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The evening of June 27, 1969, was a turning point for American gays. Eight officers from New York City's public morals squad entered the Stonewall Inn, at 7th Avenue and Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Operated by a Mafia crime family, serving watered-down drinks without a liquor license, the seedy bar drew a crowd of gay men, lesbians and drag queens.
At the time, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois and such raids on gathering spots were a matter of course. Except that this time some of the patrons fought back, and refused to be led off to paddy wagons. The Tactical Patrol Force riot squad arrived, hundreds more gays converged on the scene, and the confrontation lasted for five days. As one observer in "Stonewall Uprising" puts it, "This was the Rosa Parks moment, when gay people stood up and said 'No!' "
The film, commissioned by the Public Broadcasting Service for its "American Experience" series, is a scrupulous account of the events. Writer-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner note that press coverage of the event was cursory. There are scant filmed or photographic records of the clash, and most of the visuals here are approximations reconstructed from other contemporary protests. Nevertheless, the film does a sturdy job of placing the clash in historical context.
Forty years ago, homosexuality was a matter for much fretful social comment. It was officially classified as a mental disease appropriately treated with therapies ranging from psychoanalysis to electroshock aversion therapy and nausea-drug treatments that amounted to "chemical waterboarding."
In a 1966 "CBS Reports" news special, Mike Wallace declared that "The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage." Gay men and women led secretive lives, fearing the public scandal and professional repercussions that could accompany exposure.
"People talk about being in and out now," comments gay historian Eric Marcus. In the 1960s, he recalls, "there was no out, there was just in."
The film relies mostly on graybeard eyewitnesses, including Village Voice reporters Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV, who covered the melee from their nearby offices, and Seymour Pine, the now-retired deputy inspector of the vice and gambling unit who led the initial raid. Pine emerges as one of the story's most sympathetic figures, a decent public servant who kept his officers from overreacting to the unexpected counterattack. There were no shots fired and no fatalities, a miracle in those days of violent street protests. "They were breaking the law," he says, "but what kind of law was that?"
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186