Gay history isn't taught in schools — simply broaching the subject is enough to get a teacher fired in many places — so it's unlikely that even those familiar with the famed Stonewall Riots are also familiar with a curious debate about the nature and significance of an event that happened just a few days earlier.
The Stonewall Riots is, of course, the name given to the events of June 28, 1969, when a group of gay and lesbian patrons of a New York gay bar called the Stonewall Inn resisted their routine arrest with spontaneous, violent protests. Many people and events led up to that moment but Stonewall is widely and correctly understood as the spark that ignited the modern gay rights movement. (Atlanta's Pride now happens in October — this weekend to be exact — but traditionally such events have most been held around the world at the end of June to commemorate Stonewall. See a list of upcoming Atlanta Pride events on p. 37.)
Stonewall is often mentioned in the same breath as the death of Judy Garland, which happened earlier that same week. On June 26, Garland's remains were flown from London, where she died of an overdose, to New York, where an estimated 20,000 people lined up for hours at a Manhattan funeral chapel about 75 blocks north of the Stonewall Inn to pay their respects. But are the two events — Garland's death and the Stonewall Riots a few days later — even related?
Some argue that Garland's death set the mood that week, a crucial element of the pent-up rage that led to a moment of resistance. Garland's status as a gay icon was certainly well-established by 1969. The star had legions of devoted gay fans, some gay men even codedly referred to each other as "friends of Dorothy," and at the mafia-run Stonewall bar, where patrons were required to sign in, the most commonly used pseudonym was "Judy Garland." Some participants later described a bad feeling related to Garland's death as being "in the air" that week, and most also later reported at least knowing about, or talking about, with some even attending, the funeral. The connection has become part of the common parlance in describing the events.
But curiously, few newspaper or written accounts in the days immediately after Stonewall mention a connection, and no one interviewed shortly afterward mentions it much, either. The one newspaper account at the time to draw the connection was a mocking reference in the Village Voice. Its reports also contained references to "forces of faggotry," "limp wrists," and "Sunday fag follies." It seems possible that the connection drawn there was merely another attempt to denigrate, mock, and belittle the event by saying it happened because of the death of a "campy" star.
Some have further argued that many of the patrons of the Stonewall Inn — and especially the homeless gay youth and street kids who hung around outside — were counter-cultural Greenwich Village types, not the older, button-down, middle-class gays who grew up with and idolized Judy Garland. Their music was R&B, soul, and Motown.
"When people talk about Judy Garland's death having anything much to do with the riot, that makes me crazy," said Bob Kohler, who was on the front lines at the Stonewall Inn and later became a prominent activist before his death in 2007. "The street kids faced death every day ... And they couldn't have cared less about Judy ... I get upset about this because it trivializes the whole thing."
It's possible that a connection was first drawn to mock the events at Stonewall, then it became an urban legend, and then was eventually accepted as historical truth.
But there's also another — and to me far more convincing — suggested possible connection between the two events. It wasn't so much the death of Garland, or even her funeral specifically, which may have set the stage for the riots. It was the simple fact that people had to wait in a long line to get into the funeral parlor.
Among those 20,000 people lining up to pay their respects was a disproportionate number of gay fans: Some argue that this was the first large-scale public gathering of gay people in history. Anyone who grows up gay knows how isolating the experience can be, and how empowering it is to realize there are others like you. The widely reported reaction of many of the gay men who lined up to pay their respects was: "My God, there are so many of us!" Crowds of gay people recognized each other on the street outside, finally able to see their numbers for the first time. Not in small groups in dimly lit bars, but in broad daylight in front of a Madison Avenue funeral parlor.
It's electrifying to think that the events of Stonewall may have had their origin in that incredibly simple moment of seeing each other. Whether or not Garland's funeral is where it happened, the dawning recognition that "there are so many of us" made gay and lesbian people decide that they would no longer participate in their own oppression by remaining silent and isolated. The idea's so radical that its entry into the world couldn't help but be accompanied by riots.
Since Stonewall, the gay liberation movement has been incredibly successful. It's hard to believe that just 50 years ago, gay people were still routinely lobotomized, imprisoned, brutalized, silenced, censored, arrested, and institutionalized in the United States merely for being gay. There have been few, if any, broad social changes that have been implemented as swiftly. Though gay history is not taught in schools, nearly everyone on the face of the planet has now had to face the consequences of that fateful night in some way. Whether they've decided to accept living in a world with openly gay people or have reacted convulsively against it, they have had to deal with it. The power of seeing one another, the power of recognizing how many we are, the power of deciding collectively we won't tolerate unjust treatment or remain silent anymore, are undeniable.
So have a wonderful Pride this weekend, everyone! Whether or not you "make the Judy connection," let's all take a good long look at who — and how many — we are.
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