It's almost ironic there was a riot at the Stonewall Inn following a police raid on June 28, 1969. The mob-run bar filled a social void by paying off police in order to sell overpriced, watered-down drinks to a gay and lesbian clientele. Even in New York City's Greenwich Village, legal bars did not risk losing their liquor licenses by becoming known as gay bars. Police knew about the illegal clubs, and though they usually tipped off the bars in advance, they raided them often. Those arrested could expect their names to be printed in city newspapers, usually costing them jobs or family strife. There simply was no such thing as being "out" at the time, save for a handful of well-known writers like Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.
It's entertaining to hear men say they never bought drinks at Stonewall, uncertain of what the bar was actually pouring. But in an environment where police arrested men for wearing suspect clothing (in violation of an archaic New York law prohibiting "masquerading"), the dark and dingy Stonewall was one of the only places men could dance together. That made it worth the risk of frequent police raids.
Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's documentary Stonewall Uprising chronicles the social and legal harassment gays and lesbians endured in the decades prior to the raid. Propaganda film and newsreel footage depicts homosexuality as a mental illness and predatory social menace, and the paranoid tone and disinformation would be funny a la Reefer Madness were it not reflective of actual attitudes at the time. The film is full of interviews with Stonewall patrons and riot veterans, including one police officer, and it captures the landmark confrontation in brilliant personal detail, from accounts of the underground social scene through the raid, three nights of rioting, and the subsequent first gay rights march.
At the time, the so-called riot barely made the news. There was violence, but what symbolically marked the event was the refusal of gays and lesbians to run from police. One man tells of forming a Rockette-style kickline with friends in the street and dancing in front of the outnumbered cops. When officers in riot gear charged one way, the crowd simply filled in the area behind them. For one long night, the police ran about, parting the crowd, but never dispersed it. For many gay men and lesbians who had been active in other civil rights efforts, there was no going back into fear or secrecy. Tickets $7 general admission, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
Through July 1
7:30 p.m. Fri.-Thu.
Zeitgeist Multi-Discipliary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net