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!
An important fact about the Stonewall uprising is that things were pretty chaotic. There were things going on inside the bar, outside the bar, and more than a few participants — at least initially — were intoxicated. Despite Craig Rodwell‘s best efforts, the riots were pretty much ignored by the press. So a lot of what we know has had to be cobbled together from a handful of eyewitness accounts. One of the most knowledgeable of those accounts comes from Danny Garvin.
Danny Garvin was born on March 1, 1949. He grew up in New York, raised as a Roman Catholic by his two Irish immigrant parents — Michael Joseph Garvin and Mary Theresa Kelly Garvin. In his youth, like all of the boys of his neighborhood, he was a member of a gang — the Ramrods. Garvin’s mother died while he was very young, and he was mostly raised by his father — who returned to Ireland when Garvin was 17 years old, after enlisting his son in the United States Navy.
Working as a Navy cook, stationed in Brooklyn, Garvin began coming out of the closet. Coming out proved quite difficult, especially given his religious upbringing. Drunk and off the base one night, Garvin sought out the only other gay man his age that he knew of — but he was soundly rejected. Reeling, Garvin attempted suicide and then called a psychiatrist who told him to admit himself to Bellevue Hospital. The Navy transferred him to St. Albans Naval Medical Hospital.
This presented a very serious dilemma — if he talked about his actual problems with the Navy, he’d be dishonorably discharged and would make him unemployable to most reputable businesses. Finally, Garvin signed a document stating that his psychological breakdown was rooted in his mother’s early death, and he was honorably discharged. He was discharged on St. Patrick’s Day, 1967 — roughly two weeks after he had turned 18. Deciding he needed to celebrate, he ventured to the only gay bar he knew off — Julius’. When he was there, he was told about a new bar opening up around the corner: the Stonewall Inn.
Although on his first visit, Garvin was mostly shocked to see men dancing together, he became a regular and even dated the main doorman (“Blonde Frankie“) for a time. Though he was initially living on the streets and hustling for a living — an experience he would carry with him the rest of his life — he ultimately found his way into living in what David Carter describes in his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution as a “gay hippie commune.” Garvin began smoking pot, and started selling LSD at Stonewall.
On the actual evening of the Stonewall riots, however, Garvin was not inside the bar. He’d planned to spend the night at a new gay club called Danny’s. (Like we wouldn’t all always be at any bar we could pretend was named after us, right?) He bumped into Keith Murdoch and the two went back to the commune to smoke weed and get it on. After that, they decided the night was still young and they wanted to go out dancing — and that’s when they found the riot.
By the time they got there, the crowd was attacking the police wagon and the police had barricaded themselves inside the bar. A group had ripped a parking meter out of the ground and were using it as a battering ram to get inside. Garvin jumped in, egging on the crowd, jeering at the cops, and generally protesting — but he avoided partaking in any of the violent action, partly because he considered himself a pacifist but also largely so he could avoid going to jail and thereby publicly outing himself — and ruining any chances he had at a career. He watched the infamous chorus line that had mocked the cops trying to clear the streets — and the brutality with which the police broke it up.
Like virtually everyone else involved in the riots, Garvin was changed by the experience. He became a proud activist, marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day parades (which would later become the Pride parades we now know and love). He was a roommate to activist Morty Manford, and encouraged Manford to come out to his parents — who would then found PFLAG. In the early 80’s, Garvin gathered together a group of gays from AA to march in the Pride parade as a group called Sober Together.
Always an advocate for homeless queer youth because of his experiences on the street, Garvin became a very involved volunteer for the Ali Forney Center in New York City after it opened in 2002. But perhaps his most important role in these later years was as a witness to history — he was interviewed by David Carter for his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution — which was released in 2004. He began appearing in documentaries, especially about Stonewall and the gay rights movement, in 2008. Most famously he appeared in the 2010 documentary Stonewall Uprising where he summarized the importance of the riots:
“We became a people. We didn’t necessarily know where we were going yet, you know, what organizations we were going to be or how things would go, but we became something I, as a person, could all of a sudden grab onto, that I couldn’t grab onto when I’d go to a subway T-room as a kid, or a 42nd Street movie theater, you know, or being picked up by some dirty old man. You know, all of a sudden, I had brothers and sisters, you know, which I didn’t have before. There was no going back now…. We had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.“
Throughout his work as a witness to Stonewall, Garvin befriended several other “Stonewall veterans” including Martin Boyce and Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. When President Barack Obama mentioned Stonewall, Garvin began a correspondence with him — impressing upon him the need to continue fighting for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. In his initial letter he wrote, “I still have not gotten to dance that dance I started 44 years ago. The big joyous ‘I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance’ yet.” Obama invited Garvin as a special guest to the White House’s Pride celebration on June 30, 2014.
However, Danny’s final years were plagued by health problems. He suffered from COPD, caused by years of smoking, and also developed liver cancer. He passed away on December 9, 2014 at 65 years old. While he may not have gotten to finish that “I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance” that he dreamed of, his work for our community helped get all of us that much closer to it.