Lesson of the Day: ‘Inside a Home for LGBTQ Seniors: “I Made Friends Here.”’

In Greenwich Village, here in New York City, Christopher Park and Sheridan Square, and the area around the Stonewall Inn, is a place where the LGBT community gathered to celebrate our victories, to mourn our losses. But mostly, to protest. It was a place where the community felt comfortable and safe, because we were all among ourselves. Well, the 1960s, it was a city sport to attack gay people. We were the lowest of the scum of the Earth at that time. You’re sick. You’re a sinner. And some therapists said, well, if you get married, it’ll go away. We were thrown into a general category of people who needed to be cleaned up out of New York City. Well, I understand that we’re being picked by a group of homosexuals. [laughter] The policy of the department is that we do not employ homosexuals knowingly. And if we discover homosexuals in our department, we discharge them. Homosexuality is a problem. And these people are really advocating that we don’t solve the problem. They’re advocating that we tolerate the problem. And I think these people are a fit subject for a mental health program. Our life was kind of isolated and secret. But everyone knew that Greenwich Village was where we hung out. Every type of gay person that existed in the city, at one night could really be found there. In this particular area here, it was kind of liberating to be myself. People who are younger may not remember what it was like to go to a gay bar in the 60s. It was a very special thing to go to a bar. Bars always were dark on the outside, in some kind of way, so people couldn’t see in. They never had names. Christopher Park was a touch seedy. It was a park from Stonewall, so was occupied by the street kids, the drag queens, or whoever was around. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t beautiful. It was just a rest stop for people to talk and take a break from the bars, sometimes. There were always stories coming out of Stonewall. It was a dancing bar. At first, it was just a gay men’s bar, and they didn’t allow no women in. And then they started allowing women in, and then they let drag queens in. I was one of the first drag queens to go to that place. This area was the only real turf we had in the city. At the time, gay bars could not serve legally. So it was run by the mafia, and they paid off the police. But the police raided the bars all the time. We were afraid we would be arrested. But we went because we had no other place to go. June 28, 1969. It was a weekend. The neighborhood cops came in and they started pushing people. There was some commotion inside. Then there was the raid. Everybody just like, why the fuck are we doing all this for? I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. It just [makes snapping sound] everything clicked. We just was saying, no more police brutality, and we had enough police harassment in the village. Things escalated in different areas at the same time. A riot has movement and energy, and you’re not in one place to observe. What you ever observe is the place you’re in. And where you’re in, in two minutes could change. A drag queen had kicked a cop in the shoulder. The cop turned to us and did what they always did, and said, all right, you fags saw enough. The show’s over. Now get the fuck out of here. But for some reason, all of us, without telling each other, without communicating, even bodily, moved forward. All of a sudden, things were flying all over the place. The cops, they just panicked. We knew the land. They could not catch us. They could not trap us. They couldn’t arrest the leaders because we had none. They could do nothing but chase us. Two queens pulled a parking meter out of the ground, concrete and all, used it as a battering ram. Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, wow, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. The riot lasted for hours and hours. Finally, the first hint of dawn was coming. I sat down on a stoop. And I looked across and there was this other queen sitting on a stoop, exhausted. And six feet away on the fence was a cop, exhausted. No longer enemies, just exhausted people. And the first beginnings of the sun were catching all the smashed glass. It’s like diamonds lit up. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Well, the next few nights really were a repetition of the rioting. All of a sudden, a lot of gay people appeared on the streets, in this whole area, not just in front of Stonewall. This was our neighborhood, and we weren’t going to let them take it away from us. We knew this is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for. After the uprising, the bar closed. And realizing that this was a really important turning point. A year after the riots, that whole area by the Stonewall became the gathering point of the kickoff for the first gay pride parade. Craig Rodwell of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop putting up a sign in his window and saying, hey, kids, let’s put on a show. And they were going to commemorate Stonewall as an event. For lack of a better term, they branded it. It was our desire not to let any of this be forgotten. Sticking our torches in the ashes of the Stonewall, to say, we are walking away from the darkness of the bars. And we can have another life together. The remarkable first march I think brought a lot of us to our senses as to what we could do. And then, all of a sudden, everything seemed to be in place. [crowd noises] Everybody was into changing the system. But, there were a lot of drag queens behind the scenes that could not be seen in front, like myself or Marsha. The community is always embarrassed by the drag queens. It was always, we have to look part of their world. And that’s what really hurt. In many ways, the Stonewall became an icon and a beacon for the LGBTQ movement. People would head to Sheridan Square and gather in front of the Stonewall with their anger, their love, their concerns. And in the latest chapter of her war on homosexuals, Anita Bryant says she’s in favor of having homosexual acts treated as felonies, even though that might mean prison terms of as much as 20 years. We thought Anita Bryant was a threat to us, and we only became stronger. [crowd noises] Dan White has been found guilty of one count each of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The jury chose the least serious crime of the options given to them. Some 200 gays marched to Sheridan Square in the Village to stage a rally. [crowd noises] It will be a demonstration that will gather in Sheridan Square and march to the shoot site, where we will try to disrupt the filming in every legal way possible. We have to start laying our lives on the line if people are going to take us seriously, and this whole movement. We told you earlier that two men died and six others were wounded in a machine gun attack on two homosexual bars in the Village last night. Well, tonight about 1,500 people staged a march from Sheridan Square to those two bars. There were many gatherings at Sheridan Square, even though the Stonewall closed shortly after the uprising. For many years, there was a bagel place where the original Stonewall had been. You want a revolution with a schmear, we’d say. [crowd] Fight back, fight back, fight back, fight back. Take heart, take courage. You’re on the streets today. You’ll be on the streets again next year, and the year after, and the year after, until all of us have all of the freedoms. [crowd cheering] The number of AIDS cases here is doubling every two years. 10,116 people living in New York have gotten it. And more than half of them are already dead. You couldn’t go to the hospital. Some doctors weren’t going to treat you, so you’d see them walking around here, looking gaunt, very thin, wasting. And this is all we had, was the Village. I’ve learned, from the Stonewall Riots, that you have to keep fighting. And we have to stick together because there’s power in numbers. [crowd chanting] We say fight back. We say fight back. We’re here to say it’s not open season in this city on gays and lesbians. [crowd chanting] Hey hey ho ho. Homophobia’s got to go. A lot of the bashing that goes on, I think has been made worse because of the threat of AIDS. June 1994, New York City, 25 years later, lesbians and gays from every state and a hundred countries fill the streets and stadiums. Thousands of people skipped the official parade and staged a protest march instead. Revelers gathered at the scene of the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, and made their way up Fifth Avenue. The Fifth Avenue March, organized mostly by ACT UP, took place without a license. Because AIDS has largely been rendered invisible by the official Stonewall 25 establishment. They wanted to put a certain image on Stonewall 25 because they expected to attract a lot of money that way. The decision that Stonewall 25 made to exclude transsexuals and bisexuals as official participants in the March on the UN was a problematic decision. Don’t push us on the back of your history. We are part of this movement. I am proud to announce that Stonewall and its surrounding area are hereby added to the National Register of Historic Places as the first such historic site of national significance for lesbian and gay men in America. Good evening, everyone. History unfolding tonight in New York. The Empire State now the sixth and largest state to legalize same sex marriage. We really wanted to be in a place where history was made, as history is made. We come today because we want to value the people who were lost in Orlando, because whether we are happy, whether we are sad, this is where we come. The story of America is a story of progress. Sometimes we can mark that progress in special places, hallowed ground where our history was written. Well, one of these special places is the Stonewall Inn. Unveil the sign. We are here to celebrate and recognize the first national monument dedicated to the story of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community, and their fight for equal rights. Stonewall National Monument is much wider than Christopher Park. The boundaries include some of the surrounding streets, where some of the participants in the uprising fled to during those nights of the event. Using a model, literally, of Civil War battlefields, because the battles took place on the streets around Stonewall, not just the bar building itself. In 1969, the Park was full of LGBTQ youth who had been kicked out on the street. And they’re seeing some activity, they’re seeing people get a little rowdy. What do they have to lose? So they were a huge part of it. I served in the Coast Guard under the Don’t ask, Don’t tell policy as someone who identifies as queer. Getting to wear the uniform and coming full circle, really was life changing. There’s nothing like walking on the street and knowing this is where this happened, this is where that happened. [crowd chanting] No wall. We want peace for all. We have fought. No one has given us this. No one has suddenly woken up one day and decided, oh, we think we’ll stop disccriminating. We have demonstrated in the streets, come out to our friends, and families, and bosses to demand respect. We have fought for our dignity and our rights. And maybe most of all, we have had to fight for our own self-respect in the face of a world telling us we are sick, disgusting, lawbreaking human beings. It is a wonder that any of us have survived. Whenever we have Pride, I don’t feel like celebrating because we don’t have justice, especially the trans community and women of color. We’ve won many battles. But unfortunately, the war still keeps on. And you’re not only fighting for yourself. You’re fighting for the people coming behind you. One of the things that I’ve learned from the gay movement is that the things that you think are going to take five years, take 50 years. That in fact hearts and minds, and politics change very slowly. I had this sentiment that it was already our monument, before it got the National Park Service designation. We just knew. [crowd chanting] What have you got? Gay power. What have you got? Gay power. Gay power.

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