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New Film “Stonewall Uprising”: 3 Nights That Changed Everything

Police surround a Stonewall rioter, June, 1969. (Bettye Lane via First Run Features)

Steven Holden tells in today’s New York Times about a new documentary on the Stonewall Riots. It sounds like a must-see.

“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.”

So declared Mike Wallace in authoritative voice-of-God tones in “The Homosexuals,” a tawdry, sensationalist 1966 “CBS Reports,” excerpted in Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s valuable film, “Stonewall Uprising.” Funny how yesterday’s conventional wisdom can become today’s embarrassment.

The most thorough documentary exploration of the three days of unrest beginning June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a seedy Mafia-operated gay bar in Greenwich Village, turned on the police after a routine raid, “Stonewall Uprising” methodically ticks off the forms of oppression visited on gays and lesbians in the days before the gay rights movement.

Holden’s review itself is valuable reading until we get to see the film:

The cultural demonizing of gay men in public service films depicted them as at best, psychologically damaged and at worst, ruthless sexual predators. Lesbians were nearly invisible.

The same “CBS Reports” peddled the medical opinion, since discredited, that homosexuality was determined in the first three years of life. The movie has ominous vintage footage of electroshock aversion therapy being administered, accompanied by the suggestion that it might be a promising cure for what was widely regarded as a mental illness. The most unsettling historical tidbit concerns the treatment of homosexual patients at a mental hospital in Atascadero, Calif., where some were injected with a drug that simulated drowning, a process that one commentator describes as “chemical waterboarding.”

It’s easy today for LGBT people in the West to forget what Gay life was like back then—and what it’s still like now in large parts of the world, including Russia and its satellites, the Middle East, nearly all of Africa. Latin America is doing somewhat better, including parts of Mexico and Brazil, but progress is uneven; people still win elections in the United States by denouncing Gay people and denying us rights.

Holden tells us the film even quotes one of the cops:

Because so little photographic documentation exists of the unrest, the film relies mostly on eyewitnesses, including Seymour Pine, the now-retired police officer who led the initial raid of six officers and who describes it as “a real war.”

The details of the raid are reconstructed by several who were present, including Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV, journalists for The Village Voice whose offices were nearby. The film focuses on the first night of the unrest.

As one rioter remembers: “All of a sudden the police faced something they had never seen before. Gay people were never supposed to be threats to police officers. They were supposed to be weak men, limp-wristed, not able to do anything. And here they were lifting things up and fighting them and attacking them and beating them.” It was the first stirring of what came to be known as gay pride.

“This was the Rosa Parks moment, the time that gay people stood up and said no,” Mr. Truscott recalls. “And once that happened, the whole house of cards that was the system of oppression of gay people started to crumble.”


Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan at the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, West Village.

I’ve written before about the “dueling stereotypes” of Gay men as limp-wristed sissies who somehow manage simultaneously to be dangerous predators; Jamie gives Kent a tart little speech about it in “Murder at Willow Slough.”

You can hear the same lies told about us in the debate on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. For heaven’s sake, Straight men have been sharing bathrooms and showers with us since the beginning of time! There’s no need to build a new barracks, or run a huge expensive poll of 800,000 soldiers, or wait until the freaking Pentagon learns to obey an order for once.

Bill Clinton should never have caved. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff threatened to quit (and yes, they certainly did) he should have fired them until he found a general who understands that civilians control this military and not the other way around.

I will never support a Clinton and this is why. I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton in 1996 and I certainly did not vote for his pandering missus in 2008.

My late lover Jack was a Vietnam veteran. I was once at a Gay Pride dinner in Dayton, Ohio where military issues were the topic of the year; the speaker asked, “How many of you served in the military?” Half the room raised their hands, including a lot of women!

But it all started in 1969, outside a seedy joint in Sheridan Square, when the limp-wristed predators finally fought back.

They changed my life, they changed yours, and those rioters are our patron saints worldwide. Maybe someday their descendants will riot in Russia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. No one gives you rights, you have to take them.++