From a film review to a 30-year-old documentary and modern interviews with key players, these episodes give a sense of how crucial the Stonewall rebellion was for the gay rights movement and how much has changed since.
“If there was even a suspicion that you were a lesbian you were fired from the job and you were in such a position of disgrace that you slunk out without saying goodbye even to the people that liked you and you liked. Never even bothered to clean your desk. You just disappeared. You went quietly because you were afraid that the recriminations that would come if you even stood there and protested would be worse than just… leaving.”
“I remember one cop coming at me and hitting me with a nightstick to the back of my legs. I broke loose and I went after him. I grabbed his nightstick. My girlfriend was behind him – she was a strong son of a gun – and I wanted him to feel the same pain I felt. I kept on sayin ‘How do you like the pain? Do you like it?’” (Joan Nestle)
This episode of 99% Invisible (first aired in 2016 when President Obama designated the Stonewall Inn as the first US National Monument to LGBTQ rights) is a replay of a radio documentary about the Stonewall rebellion that was made in 1989, on the 20th anniversary. It features valuable and insightful audio clips of interviews with key people who have since died, including the legendary Sylvia Rivera, 80-year-old lesbian Jheri Faire (quoted above) and Seymour Pine the commanding officer of the “public morals” squad who marshalled the raid.
“I would say the AIDS crisis transformed the movement and the community. It’s very hard to describe to people who are either not queer or younger than I am what it’s like to have lived through a period when all the men I knew died.”
Masha Gessen presents a thoughtful 50 minutes of interviews taking us from modern day drag queens reading to children in libraries, through the controversy around the fight for the right to gay marriage, the significance of Pete Buttigieg (the first openly gay candidate for president) and the impact of the AIDS crisis. The episode finishes with a heartening conversation between young, black, gender-fluid radio rookie Kristen Tomlinson and Paulette who Kristen names an “older black lesbian”. Short of time? Skip to 15:00 to hear actress and comedian Lea DeLaria talk through five decades of queer history in five minutes, to a disco soundtrack.
“I thought it was so ridiculous how Ray, after the first night of the riots, was like ‘But I can get a job now!’ The riots aren’t done yet! I know we like to draw this straight line from Stonewall and then gay rights were here, but it made me laugh out loud. ‘One night of rioting and I can get a respectable job. Gay rights have arrived!’”
The Queer as Fact team take a novel approach, comparing Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall with Chrissie West’s 2016 Drunk History segment on the riots. The panel’s thinly veiled disdain for the film’s casting of a white, cis male hero and their querying of Drunk History’s claim to being “92% accurate” make for fun listening as they fact check their way through the characters and scenes of the rebellion. It poses questions about who records and retells history, for whose benefit, and with what degree of accuracy.
“This place would let you dance slow and that’s a very, very, very important thing…When you dance with each other you’re given a kind of solidarity of personhood…You feel good as a person. When they tried to remove that it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. If you’re going to take that away it’s like taking our personhood away.”
The Guardian’s chief reporter for the US, Ed Pilkington, provides as thorough a history as anyone could in 26 minutes. Starting by highlighting what life was like in the months and weeks before Stonewall, when the national society for psychiatrists in America deemed homosexuality a mental illness (this didn’t change till 1973) and well-meaning liberals would hope to help gay people by recommending electric shock treatment. New York artist Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, quoted above, was at the rebellion and gives an eloquent and earnest interview. For another illuminating interview about LGBT rights (and regrets) listen here to Today in Focus’ interview with Ruth Hunt, the outgoing CEO of Stonewall.
“It’s simply marking the point where people say ‘We’re not going to take this bullshit anymore. We’re not going to let you come into our bars and harass us and drag us off in paddy wagons. We are not putting up with it.’”
The Economist’s weekly interview podcast finds an interesting guest in American writer Armitead Maupin, whose novels and television series, Tales of the City, unfurled the characters of a close-knit community in San Francisco. A flashback episode focuses on the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, a precursor to Stonewall in 1966. Around the time of Compton’s and Stonewall, Armistead himself was a young conservative who was joining the Navy and had no connection at all with the gay rights movement. Speaking about the changes and progress that has happened in recent decades, he quotes one of his characters: “You don’t have to keep up, dear. You just have to keep open.”
“It’s people who’ve been through the hardest things that are the collectors of wisdom in our culture. And to me that means that the gay, lesbian, bi, trans – that community has a hell of a lot of wisdom and a hell of a lot to teach us.”
Bringing us full circle, this episode speaks to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay about making the 1989 Stonewall documentary which was replayed in our first recommended episode above from 99% Invisible. As a young reporter, Isay produced the documentary on the 20th anniversary of the rebellion and presented it to his dad, a gay man, who died on the anniversary of Stonewall a couple of years ago. The rest of the episode replays the documentary but we appreciated hearing the first 13 minutes in interview with Isay having already listened to the 99% Invisible replay, and hope you will too.
Main image by Yosonuts.