New documentary 'Stonewall Uprising' opens
by David Lamble
"We didn't have the manpower, and the manpower for the other side was
like a real war. And that's what it was, a war." Seymour Pine, New
York City Police Commanding officer the night of the raid on the Stonewall Inn.
"This was the Rosa Parks moment: gay people stood up and said, 'No.'
And once that happened, the whole house of cards that was the system
of oppression of gay people started to crumble." Lucian Truscott
IV, one of two Village Voice reporters to witness the first night of Stonewall.
"In the civil rights movement we ran from the police, in the peace
movement we ran from the police. That night the police ran from us,
the lowliest of the low, and it was fantastic!" an unidentified
participant, interviewed in the new documentary Stonewall Uprising.
1969: it was a hell of a year! Let's see: Richard Nixon gets
possession of the atomic football and ratchets up the war in Vietnam,
prompting an escalating series of demonstrations, including the first
candlelight vigils; the Woodstock Music and Art Fair succeeded and
failed on such a colossal scale that for three mad days it was New
York's second-largest city; acid rock, most particularly trippy
Midnight shows by the Jefferson Airplane, was showcased weekly at
Manhattan's Fillmore East; what was possibly the worst professional
baseball team ever, "the amazing" New York Mets, won the World
Series; man walked on the moon, an event that is probably the most
emblematic for filmmakers trying to capture the essence of that year;
and oh yes, thousands of gay men and women from every possible
spectrum on the gender scale rebelled, rioted and taunted New York's
Finest for six days in and around the Stonewall Inn in Sheridan
Square. As a 25-year-old New Yorker, I was vitally involved in the
first five top stories of the year, and profoundly ignorant of the
A powerful new documentary opening Friday at Landmark Theatres,
Stonewall Uprising goes a long way to explaining why this news I
could have used wouldn't reach me for several years, almost like
light from a distant planet. The first act of Stonewall Uprising
illustrates the downright Orwellian nature and intensity of
anti-queer propaganda emanating from virtually all media organs
pre-1969, culminating in an infamous 1966 CBS News TV special that
used hidden cameras to capture gay men having sexual encounters in
public restrooms, hinting that these sad creatures posed a threat to
the moral fiber of the nation almost equal to that of Godless Communism.
"Two out of three Americans look upon homosexuals with disgust,
discomfort or fear. The CBS News survey indicates that sentiment is
against permitting homosexual relationships between consenting adults
without legal punishment." In 1966, the legendary Mike Wallace spoke
those words on what was then America's most trusted broadcast news
service. Three years later, Lucian Truscott IV would get into trouble
for language in a Village Voice article that was generally positive
in tone towards the Stonewall demonstrations.
"I famously used the word fag in the lead sentence, I said, 'The
forces of faggotry,' and the first gay power demonstration, to my
knowledge, was against my story, and The Village Voice started using
the word gay." That same week, gay-liberation protestors seriously
considered burning down the Voice 's Greenwich Village offices.
Drawing on David Carter's meticulously documented book Stonewall
sorting through the myths that have attached themselves to queer
America's Boston Tea Party, filmmakers Kate David and David
Heilbroner let the words of the men and women who fought back that
night tell a story that more than compensates for the absence of TV
cameras. Describing the unadulterated pleasure of razzing the cops
with a conga-like dance formation, a gray-haired Stonewall veteran
fights back tears. "It was the only time I was in a gladiatorial
sport, and I stood up, I was proud, I was a man."
Stonewall demonstrator Jerry Hoose describes why this Mafia-run bar
became a community center for queerdom's dispossessed. "The open gay
people who hung out on the streets were basically the
have-nothing-to-lose types, which I was. A lot of them had been
thrown out of their families, and that crowd between Howard Johnson's
and Mama's Chicken Rib was like the basic crowd of the gay community
at that time in the Village. You got to remember the Stonewall bar
was just down the street from there. It was right in the center of
where we all were."
In his book, Carter asserts that the uprising at Stonewall was
neither accidentally nor coincidental, but represented a perverse
kind of inevitability based on historical forces that had been
building for years and that would find their logical expression at
the historic center of queer life, in the heart of America's bohemia,
where nine subway lines, a commuter railroad and the grapevine for
describing the changes rocking the nation in the 60s all intersected.
As Carter notes. San Francisco had experienced potentially equally
significant episodes of queer rage at Compton's Cafeteria and
American Hall, but these were largely ignored by the agenda-setting
media like the fabled New York Times, which in those days promised
"All the News That's Fit To Print." Ultimately, Stonewall Uprising,
employing an amazing collage of archival photos and stock film,
demonstrates how we as a community came to be considered fit for
print, or ready for prime time.
The filmmakers do unfortunately make at least one confusing narrative
jump-cut: conveying the impression that New York's historic 1970 gay
rights parade somehow magically evolved out of the embers of
Stonewall, without detailing the messy process in which
almost-warring factions, the Gay Liberation Front and the more
moderate Gay Activist Alliance, wrestled over the agenda for this