Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5
It’s June 28, 1969. At a gay bar called Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, NY City’s finest, the NYPD carried out a raid on the bar that should have been routine. After all the police had been raiding and harassing gay bars and establishments for years, so one more raid should have been nothing out of the ordinary. But in the early morning hours at Stonewall Inn, all of the intimidation, the constant harassment, was finally too much and in response to this raid the gay customers rioted. As the size and power of the demonstration grew, word that gays were fighting back spread throughout the city. Soon more men and women came and joined in the demonstration. Rocks were thrown at the police and shouts of “gay power” could be heard. Eventually, the NY Police Department sent enough reinforcements to quell the riot for the evening. But the next night brought a new uprising with the crowds swelling to well over 1,000 people. NYCPD Riot Squads were called in to stop the demonstrations but over the next four days, more protests continued throughout the city sparking intense discussions on gay civil rights and, the formation of gay activist groups determined to change the laws and societal outlook that looked at homosexuality as something to be outlawed and perverted in nature.
On the first anniversary of Stonewall, the first gay pride parade was held in throughout the U.S. in New York City near Stonewall Inn, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. Stonewall cemented itself as the spark that set off a gay revolution, the effects of which are still being felt today when the Supreme Court’s decisions on the issue of DOMA and Prop 8 made history.
Martin Duberman uses 6 people whose lives began prior to Stonewall to chart the affect of the Stonewall riots on their lives and the community around them. The six key LGBT activists (Craig Rodwell, Yvonne Flowers, Karla Jay, Sylvia Ray Rivera, Jim Fouratt, and Foster Gunnison, Jr) are followed from their childhoods through their adult participation in the riots and the resulting civil rights actions.
On June 28, 2013, we mark the 44th anniversary of Stonewall Inn riots and the beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, and yestrerday the Supreme Court of the United States struck down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and Proposition 8 in California declaring it unconstitutional. So it is fitting that today’s review is Martin Duberman’s Stonewall, a history of the riot that set off the gay civil rights movement.
Martin Duberman is the professor emeritus of history at the Graduate Center of the City University (CUNY), where he founded the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, the first university in the United States to have a LGBT university based research center. An author of over 20 books and an politically active gay man, I would expect a detailed and revelatory account from Duberman of the events leading up to Stonewall. And that is what we were given in Stonewall. Martin Duberman states that he wanted to place Stonewall along a timeline of events instead of the Stonewall Inn demonstrations being the launching point of gay civil rights history. According to the blurb from the publisher:
Duberman does all this within a narrative framework of novelistic immediacy. Stonewall unfolds through the stories of six lives, and those individual lives broaden out into the larger historical canvas.
However, in trying to place the events at Stonewall within the context of GLBTQ history, Martin Duberman strays too far from the actual historic event and its ramifications, especially in a book titled Stonewall. Instead the author starts off with a cast of 6 individuals: Craig Rodwell who figured largely in the Mattachine Society and opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, Yvonne Flowers who started the Salsa Soul Sisters, Karla Jay who was a member of the feminist collective the Redstockings and the Gay Liberation Front, Sylvia (Ray) Rivera the founder of STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, Jim Fouratt a hipster and major spokesperson for the Yippie Movement, and Foster Gunnison, Jr, who helped plan the first Christopher Street Liberation March along with Craig Rodwell.
Given this cast of remarkable men and women, I was expecting a narrative equal in intensity and emotion to the lives of the people it was following. Unfortunately, Duberman’s years as a history professor prove to be the guiding touch of the narrative rather than a moving account of the events revealed. Divided into seven parts, each section relates a chapter in the lives of the people chosen. Part One Growing Up is exactly that, the early years of each person. And while I appreciated their struggles, the dry tone and “as told to” narrative dampens any emotion the reader might feel when coming across such events as Craig Rodwell’s abandonment by his mother or Ray’s abusive upbringing after his mother tried to poison him and then committed suicide. Each one of these individuals lives are made up of startling and often dramatic occurrences that breaking them up into sections succeeds in only removing some of the intensity. Also the interrupted flow of their backstory makes it hard to follow their lives in a fluid manner, something I would have preferred.
What makes this book fascinating and worth the price is the last three chapters. The first sections make interesting reading but the last sections bring vividly home the tumultuous times. That would be Part Six 1969 Part Seven Post-Stonewall 1969-1970 and Epilogue 1992. As the book heads into the 60’s, the emotions and political upheaval of the times arrives in the narrative and the reader starts to really feel the events that came together that sparks off the riots of Stonewall rather than just understand them intellectually. I was especially enthralled by the early accounts of the people (the Mob) behind the operations at Stonewall Inn, the crime boss characters, the Drag Queens, just a remarkable group of people to gather under one roof. I wish I could quote the opening sections here but the DRM prevents me from doing so. But this is where Martin Duberman shines as a author as he walks you through the front door of Stonewall Inn. Here you learn about Fat Tony and Maggie Jiggs, the famous queen who worked the bar along with her lover Tommy Long, Maggie was the main supplier of the drugs her customers were so fond of. blonde, outspoken, and gregarious. Here is a short passage:
If you got the okay at the door–and for underage kids that was always problematic–you moved a few steps to a table, usually covered by members of what one wag called the Junior Achievement Mafia team. That could mean, on different nights, Zucchi,; Mario; Ernie Sgroi who always wore a suit and tie and whose father started the famed Bon Soir on Eighth Street; “Vito” , who was on salary directly from Fat Tony, was hughly proud of his personal collection of S.S. uniforms and Nazi flags, and made bombs on the side; or “Tony the sniff” Verra who had a legendary nose for no-goods and kept a baseball bat behind the door to deal with them. At the table you had to plunk down three dollars (one dollar on weekdays), for which you got two tickets that could be exchanged for two watered-down drinks. (According to Chuck Shaheen. all drinks were watered, even those carrying the fanciest labels.) You then signed your name in a book kept to prove, should the question arise in court, that Stonewall was indeed a private “bottle club”. People rarely signed their real names. “Judy Garland”, “Donald Duck”, and “Elizabeth Taylor” were popular favorites.
And that is just the beginning of the real heart of the book, Stonewall Inn and its many and varied denizens. I found myself going back and rereading portions of these chapters where the people became real and the emotions behind the political activity felt as alive and new as those I saw on the steps of the Supreme Court yesterday as the decisions were announced that saw the end of DOMA and Prop 8.
For those born after Stonewall, this is an important window into the beginnings of the gay civil rights movement and the people who helped ignite it. For those children of the 60’s and 70’s, this will bring back memories of a time in our lives where everything was possible, and the times were “a changing”. I found this to be a timely and compelling read and highly recommend it. Pick up your copy now.
Paperback, 352 pages
Published May 1st 1994 by Plume (first published 1993)
ISBN 0452272068 (ISBN13: 9780452272064)