“Stonewall” And Me
The movie, “Stonewall” about the1969 riots that changed everything recently opened in theaters and was quickly lambasted by the gay media critics for whitewashing the actual event and injecting “straight acting” characters to attract a mainstream audience. Like every gay guy was nelly in 1969. Whatever. I’ll soon be on my way home from my summer house in Pennsylvania for Fort Lauderdale and hope to catch the flick to give you my take. But I figured this is a good opportunity to tell you about my own very personal experience with Stonewall, the very first gay bar I ever walked into, a year before the historic riots.
I was working to pay for college at a now defunct retail store chain in Jersey called Two Guys where my boss was a dead ringer for the larger-than-life comedian Jackie Gleason. That is if Gleason were od’ing on estrogen. When Charlie said he wanted to do something special for me for my twenty first birthday, I figured we’d go out for dinner at the local Italian restaurant where, for lunch, Charlie would have a gargantuan meat ball sub and a “diet Coke, please” since he was on a perpetual nowhere diet. I had convinced him to hire Rob, a crush of mine from college, but I was surprised when the two of them pulled up at my parent’s house to pick me up that Saturday night.
In the years ahead, I would meet and trick with a lot of Catholic gays, Italian, Irish, Polish, who were all loaded with guilt and excess baggage about their “deviant” lifestyle. But, hell, I was raised a Lutheran, a former Sunday school teacher, thank you very much, and had found my high school days in straight, jock-obsessed suburbia a living hell. So once I realized I wasn’t alone, I felt liberated. But where to meet guys like myself I had no idea. Up to that point all I knew were a small coterie of somewhat catty gay fellow English majors at school.
Driving into the City, Charlie revealed his true persuasions to me and Rob (we soon came out to him, too), and how he had been a headliner drag queen entertainer in the fifties. So where did we end up but in the West Village and the Stonewall. I’ll never forget the beads you had to walk through after the bouncer let you in, and the go-go boys dancing on the bar. It was years later that I read how the place had been run by the Mafia and how it was constantly raided if the payoffs weren’t enough. Had I known then, I would have hightailed it to the Port Authority Terminal that night and taken a bus home.
I had hoped I would make it with Rob that night, but he fell asleep after his first drink, and I ended up getting picked up by some older guy (probably 25) in a white suit with Den Mother Charlie’s blessing, who took me back to his apartment a few blocks away. Naïve me, when he whipped it out, my first reaction was, what am I supposed to do with it?
But, hey, I’ve always been a quick study.
Driving home that night with Rob asleep in the back seat, Charlie and I said little to one another, but I could tell from his smug smile he was a bit proud for being a least partly responsible for the most enlightening birthday of my life.
Soon after we graduated the following spring, and I went on for my master’s degree in L.A. where I played nerd during the day and Hollywood gay blade at night, Rob ran away to Canada to escape the draft. Remember, Vietnam was raging at the time. To this day, I have no idea what happened to him.
As for Charlie, distance and time also brought an end to our friendship, and I learned years later from some ex-Two Guys alumni that he had died of esophageal cancer.
Ah, but that night at Stonewall. What better debut to gay life could a young boy ask for, huh?