Stonewall and Me
The Gay Pride parades held yesterday in NYC and San Francisco climaxed the flood of gay pride events which took place across the country this month, all to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which took place forty-eight years ago this coming Wednesday, the event that changed EVERYTHING. In fact, we have the drag queens to thank for many of the liberties we enjoy in twenty-first century America and for matter the world since on that fateful night almost half a century ago they were mourning the death the previous week of their beloved gay icon, Judy Garland, and when the cops came in to do their usual shake-down, the girls, instead of giving in, revolted. “Not tonight boys!”
For me Stonewall holds a personal connection for two reasons: it was the very first gay bar I ever walked into, and it was that night that I had my first sexual encounter as a gay man.
Living at home in Jersey while I was completing my degree, I was working to pay for college at a now defunct retail store chain called Two Guys where my boss was a dead ringer for Jackie Gleason, that rotund, wise-guy comedian. Only there was something a little peculiar about Charlie. When he said he wanted to do something special for me for my 21st 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.
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 ‘50’s. So where did we end up but in Manhattan’s then seedy 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 Port Authority Terminal that night and taken a bus home.
Years later, my ex who is ten years my senior told me he was nearly caught in a bar raid in the mid ’60’s. Believe or not, gay bars were illegal and if you got caught in a raid, your name was published in the paper. Your family knew, your employer knew, your life was over. My ex managed to escape through a back emergency entrance, otherwise …
I had hoped I would make it with Rob, but in the end he fell asleep after his first drink, and I ended up getting picked up by some older guy (probably 25) in a white suit 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 I’ve always been a quick study.
Sure we’ve come a long way since then, but today’s volatile environment shows you how hard won rights that took decades to achieve can be easily lost with the stroke of a pen.
It ain’t over yet.