July 21, 2019
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From NY's Stonewall revolt to old age frailty, back to closet

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York (US), Jun 25 (efe-epa).- An early morning police raid on the Stonewall Inn bar in New York that took place 50 years ago inflamed a rebellion that has evolved to become today’s LGTBI movement.

The New York City of those days would be unrecognizable today and the bar, the first to welcome homosexuals in a neighborhood like Greenwich Village, was but a slum devoid even of running water at its serving counter.

"New York in 1969 was a completely different city, it was a film noir city, a dark city not as bright as it is today and all the laws were targeted against gay people," Martin Boyce, one of Stonewall's habitués, told EFE.

“The bar was a dump, an ugly thing with no running water,” he said, adding that most bars then frequented by gay clients were "near the docks, on side streets, lonely streets, dangerous streets, and Stonewall was in the midst of this vibrant village, Greenwich Village."

Stonewall’s fame was to enter the annals of history when in the small hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, nine policemen raided the establishment on 51-53 Christopher St., arrested its workers for selling alcohol without a license, beat up some of the clientèle and, adhering to a New York criminal statute that allowed the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing, began nabbing customers.

This time, the bar’s patrons did not just fade into the background, but stood their ground and protested as the police tried to load their detainees into vans.

“It changed everything, this was individual pride which within two weeks it became a collective pride,” Boyce said.

A GAY NOAH'S ARK

The altercations were a catalyst for a then timid movement in pursuance of civil rights for the significant homosexual minority in the United States.

A year later, thousands of people celebrated the first Gay Pride march in history.

Millions are expected to attend the next march in New York, scheduled to take place on June 30.

"What Stonewall did was that it turned a small, localized movement over time into a very large international movement, one that spread around the world,” said Eric Marcus, author of "Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights 1945-1990."

Coming out in the years before Stonewall was a high-risk strategy that could cost a person their jobs, home and even family, he said.

"It wasn't until 1973 that homosexuality was removed from the list of mental illnesses," Marcus said, adding that up until that year electric shock treatment was still being meted out.

Stonewall's clients ranged from executives in suits, who used to hang out near the entrance, to drag queens and "street kids" like Boyce, young teenagers who had often been disowned by their families.

There were many different types of gay people, “not all of us getting along, at best tolerating each other,” Boyce said.

Stonewall was filled with these groups, like a gay Noah's Ark, he recalled.

THE NIGHT EVERYTHING STARTED

Boyce said that although he was not there when the police raided Stonewall, he arrived with a friend shortly afterward as it was being cleared of its customers.

“We went to look and I could see the drag queens coming out of the bar waving and carrying on, after them came the people who were ashamed, caught off guard or who didn't have any ID or had professions and were afraid of being exposed,” he said.

Everything went like it had in so many previous raids until a policeman began shoving someone into a van.

“A shoe with high heels appeared, and responded with a kick," Boyce said. The agent tried to keep control but saw something in the group that frightened him. “He blinked, gulped and then headed toward the door of the bar,” he said.

“As he ran we all went crazy, we started taking pennies out because they were made of copper and threw them,” he said, recalling that police were nicknamed coppers. “And then we started throwing more serious things,” he said.

Hundreds of people joined the protest and eventually riot police were deployed.

“That moment was probably one of the most famous of the riot,” he said. “We had to do something, so we grabbed onto each other and did the famous kick-line and sang the song, 'We are the Village Girls’.”

The dreaded police charge began before the song was finished, Boyce was hit in the back and the altercations lasted until dawn.

"There were casualties but many of them, unfortunately, were from collateral damage, friendly fire, because we were not trained to play baseball and things like that,” he said.

“When we threw a brick most of us hit another gay person."

"WE WERE SO DIVERSE"

At that time pacifists, black people and feminists were on a war footing but the LGTBI collective never thought of itself in such a way.

“We never thought of ourselves because we weren't a biological minority, we weren't a religious minority,” Boyce said. “We didn't have a book, a creed or something like that, and we were so diverse we weren't even united.”

"The riot was really a success because there was no alternative, there was just no alternative," Boyce added.

He said he had been out since 1966 in the Village and everyone there had a list in their heads, people who had been beaten up, thrown out of their homes and lost their jobs.

According to Marcus, what happened at Stonewall was significant in that people who organized themselves in the aftermath of the raid branded it as something very important.

He referred to the first march, which catapulted what happened at the bar and kept the flame of the gay rights movement burning from that moment on.

“That first rally in 1970 was the largest gathering of homosexuals in one place at one time in all of history as far as we can tell,” the writer said.

STONEWALL REOPENED

The new Stonewall reopened in 2007 under the stewardship of Kurt Kelly and Stacy Lentz.

“We wanted to bring history back, we wanted it to be treated and respected as it should have been and wasn't," said Kelly. "Remember that those people in 1969 were completely oppressed and they had no social dignity, no way to be out and I think sometimes now that the younger generation just takes it for granted."

Stonewall today is gleaming, with a ground floor covered in wood and with a pool table; an upper floor with another bar, rainbow flags hung from the black ceiling and a facade also full of small multicolored banners of the LGTBI movement.

Visits by personalities such as Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and his partner Matthew Barret in 2018 and the performance there of singer Madonna at last New Year's Eve have done nothing but boost its popularity.

BACK INTO THE CLOSET

Transgender activist Graeme Davis was 12 years old when the Stonewall Inn riots occurred.

Davis was part of the first group of black lesbian women in New York, the Salsa Soul Sisters.

Davis is fighting for the rights of non-heterosexual elderly people belonging to the pioneering generation in the US that suffered the most from the AIDS epidemic and took part in the struggle for civil rights for the LGTBI community.

Now in their old age, when they need care and medical attention, many have been forced to return to the closet so as to avoid prejudice and even neglect.

“You live your life all these years and now you have to return to the closet just because you need health care,” she said, adding, “That's crazy, it's ludicrous.”

José Colaz, director of one of the few day centers which provide care for aging members of the LGTBI community in New York, said they were the most likely to live alone and to experience discrimination.

"As a result, many of our participants have been dealing with poverty, homelessness, social stigma and severe isolation," Colaz said.

His day center in the Bronx neighborhood is managed by SAGE, an NGO dedicated to offering services to elderly LGTBI members.

It opened its first center in 2012 - it now has four such centers in New York - and offers the same health, education, leisure and recreational activities as other residences for older people.

“This center provides an opportunity for them to come in and be themselves, to bring their partners and have discussions about their sexual identity,” he said.

Sociologist Mateo Sancho said that a New York gay person aged 65 may have the perception that the world has changed and is tolerant.

“But the moment you begin to surround yourself only with people of your same generation it is very likely that you will return to that situation in which you were a minority, a silenced minority,” Sancho added. "Today’s generation which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall still finds there is a fight going on because it now needs to be listened to over its needs and specific care,” he said. EFE

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