Remembering Stonewall: EW talks to two men who fought at the '69 riots
In 1969, the very existence of queer people was illegal in America. They couldn’t drink. They couldn’t gather publicly. They couldn’t show affection without facing a nightstick. Outside of a sliver of Greenwich Village — the famed Christopher Street — to be completely invisible was considered a matter of survival in New York City. Thus, Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn — a dimly lit dive bar, which operated under mob control — was a refuge, the one place where a true rainbow of LGBTQ folks came together to celebrate themselves with (watered-down) drinks in hand and music pulsating through their veins. “You could dance!” Mark Segal, 68, recalls. “It was the only place you could dance.” And when the cops tried to take that away? A movement was born.
Segal was there, fighting and rallying, at the Stonewall Riots on June 28, 1969 — an 18-year-old kid who’d run away from his South Philadelphia hometown just six weeks earlier for the promised (relative) freedom of Christopher Street. “If you wanted to find out who or what you were, you went to the only place you could, your local library, where maybe five books even mentioned the word homosexuality — and they most likely told you [that] you were mentally ill,” he recalls. “What most people wanted to do was escape that. I escaped to New York. I had no money, no prospects for work, had no idea what I was going to do.”
Christopher Street was filled with stories like that. And while the spirit of the neighborhood was vibrant, the idea of collective action was far from anyone’s mind. “Up until Stonewall, there really wasn’t a gay community,” Segal explains. But there came a moment when enough was enough. “It was the elimination of a great deal of built-up frustration,” says Martin Boyce, 71, a New York native who’d been on Christopher Street for years before the riots. “All the attacks on us — we just went mad.”
The evening of the riots was a hot New York summer night. The cops arrived, as they often did, to shut the Stonewall down. But this was different. It was late, after midnight, when police typically left the establishment alone. Segal was in the bar; Boyce was outside it. Sitting on a stoop near the bar and watching the commotion, Boyce remembers the precise moment an ordinary raid turned into something much bigger — and history-making. “As I got to the bar, passed the paddy wagon, they were shoving this drag queen — and she kicked,” he recalls. “Her heel hit his shoulder — he went back a little. You heard flesh and bone. We all winced. We were like, ‘Wow, she kicked him.’ ”
At that second, as Boyce puts it, “something happened.” The cop retreated toward the bar. The Stonewall’s defenders grew. “The riot was on.” Cops tried to hold people in the bar, but they were increasingly surrounded by cis and transgender people of all colors. It was a community they’d never dreamed would fight back not only doing so, but gaining the upper hand. Cracks Segal: “In 1969, how would you like to be a policeman, calling your station house, saying, ‘Excuse me, I’m trapped in prison by gay people in a bar. Can you please save me from the gay people?’ ”
Neither Boyce nor Segal felt fear amid the intensity. “Most depictions of Stonewall are very depressing, but that is wrong — wrong, wrong, wrong,” Segal says. “It was the most joyous riot you’ve ever seen. We were fighting back against 2,000 years of repression. We were finally able to say out loud, ‘I’m gay!’ ” To Boyce, now a retired NYC chef, it felt less joyous than important. He describes one “cinematic image” retained in his memory: “One queen was standing on the window ledge of Stonewall, and I never saw anyone so determined in my whole life. It looked like a lithograph of John Brown, the abolitionist. The fire in that queen’s eyes. I didn’t know she had such fire in her.”
Segal became an activist on the first night of Stonewall. “Everybody thinks of Stonewall as one night,” he says. “It was one year.” In the hours after the riot, he wrote in chalk along Christopher Street and the walls of Stonewall, “Tomorrow night, Stonewall,” committed to keeping the energy of the night alive — and he was not alone. His and others’ efforts led to the creation of the inclusive Gay Liberation Front: a unit for collective action, passionate demonstrations, and finally, the first Pride March exactly a year later, starting (where else?) in Greenwich Village. “We united — that was so difficult,” says Segal, a journalist now living in Philadelphia. “We decided that the most important thing that we could do — the first thing that we could do — is identify ourselves rather than let society label us. We were taking back our own identity. That had never been done before.”
Celebrate 50 years of gay pride with Entertainment Weekly’s special LGBTQ double issue, on stands Friday. You can buy all six covers now, or purchase your individual favorites featuring Anderson Cooper, Wilson Cruz, Melissa Etheridge, Neil Patrick Harris, Janet Mock, and Ruby Rose. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. And if you want to get involved in LGBTQ causes, donate to The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, a non-profit that seeks to eliminate the social intolerance affecting members of the LGBTQ community.