Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2004

Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, by David Carter

reviewed by Warren Allen Smith

Although just published in June, David Carter’s Stonewall is sure to join Vern L. Bullough’s Before Stonewall (Haworth Press) as being among the most important books in the gay canon.

Carter’s decade of research is divided into three sections: setting the stage for the uprising; what actually occurred hour by hour in Greenwich Village during the week of June 1969 riots; and how the rebellion has led to an ongoing struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in the States as well as being a worldwide human rights inspiration.

Carter, a historian who has written biographies of Dali and Santayana and extensively written about Allen Ginsberg, carefully separates facts from judgements. In 336 pages he introduces a large cast of people who were involved; gives detailed accounts about, and fortunately by, the deputy inspector of police who led the raids; includes vivid details as to what happened inside and outside the Stonewall Inn bar on each of the days; and discounts myths that have grown about what happened and who was involved.

For one thing, the full moon and Judy Garland’s death had nothing to do with the riots, except that Garland’s death could be said symbolically to represent the old order that was being replaced by a new gay militancy. For another, no single person or group started the uprising but, rather, a complex resistance to accepting an inferior status had been growing – by some who just silently ignored police orders; by others who challenged authority with their pens; by others using violent methods; and by the key figures, the poor and homeless kids, some transgendered men, a never identified lesbian who gained notoriety by fighting the police during the first night, and hundreds who were just tired and no longer willing to accept the status quo accorded then to homosexuals.

Behind the police’s choosing this particular bar was the desire to shut the popular joint down for good as well as to challenge the Mafia’s control of gay bars. Also, evidence appeared that there was a link between stolen Wall Street bonds and Mafia extortion of workers at the New York Stock Exchange (“the world’s biggest closet”). Pot and acid were known to be sold publicly in the bar, underage people were not screened, hepatitis was spread because the place had no running water, and on and on. The concern of the authorities was more that of protecting powerful persons, not in protecting gay men from paying for watered-down and overly priced drinks in order to have a place to dance.

And was the nation’s chief law officer, J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, involved? No, he claimed organised crime did not exist. But yes, for former prostitute John Paul Ranieri provided proof that the Mafia had photographic evidence implicating Hoover himself, photos of Hoover in female attire. They also knew about Hoover’s being in the closet and knew about his “longtime companion”, Clyde Tolson, himself an associate director of the FBI. Ranieri was warned by the mob to “keep your zipper open and your mouth shut”. But he did not. A well-known turncoat FBI informant, Ed “The Skull” Murphy, is described as being one of the baddest of the bad, a Stonewall Inn insider, one behind the blackmailing of Wall Street employees, a suspected kidnapper and murderer, one who wanted the credit for having made the riots happen. Others whom Ranieri described as using Mafia-supplied services were Malcolm Forbes, His Eminence Cardinal Spellman, Liberace, US senators, a vice president of the United States, and “one of the most famous rock musicians”.

Arthur Evans, one of the more than fifty individuals interviewed, was a philosophy student whose Free Thinkers Society of Brown University got him in trouble and his scholarship became in jeopardy because as a militant atheist he refused to sit through the chaplain’s prayer. Joseph Lewis, the millionaire head of the National Free Thinkers Society, successfully threatened to sue if the scholarship was invalidated. Evans went on to join Columbia University’s doctoral programme in philosophy and became one of the most productive of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) members.

Carter in a scholarly way gives a commendably thorough geographical, social, political and cultural picture. The three activist organisations that he describes in detail are the GLF, the GAA and the Mattachine Society. By not mentioning any of the Stonewall veterans’ organisations that existed mainly to collect money, he finesses them neatly.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-08-15 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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