This Sunday, when millions of people, gay and straight, congregate on the streets and sidewalks of New York City for the NYC Pride March to watch gyrating Altoids guys and floats sponsored by multinational corporations glide by, few are likely to think about — or know about — the origins of the march. The annual march has transformed into a joyous and glitzy affair embraced by corporations, politicians and the public, but it originated from a three day rebellion against the NYPD in front of the Stonewall Inn in NYC’s Greenwich Village 41 years ago by a motley group of down-on-their-luck queer street kids with nothing, and therefore nothing to lose.
The new documentary Stonewall Uprising by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner focuses in on the Stonewall Rebellion of June 28, 1969, its aftermath, and the cultural context in which it occurred. The documentary includes first hand accounts of those who witnessed the riots, including Stonewall patrons, Village Voice journalists — who were fortuitously down the street from the Stonewall Inn — the head of the NYPD unit that led the police raid, and the controversial former NYC councilman and mayor Ed Koch.
It also weaves in re-enactments of events and archival news reels and educational videos from the era. Re-enactments were necessary, because such little footage of the rebellion exist. A commentator in the film noted that if the riots had taken place in Harlem, camera crews would be everywhere, implying that gays were so invisible and held in such low regard that the event was considered trivial by the media.
In pre-Stonewall America, the general view of homosexuals held by society, a view that was rubber stamped by medical professionals, was that gays were diseased and predatory. The film places the Stonewall Rebellion in context by showing educational videos and television reports from the 1950s and 1960s, including a CBS special on homosexuality in which Mike Wallace states, matter-of-factly:
Psychoanalysts declared homosexuality to be an expression of mental illness and suggested aversion therapy and even lobotomies to “cure” gays; one commentator had a friend who underwent a lobotomy that reduced him to “a walking vegetable.” A facility in Atascadero, California, which has been labeled a “Dachau for queers,” injected patients with a drug that simulated drowning, which one of the interviewees likened to “chemical waterboarding.”
Q&A session with the filmmakers and Stonewall vets
Although popular lore waxes poetic about Greenwich Village as a welcoming place for gays and lesbians back in the day, the film shows that even the gay ghetto wasn’t entirely safe. Pre-Stonewall New York City was often unkind to homosexuals, even in Greenwich Village. Police raids were common, and the bars were run by the Mafia, who diluted the stolen beer and liquor with water that was likely unfit for human consumption. The situation was so untenable that gay men often escaped further west to the Meatpacking District to congregate in stinking meat trucks — the same trucks used to store meat during the day.
After being subjected to persistent harassment and injustice, it was inevitable that, at some point, the gay community would snap. That point came after an “unusual” raid on the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969; normally, raids occurred on weekdays, but this was a weekend night, so the venue was packed. The patrons simply refused to be placed in paddy wagons and stood their ground, heckling the officers. As the police started using force, including beating someone described as “a tough butch lesbian,” the crowd became even more irate, and finally, all hell broke loose. The head of the police unit and a Village Voice reporter described retreating into the Stonewall Inn for refuge from the advancing protesters.
The day after the first day of the uprising, rebellion participant Jerry Hoose looked down the street as the sun was rising, and he remarked that the broken glass strewn on the street “looked like diamonds.” Two more nights of violent scuffles with the police followed, with more supporters joining in.
The film also delves into the aftermath of the uprising. In June of 1970, a year after the rebellion, a group of Stonewall vets and allies decided to organize a protest march spanning the distance from Christopher Street to Central Park, and it became the first Pride March. The March started with a group of 120 participants, who feared attacks by the public and the police, but as the March progressed, more people joined in. One Stonewall vet was moved to tears as he described looking behind him and seeing that the crowd had swelled to around 2000 participants.
Although the story could have been told with gravitas, the film includes humorous anecdotes and wisecracks from the Stonewall veterans. Furthermore, some of the archival educational videos and news reels, now anachronistic and patently absurd, elicited guffaws from the audience. One especially amusing moment was an animated re-enactment of how the angry crowd evaded and then eventually surrounded the police by using the maze-like mess of streets in Greenwich Village to their advantage; the police came across as a bumbling and incompetent group of blue dots.
Filmmaker Kate Davis said she hopes that Stonewall Uprising will reach a broad audience and eventually be shown in schools to educate youth about the gay rights movement, much like the documentary Eyes on the Prize is shown to educate students about the African American Civil Rights Movement.
“We certainly want to get the film in schools, and the stronger the theatrical release, the easier that will be," Davis said. " Stonewall should be a widely known word, and the film may be an important vehicle for this, as it is the only in depth documentary telling of the story."
Filmmaker Kate Davis inside the Stonewall Inn
Davis is no stranger to agitating for queer visibility. In high school in the 1970s, she took her girlfriend to the prom at a conservative high school. Even in 2010, as in the case of Constance McMillen, taking someone of the same sex to the prom can elicit acts of bigotry from school administrators and classmates.
Recalling the experience, Davis said, “I was not fearful, even though it was is a conservative school in Cambridge, MA. This is because it was never done, there were no gay groups, no one was out, and so I did not even think of it as a dangerous thing to do. Just a testy political statement.”
Stonewall Uprising is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Portland, and Milan throuth June 24. Throughout late June into July and August, the film will be screened in cities all over the world. Check the First Run Features website to see when it will be shown near you.