ActivismCivil RightsEqualityGay CultureGay EldersGay PrideGenerations of PrideLGBT HistoryStonewall50

Memories fade, apathy grows… who will tell Our story?

by Lawrence Pfeil, Jr

(reprinted from New York Blade: June, 2003)

If you have witnessed the start of any Gay Pride parade in the boroughs of New York, you have undoubtedly seen the mint condition, metallic blue 1969 Cadillac DeVille convertible that leads every parade.  It bears the license plates STONEWALL and with it are the mothers and fathers of our community.

These are the “accidental” heroes and heroines who started the largest civil rights movement in history when they stood up and said, “enough!” They are the members of SVA, the STONEWALL Veteran’s Association, founded by Williamson L. Henderson, on July 11, 1969, just two weeks after the “Stonewall Rebellion.”

SVA recently held the “Stonewall Symposium XXXIV,” at The Center.  Panelists included Stonewall veterans Jeremiah Newton, Williamson L. Henderson, Storme DeLarverie, R. Bert Coffman, Electra J. O’ Mara, Dr. Tom R. Stevens and Reverend Magora E. Kennedy.  The panel recognized a number of other veterans also in attendance.

Numerous times during the open forum the word “family” was used to describe SVA. It is an accurate description in every sense of the word. Caring, supportive, concerned and protective, as well as argumentative, bitter, and disappointed were the range of emotions expressed at various moments, as at any family gathering.  But this unique clan shrinks with each passing year.

Even with all the fascinating accounts, colorful memories, and hotly debated recollections, the thing that made the deepest impression was the disgusting and shameful lack of attendance by our community. In total maybe 50 people attended the event, leaving The Center’s cavernous main auditorium painfully empty and the Stonewall Veterans seemingly forgotten.

Gay men will wait for two days outside of a record store in the rain to hear Madonna sing a few songs, but can’t be bothered to pay their respects to the people whose actions 34 years ago allow them to dance together in clubs to her music today.

God forbid that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people take an evening and actually learn the history of their community.  What was life like when it was against the law for two men to dance together and the police routinely and violently raided gay establishments?  Not having ID was enough to get you arrested and hauled downtown where they put the “faggot freak” in a holding cell with violent criminals and left him there for hours … alone and unprotected.

In a recent interview with former SVA President Jeremiah Newton, he condemned our community’s apathy toward its history, including Stonewall, as “appalling and disappointing … Our history is something to be proud of!”

Sadly, even simple appreciation for our history seems beyond the capabilities of so many, especially the younger generation. “They don’t appreciate what they’ve got,” said Kennedy. “What’s more they don’t realize that the laws we fought for can be rescinded just like… that!”  Under appreciated and undervalued are recurring insults to SVA members.

At the recent City Council Gay Pride Celebration, SVA members were not asked to participate.  Moreover, they were not even recognized during the program though they were clearly visible wearing their “SVA 1969” buttons. Most inconceivable is the fact that during Stonewall 25, in front of one million people there to celebrate the rebellion they had ignited, SVA had to fight to be included on stage in Central Park.  These people are living history… our living history!

A living history faces the test of time and therein lies the problem … no one lives forever.  As unbelievable as it may seem, the Stonewall Rebellion is arguably the most underreported world event in history.  There are no photographs or even a single piece of footage from the first night because the media viewed it as unimportant, yet it continued on for another four nights.  As such the only source material we have are the eyewitness accounts of the Stonewall Veterans.

Thirty-four years, AIDS, Vietnam and even 9/11 have taken their toll and dulled vibrant images and faded vivid memories, and in many cases personal accounts of the genesis of the LGBT community have been lost forever. Yet as time marches on, sometimes knowledge is gained in the most unexpected ways.

During Stonewall 25, Jeremiah Newton, who joined the rebellion minutes after it began, had the opportunity to meet Seymour Pines, the police detective in charge of the raid that began on June 27, 1969.

The rebellion was almost a massacre.  During that meeting it was revealed that ironically, the reason for the raid that night had nothing to do with homosexuals.  It had been planned in order to make an example of the Mafia owners of Stonewall, who were behind in their protection payoffs to the police.  But the most chilling revelation was that the Stonewall Rebellion was nearly the Stonewall Massacre.

A scene during the 1969 Stonewall riots, as seen in Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s documentary STONEWALL UPRISING. A First Run Features Release. Photo by Bettye Lane.

The crowd had forced the police to retreat and barricaded them inside Stonewall.  “When we met, Pine told me the cops on the inside had broken the glass out of the boarded-up front window and had aimed their guns through cracks and holes in the plywood. If anyone saw the crowd outside with a lit Molotov cocktail, they had orders to open fire on us!”

The Stonewall Veterans who gave life to our community and the global gay civil rights movement nearly gave their own lives in the process, but we have done little to recognize or honor their achievements.  After 34 years there is still no monument to their accomplishments.

When Christians gather to celebrate Christmas they tell the story of the birth of their savior.  When the Jewish community gathers to celebrate Passover they ask, “Why is this night different from all others?”

When the Gay community gathers on the last Sunday in June each year, we need to ask why that sultry summer night in 1969 was different.  We need to tell the story of our birth as a community, and remember those upon whose shoulders we stand as we continue to fulfill our dreams and our destiny.

(Main photo credit: Larry Morris—The New York Times/Redux)


Previous posts from theOUTfront series, “Generations of Pride”

Celebrating STONEWALL 50 with Generations of Pride

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