When President Obama made LGBT history this week by mentioning Stonewall along with Seneca and Selma as civil rights flash points, the gay community was surprised and pleased a current president was able to do so — and the events at Stonewall back in 1969 shifted a bit out of strictly-gay history and into that of America’s overall equality narrative.
Stonewall is certainly known as a turning point for gay liberation, but few outside the LGBT community have more than a passing grasp of the historic events that began as simple pushback against the police in New York City that June.
But now that Obama’s mention has caused a flurry of interest, interest in why Stonewall’s riots were significant is peaking, and The Atlantic carried an interesting and not often referenced interpretation of its precipitate.
Speaking with gay journalist Dick Leitsch, who covered the Stonewall riots in 1969, the mag quotes him as describing the undercurrent at the scene. Leitsch said:
“Then too, there are hundreds of young homosexuals in New York who literally have no home. Most of them are between 16 and 25, and came here from other places without jobs, money or contacts. Many of them are running away from unhappy homes (one boy told us, ‘My father called me ‘[expletive] so many times, I thought it was my name.’). Another said his parents fought so much over which of them “made” him a homosexual that he left so they could learn to live together.”
“Jobless and without skills–without decent clothes to wear to a job interview–they live in the streets, panhandling or shoplifting for the price of admission to the Stonewall. That was the one advantage to the place–for $3.00 admission, one could stay inside, out of the winter’s cold or the summer heat, all night long. Not only was the Stonewall better climatically, but it also saved the kids from spending the night in a doorway or from getting arrested as vagrants.”
The Stonewall journalist concludes:
“Three dollars isn’t too hard to get panhandling, and nobody hustled drinks in the Stonewall. Once the admission price was paid, one could drink or not, as he chose. The Stonewall became ‘home’ to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why the Stonewall riots were begun, led and spearheaded by ‘queens.'”
You can read the entire piece on the Stonewall riots over at The Atlantic.