGBTQ+ movement for equality. In Part 2, we will look at the ways glass, reborn as an art material in the same era, connects to Stonewall’s legacy.

The Stonewall, a dark, cramped dive of a bar in NYC’s Village neighborhood was an unlikely refuge for underaged teens, but for many it was the only home they had after families found out they were gay.*

The Stonewall Inn at 51-53 Christopher Street, New York City, New York. It is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Jobless and without skills—without decent clothes to wear to a job interview—they lived in the streets, panhandling or shoplifting for the price of admission to The Stonewall. That was the one advantage to the place—for $3.00 admission, one could stay inside, out of the winter’s cold or the summer heat, all night long.

The Atlantic

Married to the mob

The Stonewall’s façade is plain, a desirable trait for avoiding unwanted attention. The former horse stables turned watering hole had even less curb appeal in 1967 when the Genovese crime family turned it into a gay bar. It wasn’t a progressive gesture. The mafia exploited the fact that its patrons were society’s rejects and unwelcome elsewhere.

Titus Montalvo, a Stonewall customer who had just turned 16 in the summer of 1969, remembers, “The majority of people at Stonewall were either drag queens or gay men of color. You could never go to Julius [a nearby bar] unless you were extremely conservative and well-dressed.” (Out Magazine)

Conservative looking customers, mostly white, gathered in the front room, which was visible from the street. They sometimes became blackmail targets. Mobsters would photograph a customer then threaten to out them if they didn’t pay up. To refuse was to risk having your name show up in the papers which could lead to the loss of job and family.

The Stonewall’s owners didn’t bother with a liquor license, which in those days wouldn’t be issued to a place that served homosexuals. No running water behind the bar meant the booze, much of it stolen and watered down, was served in dirty glasses. And for all that drinks still cost twice what straight customers paid down the street.

Despite such hassles, the bar provided a relatively safe place to gather, but it couldn’t guarantee customers freedom from humiliation. During raids, transgender customers and drag queens were forced to submit to genital searches and arrested if an officer decided the legal dress code for a perceived gender wasn’t met.

To protect their business interests, the mob paid local police to tip them off when a raid was scheduled. No such warning came that night in June when officers burst into the Stonewall for the second time to haul patrons to jail.

Do something!

As police stormed the bar, Stormé DeLarverie, a mixed-race lesbian woman was clubbed and handcuffed. Bleeding from the head she struggled against the police attempting to throw her into a van. Defiant, she stood up and shouted to the stunned crowd, “Why don’t you do something?!”

The stunned Stonewall customers, rather than submitting quietly as usual, snapped. Turning on the police they began to help prisoners escape. Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known transgender activist, soon appeared and energized the crowd. She climbed a lamppost and flung her bag at a police car window which shattered beneath the weight of whatever she was carrying (theories abound). Resistance was a consistent theme in Marsha’s life. At times homeless herself, she along with friend Sylvia Rivera, established the first shelter for homeless transgender youth in New York.

The tide shifts

Supporters from all over the neighborhood poured into the streets and crowded around the bar. Ironically, the police, now greatly outnumbered, retreated inside the Stonewall for safety.   

“The mob got bigger and bigger and bigger and finally the police took refuge inside the bar. There were thousands of protestors and they battered the door with a parking meter. Someone started a fire outside and would throw flaming things into the bar anytime the door opened.”

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

More officers arrived. The crowd of protesters split in two and led them on a wild goose chase through the winding Village streets. The comedic impulses of Stonewall patrons meant their resistance took on a campy flair. At one point, protesters formed an arm-in-arm barricade to block the cops while dancing the Cancan.

Photo: Joseph Ambrosini/The New York Daily News.

As the sun finally rose that morning, the crowd was contained and dispersed. Few newspapers mentioned the night’s events, and it looked as if things might go back to the way they were.  

The next night, however, protesters reappeared. Night after night for a week police arrived to subdue the crowds, but The Uprising had taken root.

From protests to pride

Those June days back in 1969 are the symbolic beginning of the LGBTQ+ equality movement. In 1970, to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising the community planned a march up 6th Avenue. This was the first Pride celebration, a tradition that continues to grow and inspire communities across the world, typically in June.

“In those days walking in daylight with a sign that declared I’m a faggot was a death sentence … We hoped we had more than 10 people. We assembled on Christopher Street at 6th Avenue to march north to Central Park. There were about 100 people with some people, mostly gay, on the sidewalks to watch … We were scared, but as we made our way up 6th Ave it kept growing … I looked back and there were about 2,000 people behind us, and that was when I knew it had happened … That’s when we knew we were ourselves for the first time … America thought we were these homosexual monsters, and we were so innocent. And oddly enough we were so American … In every Gay Pride Parade, every year, Stonewall lives.”

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

Society rejected them. History made them heroes.

The Stonewall Uprising holds the seeds of Pride, and they are available to everyone. The heroes of Stonewall proved that if the world doesn’t believe in your potential or even your right to exist, you can still overcome with the power of community and creativity. You may not have much, but with a diverse group of others who believe in your freedom to create and invent, you have what is needed to share something of value.


References:

*Estimates show that LGBTQ youth comprise up to 40 percent of the total unaccompanied homeless youth population, even though they make up five to 10 percent of the overall youth population. 
Human Rights Campaign, November 15, 2017

In 1971, two years after The Stonewall Uprising, Marsha P. Johnson and a close friend, Sylvia Rivera, founded the trans-youth organization STAR—Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries—that housed and fed homeless youths.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, April 24, 2011

The Huffington Post: “Remembering Stormé—The Woman Of Color Who Incited The Stonewall Revolution,” by Julia Diana Robertson

Out Magazine: “A Stonewall Survivor Spills All,” by Michael Musto

The Atlantic: “An Amazing 1969 Account of the Stonewall Uprising,” Garance Franke-Ruta, January 24, 2013

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