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Home Arts and Culture  In search of STONEWALL
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Wednesday, June 10,2009

In search of STONEWALL

by Mary C. Cusack

It seemed like an easy enough assignment: preview this weekend’s annual Michigan Pride Festival in the 40th anniversary year of the Stonewall riots. And who better to cover such a topic than City Pulse’s resident drag hag? It was a perfect opportunity to chat with the ladies about history, heels and hairpieces. I imagined the glowing testimonies I’d hear about those crazy bitches that took on the establishment at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.


Arguably the most significant event in the history of gay rights, Stonewall was nicknamed “The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World,” as it ushered in the “out” era for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals. When drag queens and gays in New York City’s Greenwich Village were pushed to the limit one summer night in 1969, they planted their heels and pushed back hard, taking their cause to the streets ­— changing the direction of gay advocacy forever.



As I delved into the assignment, I was shocked to find that Stonewall isn’t all that well known. From a gaggle of drag queens to a flock of college deans to my own newshound father, reactions to my questions about the riot varied from “I don’t remember that,” to downcast eyes and sheepish admissions of, “I know I should know more, but I don’t,” to “Oh, yeah, I saw that movie!” Realizing that the straight, square, white girl knew more about the pivotal gay rights movement than the people it benefited most, I started to worry about the state of the gay nation. The worry was premature.



Life Before Stonewall


In an alternate reality where Stonewall didn’t happen, life for members of the LGBT community in Lansing might be different today. In that world, Spiral Video Dance Bar would be an unmarked-hole in the wall in a rundown Old Town that you would need a password to enter.

Inside, Spiral would be dingy and black light-lit and men would be dancing slowly with men, women with women, queens with men, and queens with queens. It would be their only safe place — and even it wasn’t safe.


If there was a police raid, the house lights would flash on, couples would quickly uncouple, clothing would be adjusted and regular drag queens like Karma and Delicious would yank off their wigs and wipe off their lipstick. The police would order everyone to line up at the bar with their identifications out. Athena and London Prestige, in full female drag and without ID, would be taken into the bathroom to have their sex determined by a female officer. Once discovered to be men, they would be arrested.

Nearby, a simultaneous raid would occur at The Chrome Cat. Lesbians would have to prove their sex by exhibiting three pieces of feminine cloth ing, and the softball team, still in uniform from their victory that afternoon, would be doomed. One cop would cop a feel while doing a pat down.


“This one’s a girl, although just barely!” he would snicker.

After the cops leave, the bartenders would restock the shelves from a hidden backroom stash, the lights would be turned off and the slow dancing would start up again.

That was what gay life in Greenwich Village — now arguably the most openly gay place on Earth — was like in the late 1960s. The few gay safe spots were equivalent to prohibition-era speakeasies. There are allegations that the mob owned most gay bars, not because they were sympathetic to the cause of gays, but because they never met a niche market they didn’t like. It seemed that a delicate balance existed between the cops, organized crime and the gay community.

On one night, everything changed.



The Stonewall Riots


“When did you ever see a fag fight back? Now, times were a-changin’. Tuesday night was the last night for bullshit.
Predominantly, the theme was, ‘this shit has got to stop!’" — Anonymous riot participant, from David Carter’s book, “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution”


Up until 1 a.m. on June 28, 1969, it had been an ordinary evening at the Stonewall Inn. But a surprise raid — patrons were usually tipped off — changed everything. At first, it was a raid as usual: patrons lined up at the bar, drag queens were separated and liquor was seized.


But then a person or multiple people decided that enough was enough. Theories vary on what the fuse was. All witnesses acknowledge that some extra spark of outrage lit a powder keg of emotion.

As people were being led out of the bar to a police wagon, a scuffle ensued. Patrons did not simply disperse; they stayed in the street shouting at police. Coins were thrown at the cops, a symbolic reaction to the practice of “gayola,” or gay bars paying off the police to prevent raids.

Tension mounted, and homeless gay teens from Christopher Park across the street joined in the melee. Violence against the police intensified and they were forced to barricade themselves inside the Stonewall Inn, waiting for backup.

As the reinforcements arrived and began marching down the street to scatter the protesters, they were suddenly faced with a kick line of drag queens, dancing and singing:


“We are the Stonewall girls,
We wear our hair in curls,
We wear no underwear,
We show our pubic hair,
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!”


The riot was eventually quashed that evening, but over the next five nights, protests and riots of various sizes occurred in the neighborhood and beyond. As word got out in the press, the crowds grew. The riots ceased after July 3, but the camaraderie that they created evolved into something else, something that lasted.


After Stonewall


"Let it forever be remembered that here — on this spot — men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire.” — M. John Berry, assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior, at a 1999 ceremony honoring the addition of the Stonewall Inn to the National Register of Historic Places.


Before Stonewall, conservative gay rights groups like the Mattachine Society had been trying to win rights and social acceptance by holding quiet, dignified pickets in cities
like Philadelphia. The Mattachine’s method of operation was to try to
show the world that gays were not different, but its efforts made
little progress. In the span of a few nights, angry gays and drag
queens made more progress by showing the world the exact opposite. The
message they sent was, “We’re not like you, we look like this, and
we’re not going to hide any more.” Gay rights advocacy groups learned
that they were more likely to gain rights by being out and about, and
the era of gay pride marches began.



One year after Stonewall,
the Christopher Street Liberation Day March was held — the mother of
gay pride marches. Two years hence, marches spread across the nation
and into Europe and membership in gay rights groups skyrocketed across
western nations.

The first gay march in Michigan happened in
1971. In 1989 — the 20th anniversary of Stonewall — the Statewide Pride
March moved to Lansing and has since been an annual event.

As
the application to the National Register of Historic Places points out,
the Stonewall Riots were to gay rights what Rosa Parks was to black
rights, or the Boston Tea Party was to the American Revolution. Yet
this critical event isn’t discussed in American history textbooks and
isn’t included in the curriculum of public schools. The lucky few who
take a human sexuality or civil rights class in college might learn
about Stonewall.


In Search of Stonewall in Lansing


Before
this story, I had a sketchy memory of reading about Stonewall some
years ago in a travel guide for New York City. I decided I’d better do
my homework before heading out to Spiral to photograph the “Drag Queens
Gone Wild” show that took place three weeks ago. I want to make a good
impression on the ladies, I thought.


Internet searches on
Google, Wikipedia (which has a very thorough entry) and YouTube turned
up various accounts of Stonewall. I was disappointed to find no period
footage on YouTube, but there is an entertaining history as told in the
video, “Varla Jean Merman’s Stonewall.” Another video utilizes Ken
Burns-style photomontages and posits that the riots may have been
influenced by the angst caused by Judy Garland’s death five days prior.
Gay writer Toby Johnson thinks the gay icon’s funeral played a key
role: “What happened is that earlier that the day, Friday, June 27th,
1969, a great many men from the Village flocked to Judy Garland’s
funeral at a upper Eastside funeral parlor at Madison Ave and 81st.
What impressed them — and in the early hours of the next day, mobilized
them to resist the police raid on the Stonewall Inn — wasn’t Garland’s
divahood (after
all, it had been her downfall), but rather the number of other gay men
they saw at the event. These were Garland’s fans. There were crowds of
homosexuals recognizing each other on the street in front of the
funeral parlor.

“Garland’s funeral turned out to be a sort of
proto-gay pride event. And it demonstrated there was power in numbers —
that was something ’in the air’ in those days as one anti-war
mobilization after another demonstrated how many people were
‘anti-establishment.’”

There are two documentaries, “Before
Stonewall” and “After Stonewall,” and the fictional movie “Stonewall.”
No library in Michigan has either of the documentaries, but Video to Go
has “Stonewall.”

The movie reflects well the LGBT lifestyle in
Greenwich Village prior to June 28, 1969, and ends at the opening
moments of the riot. It was slightly disappointing to find that the
British Broadcasting Corp., not an American media outlet, produced the
movie.


Let down by
popular media, I placed my hopes on the drag queens to educate me. In
doing so, I set myself up for disappointment again. The hours I spent
watching them prepare for “Drag Queens Gone Wild” at Spiral was fun and
fascinating. The drag queens were excited about the upcoming
Pride weekend, yet when I ask about its origins I got shrugs.


“You know
about Stonewall, right?” I said.


“Oh, yeah, I saw the movie,” Eva, a
drag queen, said.


Most of the queens, I realized, were all under 30.
None have known a world where being gay was illegal. In fact, many of
them were out and accepted in high school. I can’t fault them for being
unaware, because this is a part of history that isn’t taught in school.
Unless a gay mentor comes along and teaches them about the past, how
would they know what they’re missing?


“I think it’s my responsibility
to teach young gays and lesbians about the past, in a nurturing way,”
Roxanne Frith, a member of the outreach subcommittee of Michigan Pride,
the nonprofit organization that stages annual celebration, said. “I
take people under my wing. I guess it’s the teacher in me!”


Chrome Cat
co-owner Michelle Taylor, 39, wins the prize for knowing the most about
Stonewall.

"It was a little bar. There was a rebellion there
one night because they got tired of the cops coming in, harassing them
and beating them,” Taylor said.


Monique Goch, 40, outreach coordinator
for Michigan Pride, admits that she should know more about the actual
riots.
Despite being hazy on the details, she recognizes the
significance of Stonewall.


“Without those events happening, we wouldn’t
be where we are today,” Goch says. “We can be out comfortably in most
situations, that is becoming part of the norm in society. Without
(Stonewall), I don’t know where we would be today.”

Without
Stonewall, we wouldn’t be able to gaze openly at drag sisters Athena
and Eva Angelica. Born as half-brothers named Chris and Nick Steele,
respectively, they evolved into sisters as each entered the world of
female impersonation, and they reflect the range of interest in the
world of drag.


Big sister Athena, 24, considers herself a female
impersonator, dressing only to perform. Baby sister Eva, 21, would do
drag on a daily basis if it were more acceptable.


Michigan Pride


Eva takes pride in her role in Pride.

“Drag
queens are one of the first icons for gay culture. They push
homosexuality and pride out there. That’s why I go to every single
Pride event in face. I’ve never gone as a boy,” he said.


With their
flamboyant sassy flair, drag queens make photo subjects, which is good
and bad for the LGBT community; it
ensures
media coverage but can reinforce the stereotype that all gay men want
to be women. In truth, the LGBT community is as diverse as the straight
community. Flaming or feminine, swishy or masculine, in suits or
spandex, they just want the same rights as breeders.

“We have
something to march for, and that’s equality. We’re progressively
getting somewhere, day by day, state by state, city by city,” Athena
said.


Thinking ahead, she realizes there is still work to be done. “I’m
getting to that point, where I’m thinking about marriage.”


“Until
we actually get the states to say that (denying marriage rights to
gays) is absolutely wrong, it’s going to be that slow evolution that
has taken us 40 years to get to this point,” Taylor said.


“Hopefully
it’s very shortly around the corner for the last step.”


Goch echoes
that sentiment. “I’m optimistic that things will change faster than we
expect.” If that barrier falls soon, will there be a 50th anniversary
march? Will there be a point to Pride?


“I think we’ ll always have a
Pride march,” Goch says.


“Until you change minds,” not just laws,
Taylor agrees.

After playing back the interviews, culling
through the photos from Spiral and talking to people about Stonewall,
most of my disappointment fades and is replaced by a sense of wonder of
the long-lasting impact of the event. It’s not a perfect world, yet,
but we’ve come a long way.


"I
think it’s good to Ace Deville (Tony Allen) studies her contours look
back over those before the Drag Queens Gone Wild show. 40 years to see
how far we’ve come. Those people that went before us gave us a chance
to be a lot more vocal and a lot more protected,” Taylor said.



Michigan Pride Events


Friday, June 12 MI Equality Fundraiser 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. Grand Café, 201 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing.


$50 per person. $70 per couple. White Party 8
p.m. (Check each venue for exact times.) Benefit for Lansing Area AIDS
Network. Featuring four different Old Town venues for one price. Live
entertainment at Spiral Video Dance Bar (the Perry Twins and DJ
Symbol), The Chrome Cat (Nervous But Excited, Mimi Gonzalez), Esquire
Bar (White out with the guys), and Grand Café (The Kathy Ford Band). A
wristband for all is $10. 21 .


Saturday June 13 March to the Capitol Starting
at noon at Riverfront Park. Parade float participation is $25. Walkers
are free. Rally at the Capitol follows the March.

Diversity Festival 11a.m.
– 7 p.m. Live music and vendors in Riverfront Park. Musical Guests
include the Perry Twins, Kung Fu Diesel and Barefoot Grin. $5
admission.

Old Town After Party 7 p.m. Spiral, Chrome Cat and Esquire will keep the party going after the Festival.


Sunday June 14 Sunday T-Dance events, including: Grand Café/Sir Pizza Lunch and drink specials at noon Chrome Cat: Brunch at 11a.m.


Bloody Marys and Mimosa hangover special at noon, T-dance at 3 p.m. Spiral Dance Bar Wine
Tasting 6 p.m. -7:30 p.m., Hair & Fashion Show at 8 p.m., Drag
Queens Gone Wild Show at 10 p.m. More information at www.michigan
pride.org.






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