On the nights of June 27 and June 28, 1969, riots occurred that changed the history of New York City and gave strength to the movement for equality and legal rights for gay men, lesbian women, transgender and transsexual people. The incidents became known as the Stonewall riots, and took place in and outside of the Stonewall bar in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood. The bar is no longer there, but on those hot summer nights in 1969, the LGBT community made a stand that shocked not only the New York City P0lice Department but an entire city. The episode stands out as one of the movement’s most powerful moments that has never been forgotten. David Carter presents to us an investigative report of what really happened during the Stonewall riots and allows us to understand why and how they came to be.
Today it is hard for some to imagine the enormous struggle faced by gay men and lesbian women in their search for equality. Same-sex marriage and strides in all sectors of society have removed the early struggle from public awareness. However, less than 50 years ago, a new revolution based on the civil rights movement and inspired by its fallen heroes emerged as the LGBT community stood up and said no more. Carter exhaustive researched the riots and spoke with many of the first hand witnesses including the late Seymour Pine, a former Inspector for the New York City Police Department, whose raids on the Stonewall served as the catalyst for the riots to follow. Pine provided invaluable insight into the raids and up until the time of his death, made it clear the he was following orders and not a personal vendetta.
The beauty is Carter’s book is his ability to take us back into time to see what it was like to be a gay man or lesbian woman in New York City at a time when harassment, imprisonment, discrimination and acts of violence occurred regularly. The incidents that take place in the book prior to the riots are ugly and shocking but reveal the true nature of the officers who patrolled the streets and the unfavorable light in which homosexuals were placed. Carter also introduces us to the major characters in the book, some of whom are still alive today and serve as a part of the past which we should not forget. The youth of today will not recognize their names but to an older generation of activists, the names of Harry Hay, Dick Leitsch, Randy Wicker, Frank Kameny and Martha Shelley are among the pioneers of an exceptional movement. Their efforts and visions paved the way for the rise of organizations that would play a central role such as the Mattachine Society, Homosexual League of New York, Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance.
Sadly, many of the pioneers of the movement are no longer with us. The emergence of HIV and AIDS resulted in the deaths of thousands of gay men. The gay cancer as it was known initially, claimed lives unrelentingly before Washington finally addressed the growing crisis. The epidemic served as one more major obstacle to be overcome by the LGBT community in their quest for equality. The advancement of LGBT people today is a testament to the hard work and tireless efforts of thousands of men and women who risked their lives in the name of freedom. Their struggle continues and as they continue to make strides and face uphill struggles, the events of Stonewall will remain fresh in the mind as a reminder of the power of resistance. Further, the events of those nights force us to examine our own actions and beliefs towards those who are different.
The village of today in New York City is a stronghold for the LGBT community. For those who visit, it is to be understood that it is their haven and you are a visitor. Their lifestyles are sometimes unconventional and in some cases shocking and in others, flamboyant. But they do not ask for approval, only respect and understanding. And if we are to forget that, then we run the risk of seeing the events of Stonewall replayed before our eyes. This book is a good place to start for anyone seeking to understand the beginnings of the gay rights movement in New York City.