Today’s the day, everyone! Fifty years since the first night of the Stonewall uprising! Deciding what to write today was difficult, but I finally decided…. this is a pretty momentous occasion, especially for a queer history web site. So I’m going to talk about what sets Stonewall apart, and what lessons we learned 50 years ago that we can still be carrying with us today.
People always like to say that Stonewall was the start of the gay rights movement but if you’ve been following us for a while, you know that’s not strictly true. There had been organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis fighting for gay rights for decades. We’d already had riots like Compton’s Cafeteria, the Black Cat Riot, and Cooper’s Do-nuts, we’d already had protests like the Annual Reminders and the Dewey’s Sit-In. The gay rights movement was pretty well in effect by 1969.
So what made Stonewall so important? Why is that the moment that changed everything? Because that’s the first time we stood up against the people oppressing us together. The LGBTQIA+ community, even now, is rife with division and it was then too. The divisions were different, but they were there. The community was broken up into the “butch” gays — the “respectable” straight-passing men who could blend into mainstream society; the queens — basically any more effeminate gay men could fit into this group which was also divided up by drag queens, transvestites (who, now, we’d mostly call transgender women), street queens, and “scare queens.” There were similar divisions between lesbians — butch and femme, passing or not. And in all of those groups, of course, there was a division between the white people and the people of color.
But on June 28, 1969 none of those divisions in the queer community mattered. The divisions were still there, but it didn’t matter. We had each other’s back. Stonewall was mostly full of butch gays — and mostly white gays at that, and the police were letting most people who weren’t in the “wrong clothes for their sex” go free — but they didn’t leave, they stayed outside and watched and drew in a crowd. The street queens weren’t in the bar at all, they would have been fine — but they were the ones who started fighting back. Because — for maybe the first time ever — it wasn’t only about self-preservation. And for five nights of rioting, we all had each other’s backs. That’s what changed — that’s why we’re able to look at Stonewall as the beginning of something.
To me, that’s why Stonewall was so powerful and important. It showed that, as long as we are looking out for each other and working together, that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
We’re not yet at the bright future every single one of the heroes of Stonewall we’ve talked about this month — and all of the ones we haven’t talked about yet — had envisioned for us. But I can promise, that is how we’ll get there. Working together, as a community.
I know this was like hokey and sappy or whatever, but it’s over now. Go celebrate!
Most of the people who were at the Stonewall uprising in 1969 are primarily known for their involvement with the riot — even though most of them went on to be heavily involved in activism in the following decades. Craig Rodwell is another story. Craig was so heavily involved in activism both before and after the riots that his presence there is basically a footnote.
Rodwell was born October 31, 1940 in Chicago. His parents separated before his first birthday, and for the beginning of his life he was sent away to for “day care” — this day care, however, made him start doing laundry and working in the kitchen as soon as he was old enough. When he was six, his mother realized that maybe this wasn’t the best arrangement if she wanted to keep custody of him and so she sent him to a Christian Science school for “problem boys” called Chicago Junior School. He attended that school for seven years, where he got a reputation for being rebellious — but also for being a “sissy.”
By all accounts, the “problem boys” there frequently fooled around sexually — though with nothing serious behind it. At fourteen, Rodwell pursued a relationship with an adult man. When the two were caught by police, who refused to believe Rodwell when he insisted he’d started the relationship and was at fault, the man was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a minor. The police tried to encourage him to lie in his testimony, asking him to say that the man had paid him money. Rodwell refused, and was threatened with juvenile detention — ultimately he was just ordered by the court to see a psychiatrist, but the experience colored his view of the legal system for the rest of his life.
Rodwell also fully believed the Christian Science teachings he was learning — particularly the idea that “truth is power and that truth is the greatest good.” As a result, after he graduated and began attending Sullivan High School, he enrolled himself in a Christian science Sunday school. It was in these classes he learned that Christian Science didn’t approve of homosexuality — something Rodwell determined he was going to have to change. After high school, Rodwell relocated to Boston to study ballet before moving to New York City in 1958 — intentionally moving to Greenwich Village, where he’d heard there was a large queer community. Rodwell was hoping to become involved in the Mattachine Society.
Unfortunately, the Mattachine Society required its members to be 21 or older. Rodwell also couldn’t get into any of the gay bars yet — so he spent his time in parks, connecting with the gay community on the streets. This made him pretty vulnerable to the police, and he was involved in more than one scrape with them. But this only made him more radical.
In 1962, Rodwell was dating Harvey Milk — who was still in the closet (and just, generally, had a lot of growing to do before he becomes the Milk we all know and love). This was Rodwell’s first serious relationship. Rodwell’s outspoken activism was unsettling for Milk, and he also blamed Rodwell for an STD that he contracted. (Not unreasonable, really.) In September, Rodwell was arrested for resisting the police when they swept through a popular cruising area of Jacob Riis Park. While in jail, Rodwell was physically abused by one of the guards. When he was released from jail, Milk dumped him. His self-confidence rattled, Rodwell tried to end his own life. Fortunately for the entire queer community, the attempt failed. He left New York to travel for a couple of years.
In 1964, Rodwell returned to New York and devoted himself to activism for the “homophile” community (as we called ourselves then — I am so glad we don’t use that term anymore). He was volunteering with the Mattachine Society — using his legal name, which was a rarity in that time — and even serving as their vice president. He founded the Mattachine Young Adults organization, and was an early member of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) — which coordinated various homophile groups from around the eastern seaboard. On September 19, he and several other notable activists including Randy Wicker, Jefferson Poland, and Renee Cafiero staged a protest against the military’s exclusion of gay service members — and the practice of dishonorably discharging those who were found out. This is officially recognized as the first organized LGBTQ+ protest in United States history (though I suspect there were some before that we just don’t acknowledge).
In a coordinated protest with ECHO, Rodwell and Wicker led a protest at the United Nations Plaza in New York on April 18, 1965 — joined by Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and roughly 25 other protesters. Days after this protest, the sit-in protest at Dewey’s began in Philadelphia. With the other leaders of ECHO, including Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, it was decided they needed regular protests to remind the nation about the plight of the queer community — they could not afford to only protest when there was a crisis happening in Cuba or in Philadelphia. And so, on July 4, 1965, the first of the Annual Reminders was held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
In 1966, Rodwell was ejected from a bar called Julius’ for wearing a pin that read “Equality for Homosexuals.” On April 21, with the help of John Timmons and Mattachine president Dick Leitsch, Rodwell held a “sip-in” at the bar. This was specifically to protest a rule by State Liquor Authority that prohibited homosexuals from gathering in places that served alcohol. Rodwell and his cohorts held that the rule encouraged bribery and corruption amongst the police. The publicity from this sit-in led directly to that particular rule ending.
In order to try make the Mattachine Society more accessible, Rodwell proposed they open a storefront. When the idea was rejected, he cut his ties with the organization. In November of 1967, Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop — the country’s first store that focused on queer authors. The store was so named because Oscar Wilde was the most notable homosexual he could think of and he wanted absolutely not confusion about what the store was all about. The place functioned as more than just a store — Rodwell also envisioned it as a community center that didn’t have age restrictions and didn’t rely on alcohol (or the organized crime families that owned most of the gay bars in the city). To that end, he found the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN) out of the bookshop, and led their rallies in that year. In 1968, he started publishing their periodical HYMNAL. Harvey Milk — now friends with Rodwell — was a frequent customer of the store, and it would later be the inspiration his own shop/community center/campaign headquarters Castro Camera in San Francisco. Rodwell also met Fred Sargeant at his store. Sargeant became heavily involved in HYMN and a romantic relationship blossomed.
On June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn. (Did you forget, in all of this, that this was coming up too?) Rodwell and Sargeant were walking through Greenwich Village when they happened to see a crowd gathering outside the bar — and caught the beginning of the riots. Rodwell was a leader in fighting back, and led the crowd in various “gay power” chants. He also had a camera with him, and tried to take pictures to document the event. Unfortunately, none of the pictures were successfully developed — which is extra sad because we have hardly any pictures from the first night of riots (even though Rodwell also used a pay phone to call the press and let them know what was happening). Nevertheless, he did share his account of the night — which he described as “one of those moments in history that, if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
The next day, Rodwell created a flyer — which HYMN helped him to disseminate through Greenwich Village — that read “Get the Mafia and the Cops Out of Gay Bars.” The flyers helped encourage further protests the next several nights — protests Rodwell participated in as well.
After the annual reminder of that year — which took place a week after Stonewall — Rodwell decided that the needs of the community had been changed after the riots. He began writing a resolution in his store. In November, Rodwell, Sargeant, Ellen Broidy, and Linda Rhodes proposed the resolution at a Philadelphia meeting of ECHO to change the annual reminders. Instead of happening on July 4 in Philadelphia, they proposed, there would be simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country on June 28. This would be called Christopher Street Liberation Day, and there would be no dress code (as the annual reminders had had) or age limitations. And so Pride began.
Despite he tremendous work so far, Rodwell found he’d never really been able to address the homophobia in Christian Science. In 1970, he placed a biography of Mary Baker Eddy in a very visible place in his store in order to meet other gay Christian Scientists. Meanwhile, he was continuing to work on advocating for queer rights. He is often credited with inventing the word “heterosexism” in January of 1971, when he wrote “After a few years of this kind of ‘liberated’ existence such people become oblivious and completely unseeing of straight predjudice and – to coin a phrase – the ‘hetero-sexism’ surrounding them virtually 24 hours a day.” In 1973, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop moved from its address on Mercer Street to the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street.
In 1978 Rodwell formed Gay People in Christian Science (GPICS) with Ray Spitale, Bob McCullogh, and Bob Mackenroth. While they were not the only gay Christian Science organization in the country, they were the only one actively challenging the church’s policies — actively challenging the excommunication of three of their members. This quickly became Rodwell’s primary focus for his activism. GPICS created an eight-page pamphlet entitled “Gay People in Christian Science?” which they proceeded to mail to every Christian Science church, college organization, and practitioner that they could find. Overall, they mailed out 8,000 copies. They then made plans to hand out the pamphlets at the 1980 Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. To organize this in the least offensive way possible, Rodwell alerted security for the event of their intentions.
When they arrived, they discovered extremely heightened security and police presence. Undeterred, they set up their table and began distributing flyers. They were quickly informed that the booth was illegal and that they needed to leave. The group obeyed, though Rodwell and a handful of others remained on the premises and handed out their pamphlets more discreetly. Unfortunately, the pamphlet wasn’t enough to change the church’s minds and in 1981, the church fired Chris Madsen from the Christian Science Monitor for being a lesbian. GPICS returned to the annual meeting that year, this time fired up. Instead of simply handing out pamphlets, they engaged in loud and disruptive protests.
In the years that followed, queer activism within Christian Science moved to become primarily focused to areas in the Midwest. Although Rodwell remained involved, he took on a much less significant leadership role. He remained heavily involved in queer activism for the remainder of his life.
In 1992, Rodwell received the Lambda Literary Award for Publisher’s Service. In May of that year, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In March of 1993, he sold the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop to Bill Offenbaker. He passed away on June 18 that year. It was not until 1999 that the Christian Science Church finally began to allow gay and lesbian members.
It’s honestly hard to think of anyone who, in our history, has been so devoted to our community and done so much for us. I find his name crop up in almost everything that happened for our community in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and for some reason I’m always surprised. And given his influence on Harvey Milk, what he accomplished for us actually extended all the way to San Francisco.
I’m sure almost everyone reading this site already knows about what is arguably the single biggest turning point in LGBT+ history: the Stonewall riots. Buckle up, this one is long but it couldn’t be more important.
First, let’s talk about the Stonewall Inn itself. The Stonewall Inn was (and is, to this day) located at 51 and 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York. It was owned by members of the Genovese crime family because, backtracking a bit, during Prohibition when the sale of alcohol was forced to go underground, organized crime had essentially taken over the gay bar industry. There really weren’t any gay-owned and operated nightlife establishments, not like we see now. On the one hand, this was good because that meant the police were often paid not to raid these bars — on the other hand, it meant that the owners of these operations were only in it for the money and so they overcharged for watered down drinks and generally treated their customers badly. In fact, it’s theorized that the owners of Stonewall were making more money off of blackmailing their wealthier regulars than from their liquor sales. But their customers did not have many other places to go. Some of the patrons of the club were homeless, gay eighteen year-olds who literally had nowhere else to go. For them, Stonewall wasn’t just a bar — it was home. In every sense of the word.
To prevent any cops from coming into the establishment, a bouncer peered through a peephole at anyone trying to come in. Anyone who was permitted in either needed to “look gay” or be someone the bouncer recognized. All visitors had to write their names in a guest log, although it was very rare for anyone to use their real name. On weekends, there was a $3 cover charge that came with two drink tickets. (The 1960’s definition of “overcharging for drinks” is not the same as our modern definition of “overcharging for drinks”. If I get a drink ticket with my cover charge, I am extremely happy. Especially on a Saturday night!) If a cop was spotted, bright white lights would turn on — the bar was kept intentionally as dark as possible, but these lights would signal that everyone needed to stop dancing together and stop touching at all.
Police raids were increasingly common in the period leading up to June 28 1969, but the Genovese crime family was always — up to that point — tipped off before a raid happened. At 1:20 am, however, they discovered that there was a first time for everything. Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the door with four plainclothes officers and two uniformed patrolmen, banged on the door and shouted “Police! We’re taking the place!” The Genoveses had not been tipped off, which they would later learn was because the raid was actually ordered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, who suspected them of bootlegging their liquor (correctly, I might add.) There were also four undercover police (two male and two female) who were already inside the bar.
From the beginning, the raid did not go as planned. In a typical raid, the patrons were lined up and asked to show their identification, and anyone dressed as a female was sent to the bathrooms with a female officer in order to verify their sex. (Why, yes, that was as invasive as it sounds!) The patrons of the bar refused to line up — some attempted to flee from the bar immediately, but the police blocked off the doors. Others lined up but refused to present their IDs, and still others refused to go to the bathrooms with female officers. Some of the lesbians present were inappropriately touched while being frisked by male police officers.
The police decided that they were simply going to make arrests of anyone who did not cooperate. The patrol wagons hadn’t arrived yet, so the police lined up the people they were arresting. The patrons who were not being arrested were released by the front door. Instead of leaving, however, they waited and watched. A crowd began to form, which quickly grew to be over 100 people in size. Deputy Inspector Pine would later say it was “ten times the number of people being arrested”. The crowd began singing “We Shall Overcome” and shouting “Gay Power!” and other various catchphrases to deter the police from their current course. As the patrol wagons arrived, pennies and beer bottles were thrown at them.
The police attempted to force a woman into one of the arriving wagons — by most accounts she was “typical New York butch” Stormé DeLarverie. She was clubbed over the head for complaining her handcuffs were too tight — and that set her off. She fought four police officers for ten minutes, before looking at the crowd and saying “Why don’t you guys do something?” At that point, she was tossed into the patrol wagon — but they were too late. She’d struck the match.
The popular version of events holds that Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick — which would have been right at this moment. Johnson’s own telling of the events says she wasn’t there until about an hour and a half later — after she’d heard about the riot, she went to find her friend Sylvia Rivera before joining in. The other two names often given for the possible “first brick thrower were Jackie Hormona (also unlikely, in my opinion) and Zazu Nova (that’s who my money is on!) There are countless different versions of what happened, depending on who you ask. There was no organization except — according to Michael Fader, who was present — “a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit.” According to various accounts, including Fader’s, there was a feeling in the air that this night was going to change things and “we were never going to go back”. That could not have been more true.
The police were ultimately forced back into the bar by the crowd, where they were essentially captives. Garbage was set on fire and forced through the windows of the bar. The NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) was called in, in order to help free the stranded police officers and get them medical treatment (which a few of them needed). The TPF also tried to clear the streets by forming a phalanx and pushing the crowd back — but the crowd made a joke of it. They formed a kick line in response to the police’s formation. Those in the kick line sang a parody of the popular vaudeville song “Ta-ra–ra Boom-de-day” with lyrics that went “We are the Stonewall girls/We wear our hair in curls/We don’t wear underwear/We show off our pubic hair.” The TPF did not appreciate the humor, and launched into a full-scale assault on the kick line, hitting them with nightsticks and bats.
That enraged the crowd even more. The mob started chasing the police, flipping cars, By four in the morning, however, the streets had been cleared. News of the riot appeared in several local papers, and rumors flew about what had caused them. That night, the riots picked up again — many people came back from the night before, but this time they were joined by activists who had been present, by people who enjoyed provoking the police, and even by some tourists. Thousands of people gathered outside the Stonewall Inn. Accounts vary on which night was more violent but there was one notable change — homosexual men and women were making out with each other openly on the street. One witness described it: “From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets.” Traffic trying to get through Christopher Street was stopped, with cars and buses being blocked and harassed until the occupants would announce their support for the demonstrators. Police cars were vandalized. More than a hundred police officers were sent — but every time someone would get arrested, the mob would rush out and recapture them from the police. By 4 am, the second night of rioting had died down.
For the next several nights, there were smaller altercations between police and the LGBT community in New York City. Less than a week later, a bus was chartered to get activists from New York safely to Philadelphia for what would be the last of the Annual Reminders. Following the riots, many of the people present became members of the newly formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in order to further fight for equality for the queer community.
I want to tell you all about the Dewey’s Lunch Counter Sit-Ins. This protest was the first known LGBT protest in Philadelphia (though only by a few months, as the Annual Reminders would start soon after). Dewey’s was a chain of hamburger restaurants that, in 1965, had two locations in Philadelphia. (I don’t think there’s any locations anymore — couldn’t compete with the Big Mac, I guess.) One of these was at 219 South Seventeenth St (which, I just checked Google, and there doesn’t seem to be anything there right now — except maybea parking garage?). That’s where this story unfolds. Responding to a crowd of teenagers whose outfits were, let’s say, outside of typical gender norms and who were apparently behaving disruptively, Dewey’s management instructed their employees to deny them service. This order was interpreted broadly, and service was denied to anyone who appeared to be LGBT in any respect — but this was a local LGBTQ+ hangout, so that policy ended up leading to roughly 150 people being denied service in one day (April 25, 1965). Three of those people refused to leave — and thus the sit-in began. The Janus Society joined the teenagers with their sit-in at Dewey’s. The police arrived and arrested the three teenagers and Janus Society president Clarke Polak. These arrests, if anything, further incensed the Janus Society. They proceeded to demonstrate outside of the restaurant, and handed out over 1,500 leaflets throughout the next five days. They staged a second sit-in on May 2, and although the police were called no one was arrested this time. Following this, Dewey’s put an end to it’s discriminatory policy. The Dewey’s sit-in is particularly significant for what is, otherwise, a pretty small protest. First, it was successful in a pretty short amount of time. Especially as an early LGBT protest, that’s remarkable. But this was also one of, if not the, first protest for LGBT equality in the United States. Earlier rallies, riots, and protests were mostly about police harassment and seeking access to legal protection. This was a new kind of protest, asking for something more than just safety, and it signaled the beginning of a new kind of LGBT activism led by the teenagers of the day. A much more radical, liberal philosophy emerged that demanded society change to accept people no matter how they defied gender norms. It’s still a struggle we’re having with society to this day, but the next time you’re sneaking a Baconator from Wendy’s just remember how far we’ve actually come. (And then when you’ve finished eating, remember how far we have left to go!)
I want to talk a bit about the Annual Reminders — partially because they were born out of a protest in Washington DC in 1965 and partially because, without them, we would almost assuredly not have Pride happening each June.
On April 17 and 18 of that year, a multitude of gay rights organizations (or “homophile organizations” as they were called) from across the East Coast gathered in Washington D.C. to protest the US and Cuba’s policies on homosexuality. Cuba, at the time, was forcing homosexual men into labor camps. This protest was the combined effort of the DC and NYC chapters of the Mattachine Society, Philadelphia’s Janus Society, and the NYC chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis. These groups decided to band together, forming the East Coast Homophile Organizations (or ECHO). Only 40 activists were present, but it was — at the time — the largest demonstration for LGBT+ rights in world history.
Following the protest in DC, Craig Rodwell decided that there was enough issues facing LGBT+ people in the US that they shouldn’t disappear into the woodwork when there wasn’t a crisis. Other members of ECHO, including pioneers of the gay rights movement such as Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and Kay Tobin agreed. And so, the Annual Reminders were born.
On July 4 from 1965 to 1969, ECHO gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia to protest. Independence Hall was chosen very specifically, not only because it was where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written but because in 1965, it was the home of the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell had been a powerful symbol for women’s suffrage and for the abolition of slavery. ECHO was making a concerted effort to tie the struggle of LGBT+ Americans to civil rights efforts of the past.
Frank Kameny had insisted on a very strict dress code for the Annual Reminders. Men were to wear suit jackets and ties, women were to wear dresses. The Annual Reminder ran from 3:30 pm to 5 pm. The press mostly ignored them, although they were described in an article entitled “Homos on the March” published in Confidential magazine’s October 1965 issue.
The final Annual Reminder occurred less than a week after the Stonewall Riots. The organizers received death threats, but Frank Kameny arranged for police protection and chartered a bus from New York City to Philadelphia to help activists arrive safely. There were 150 participants in the final Annual Reminder — more than triple the number of participants in the “world’s largest LGBT+ rights demonstration” of just a few years prior.
The Stonewall Riots changed everything for ECHO, which reorganized itself as the Eastern Regional Conference of Homphile Organizations (ERCHO), and decided that instead of having an Annual Reminder in 1970, they should have a non-political parade to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. They named this the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade but it was, in fact, the first Pride Parade. The proposal for this change was drafted by a number of leader in the gay rights movement, including Craig Rodwell — the man who had originally conceived of the Annual Reminders.
In 2005, a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker was placed at Chestnut and 6th Streets in Philadelphia to commemorate the Annual Reminders. The city also held a 50th Anniversary celebration in 2015, which included a recreation of the first reminder on July 4th.