STONEWALL WAS A RIOT
Conceived & Written by Joe Kennedy
An original work by Joe Kennedy, based in part on Joe’s memoir “An Aging LGBT Activist’s Personal Memoir in Words & Pictures: Joe Kennedy Looks Back” (published Dec. 2017) and Joe’s book “Summer of ’77: Last Hurrah of the Gay Activists Alliance” (published May 1994).
A Special Presentation performed on Stonewall Sunday, June 17, 2018, at 11 a.m.
at Metropolitan Community Church of NY
Reverend Bishop Pat Bumgardner, Pastor
Narrator – Jaz Shovlin Buchanan
Reader #1 – Joe Kennedy
Song Leader – Colleen Sovory
Reader #2 – Dr. Jules Netherland
Chant Leader – Frances Wood
Reader #3 – Dion Brown
Anonymous Voices – Keith Gooding & other cast members
Reader #4 – Tonie Boykin
Reader #5 – Dr. Brett diGoldi
Director of Music – John Fischer
NARRATOR: Happy Stonewall Sunday and beginning of Pride Week 2018! Stonewall Sunday is a special day, and this is a special presentation to mark the occasion. We’re celebrating the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, just one year shy of the half-century milestone.
The Stonewall Riots were the spark that quickly ignited a firestorm, a mighty world-changing firestorm known as LGBTQ Liberation – Queer Liberation, a movement whose militant activism soon after Stonewall brought about historic advances for freedom and human rights. Our presentation relives some of those momentous events with readings from the memoir of our long-time congregant and Board Member emeritus Joe Kennedy, who was a well-known activist and one of the most widely-read gay journalists of that era, and whose works are now part of the folklore of our Queer Nation. Please feel free to join in singing, chanting and cheering as we bring to life some of our victories and acknowledge people who made them possible, like our own Sylvia Rivera. May these stories strengthen our determination in this Pride Season to defeat the threats that confront us today in our country: Nobody, Nobody is going to take away – no “BUM” in Washington (to quote LeBron James) is going to take away our hard-won rights! Nobody! And may these tales of triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds provide inspiration and hope as we march next Sunday in support of our LGBTQ siblings around the world who struggle bravely in the face of repressive regimes. (Roman knows what I mean.) [FLAGS WAVED] So when we march we’ll wave this flag of Liberation and Pride in solidarity with our siblings around the globe as they courageously defy jailings and beatings and even death to wave this very same flag in their own lands!
Our first reading begins fifty-five years ago, six years before Stonewall, because, as we hear often from this pulpit, context is everything, and the fact is that the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and Queer Liberation would not, could not have happened had it not been for two massive popular uprisings that shook America to its core earlier in the 1960s – namely the African-American civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Stonewall and Queer Liberation and everything we celebrate in this Pride Week were made possible only because, first, there was the African-American civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, so that is where our story must begin.
READER #1: August 28, 1963. As a naïve high school kid living in a segregated world – and unbeknown to me at the time, enjoying the enormous benefits of white privilege – I watched the live TV coverage of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. I was deeply moved by the righteousness of the cause and awestruck by his brilliance and eloquence as a speaker.
Shortly thereafter, I saw President John F. Kennedy’s prime-time address to the nation endorsing racial equality under law, calling it a moral cause that, quote, “is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” unquote. That phrase really grabbed me.
Then I had the honor of marching in my first civil rights demonstration, in Harlem. I’ll never forget the powerful emotions that came over me, a naïve white teen-ager, as we marched forward, Black and white together, singing “We Shall Overcome” at the top of our lungs.
ALL SING: We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day. We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand today. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.
READER #1 CONTINUES: Tragically, after the horror of President JFK’S assassination, his successor pursued a policy of constantly-escalating war in Vietnam, sending more and more draftees – conscripts – into combat (with the lie “We see light at the end of the tunnel”) until there were more than half a million Americans fighting in Vietnam, and every week more than 400 of them were coming home in body bags. Thousands began yelling, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today.” But after that drove him from office, his evil successor Nixon only continued the war. Fifty-eight thousand Americans and three million Vietnamese were killed.
January 30, 1968. I was a G.I. in the Vietnam War, in a place called Chu Lai, when the other side launched its ferocious Tet offensive, bringing the heaviest fighting and bloodiest battles of the war. Of course we didn’t know right then that what was happening to us was part of a massive nationwide offensive. All we knew was that we were being overrun in an attack unlike anything seen before. As the other side closed in on us, life and death hung in the balance. It was kill or be killed.
Silently, fervently, I prayed: “Dear God, I know now that this war is wrong; it’s immoral. I know we have no business being here. Please forgive me. If I survive, Dear God, I promise I will do everything I can to end this war, to bring all U.S. forces home. I promise, Dear God!”
Well, obviously I did survive – and I did fulfill my promise to God, as an outspoken Vietnam Veteran Against the War – by day; and by night (don’t tell anyone) as a rippie, a radical, a name on Nixon’s enemies list.
NARRATOR: With millions of young Americans like Joe rising up for African-American civil rights and / openly / rebelling against an unjust war, the stage was set, the time was right for the Stonewall Riots, the birth of LGBTQ Liberation, and those first months and years of ultra-militant activism that have been called the heyday of the Queer Liberation movement. Our readings continue from Joe’s memoir.
READER #2: Like all new members of the Gay Activists Alliance after the Stonewall Riots, I was immediately briefed on the recent history that led up to this auspicious point in time. The briefing went like this – it said that:
On a hot Friday night, the last weekend of June 1969, police staged a then-routine raid on a gay bar – routine because, after all, everything about us was illegal, and universally despised, and constant abuse by the police was the norm. But that night the crowd in the Stonewall Inn and hundreds of street people in the vicinity outside fought back. They fought back ferociously, and they KICKED / THE / COPS’ / BUTTS! Kicked the cops’ butts, but good! The Stonewall Riots then continued on for several more nights and even increased in intensity as the word spread in our community, despite the best efforts of NYPD reinforcements pouring in and their elite Tactical Patrol Force to try to quell the riots. Within weeks, our community had begun to organize, for real, for the first time, and a militant organization called the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) came into existence – a historic moment and a trail-blazing name that should never be forgotten: the Gay Liberation Front, GLF. A few months later, before the year 1969 was out, 13 GLF members formed a new organization with the same goal of liberation and same attitude of militancy as GLF but with a more effective internal structure, one more capable of reaching decisions, taking action and channeling the determination of the membership in a productive way. That new organization was called the Gay Activists Alliance of New York, GAA. It adopted the lambda as its symbol.
That was the briefing I got. / And so, there I was – now a member of GAA, a participant in that glorious history in the making.
Anyone too young to remember the Stonewall era would be shocked to learn just how utterly all-pervasive the overt, and virtually unchallenged, discrimination against LGBTQ people was in every aspect of life – and how much GAA did in a few incredibly intense years to end that oppression and change things forever. GAA’s incessant, impossible-to-ignore “zaps” – Zaps, a word from the superhero lexicon! – forced LGBTQ concerns onto the public agenda for the first time. Instead of suffering in isolation / and invisibility, Queer people were banding together, roaring that “We are everywhere,” and we demand full equality as first-class human beings. And when reasonable persuasion got us nowhere, we reminded our oppressors, we warned them, in the words of our militant chants, we warned them that: “Stonewall Was a Riot!”
CHANT LEADER: Stonewall was a riot! Let’s get up and shout it so every oppressor on the face of the earth hears the warning! Here we go:
ALL CHANT: “Stonewall was a riot! Stonewall was a riot! Stonewall was a riot! Stonewall was a riot!”
READER #2 CONTINUES: The Stonewall Riots did not automatically end regular police raids on gay bars and gathering places, but GAA’s frequent angry, tense, confrontational demonstrations at police precincts in the early 1970s finally did stop the routine raids – thus putting an end to a pernicious police practice that had gone on for longer than anyone alive could remember. GAA sued (successfully, ultimately, in the state’s highest court) to overturn New York’s so-called sodomy law, which made sex between people of the same gender a crime. GAA’s hounding prompted Mayor John Lindsay to issue an Executive Order in February 1972 prohibiting discrimination against Queer people in city government jobs. GAA’s zaps helped prod the American Psychiatric Association to drop its classification of Queer people as “mentally ill” in December 1973; “Sick No More,” exulted headlines in the gay press.
There were dozens of major zaps in the early 1970s, each one smashing away one more brick in the wall of anti-LGBTQ oppression. For instance, when the City Clerk ordered a / new / Queer / church to cease and desist from performing same-sex Holy Unions, on the grounds that they looked too much like “Real Marriages” (which of course we couldn’t have), GAA zapped the City Clerk’s office hard – took over the whole place for hours – and after that, the Queer church’s Holy Unions went on, more popular and more publicized than before – and the City Clerk KEPT / HIS / MOUTH / SHUT!
But at least as significant as the many specific victories we were winning over discrimination at the time was the dramatic change that took place in the attitude of Queer people ourselves, how we thought about ourselves. Suddenly thousands of us rejected, repudiated, cast aside the shame, the self-loathing and self-hate we had always been taught and had accepted, and instead we embraced a Pride so strong and defiant, a love of ourselves and our People so uplifting and exhilarating that we could only describe it as “not quite arrogance.” Not quite arrogance.
GAA had the first Gay Rights Bill in the world introduced into the New York City Council, a bill that would ban discrimination against Queer people in all jobs, housing and public accommodations – discrimination that was widespread at the time. And GAA’s militancy forced politicians to take the Gay Rights Bill seriously, after they first dismissed it with ridicule and contempt. When they locked the doors of City Hall to keep us out, GAA stunned them by bringing ladders and climbing in through the windows. When they refused even to schedule committee hearings on the bill, GAA led hundreds of howling demonstrators to an all-night noise-fest outside the committee chair’s apartment building. (His neighbors booted him out at the next election, and the committee hearings began.) When the committee, despite pledges to GAA, voted down the bill, GAA blocked rush-hour traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and disrupted subway service at the City Hall station – sending the message: no justice, no peace; no equality for us, no business as usual for the city. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese – which had such enormous political clout that pundits called it “the Powerhouse” – tried desperately to kill the Gay Rights Bill, but after an epic struggle that went on for years, we prevailed, the bill was passed, and discrimination against Queer people became illegal in New York City.
GAA’s headquarters building in Soho in the early 1970s, called the Firehouse, was the first LGBTQ Community Center ever, anywhere, welcoming many hundreds of Queer people every week for a dynamic line-up of political and social activities and more – everything from self-defense classes, and discussion groups, to cabarets, and movie nights; everything from well-attended Thursday night General Meetings, to even-more-popular Saturday night dances. Of course it took a tense showdown with the NYPD outside that first Firehouse dance to establish the right of us out-and-proud Queer folks to dance and party and socialize amongst ourselves without police harassment; we won that confrontation, and in so doing, it turned out, paved the way for the opening of the discos and nightclubs that have been a part of Queer life ever since.
Yes, we LGBTQ people were fighting for – and seizing – our own freedom. We were proud firebrands on the cutting edge of history. This city and the world had never seen anything like it before – and now, the city and the world would never be the same again.
NARRATOR: That progress being made by the young Queer Liberation movement in the years right after Stonewall provoked a nationwide backlash by hate-mongers that was severe. We came under siege from coast to coast. As our Metropolitan Community Churches Founder Rev. Elder Troy Perry mentioned one time when he visited us at Easter, the backlash was so bad that in California there was actually a bigoted initiative on the ballot that tried to prohibit, outlaw LGBTQ people from teaching in public schools in the state. Joe’s book describes how New York activists responded to the threat.
READER #3: As the summer of 1977 started, LGBTQ Americans were under attack from a vicious new crusade of hatred and lies, led by a “celebrity,” Anita Bryant. It was an ugly, dangerous backlash that aimed to eradicate the fledgling Queer Liberation movement and wipe out everything it had gained since the Stonewall Riots.
But Queer people who’d won their first whiff of freedom and self-respect were not about to be shoved back into the closet.
At the by-now-legendary Gay Activists Alliance of New York, they vowed to Fight Back more fiercely than ever before. They succeeded, with a series of spectacular “Superzaps” – confrontational actions of unprecedented militancy – that spurred on the cause of Queer Power and Pride in New York and across the nation. The activists realized that minorities who depend on nothing more than the tolerance and goodwill of their fellow humans often suffer – so they were determined to smash the myth that Queer people are helpless victims.
Their bigoted targets that summer called them “a brazen gang of thugs” and even – get this! – “homosexual storm troopers.”
Among their feats that summer, accomplished without injury or arrest, they forced a belligerent well-known straight bar to remove an ax labeled “Fairy Swatter” – an obvious and outrageous incitement to Queer-bashing violence – after the straight bar’s owner swore it would Never come down and tauntingly told Queer people that “nothing you do” can change that. The activists decided to show him how wrong he was, and DOWN came the Fairy Swatter ax!
They did it with a stunning strong-arm takeover of the straight bar that caused New York magazine to headline: “Militant Gays Aren’t Kidding Around Anymore.” New York magazine reported, and I quote, “In the old days, police raided gay bars. Last week it was a group of whistle-blowing militant gay activists who raided a straight singles bar, Geordie’s, on the Upper East Side.
About 100 demonstrators, mobilized by the Gay Activists Alliance, drove paying customers from the bar.” End of quote from New York magazine.
The Fairy Swatter ax was down. And after that much-publicized incident, the straight bar’s customers never returned and it went broke. Businesses far and wide got the message that encouraging hatred does not pay.
Thirteen years later a Village Voice cover story about a young new generation of activists in groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation quoted one of them, a lesbian, as saying they were greatly inspired by “the time 1970s activists ‘TOOK’ a Manhattan bar that displayed” an ax above the words fairy swatter.
A week after downing the Fairy Swatter, the activists of the summer of 1977 struck again. This time they stopped cold a nationally-known, supposedly Liberal politician who had suddenly proclaimed himself an anti-Queer leader. With great fanfare, he declared himself the head of a new group called “Liberals Against Gay Rights” that would use its “respectable” liberal perch here in the nation’s media capital to echo and redouble the very worst of Anita Bryant’s bigotry and lies – including the despicable, discredited blood libel that being LGBTQ equals being a child molester.
The activists ended this prominent politician’s alarming all-out propaganda and lobbying blitz against equal rights, and they silenced his slimy slurs and dehumanizing smears against LGBTQ people.
They did it with a daring commando-style raid at midnight on his posh suburban home. The raid thoroughly traumatized his household, trashed his property, and got nationwide media coverage – everywhere from Time magazine to National Public Radio, including an editorial in The New York Times headlined “Bats and Bullhorns” that began with these melodramatic words, and I quote from The New York Times:
“Late one night last week, about 50 homosexuals, many with baseball bats and bullhorns, suddenly appeared around the Scarsdale home of Adam Walinsky, exploding firecrackers and shouting threats to burn down his house.
[ANONYMOUS VOICES HOLLER: “Hey bigot, you liar, we’ll set your house on fire! Hey bigot, you liar, we’ll set your house on fire!”]
When the Walinskys sought to call the police, they discovered that their phone lines had been cut.” End of quote from The New York Times. Now remember, there were no cell phones back in 1977. When those phone lines were cut, that was it! They were completely cut off.
The Gannett newspapers, the country’s largest newspaper chain, added that Walinsky’s house was, quote, “pelted with rotten eggs,” unquote, and that his property was spray painted and vandalized – AND that all of the raiders escaped unscathed, no one apprehended or arrested. I’d call that a case of Queer Ninjas of the night! The astonishing midnight raid in suburbia and the manifesto that was posted there sent a warning across America to any who might be tempted to promote prejudice against our people that they do so at their own peril.
Reinforcing that message, activists in Iowa threw a big sloppy pie in Anita Bryant’s face when she tried to bring her hate crusade to that state.
Also that summer, New York activists by the hundreds picketed Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s official residence, helping to convince voters to throw out a hostile Mayor after just one term and elect a Mayor who would go on to sign the Gay Rights Bill into law.
And so the bravery and boldness of Queer activists began to turn the tide against Bryant and bigotry that fateful summer, making it a season of progress despite adversity, and a fitting last hurrah for the Gay Activists Alliance of New York.
NARRATOR: And now, as promised, a reading about the heroic life of our own Saint Sylvia Rivera.
READER # 4: Visitors and newcomers often ask, “What’s that urn in front of the sanctuary during Worship Services?” [LOOK AT URN]
The urn contains the ashes of Sylvia Rivera, a famous and beloved transgender activist – one of the most admired, most consequential leaders in the history of the LGBTQ Liberation movement.
Sylvia was a teen-ager in the South Bronx when word reached her that an uprising had begun in the West Village against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn. Instantly she rushed downtown, exclaiming, “I’m not missing this!” It’s no wonder, with Sylvia’s fierce participation and charismatic incitements, that the Stonewall Riots grew in intensity and went on for several more nights.
In the months and years after Stonewall, Sylvia was a very visible and vocal participant in the frequent Queer Liberation demonstrations against police harassment and brutality, and against the oppression and discrimination from virtually every institution and quarter of society that was prevalent at that time. Sylvia was gifted with a loud voice, urgent and commanding, and at every demonstration she would lead the way, whipping the protesters into a righteous, powerful frenzy of Queer Power chants that our oppressors dared not ignore.
Sylvia was famous for her heroics, like the time she fired an opening salvo in the campaign on behalf of New York City’s Gay Rights Bill. This is how it happened:
The City Councilmember from the very district where the Stonewall Riots took place refused to co-sponsor the bill. Activists collected thousands of signatures on petitions to the Councilmember. But the activists were flummoxed when, at a public event, the Councilmember contemptuously refused to take the petitions, refused even to acknowledge our presence or existence. Sylvia sprang into action. She grabbed the stack of petitions and while shouting “Now take these petitions!” whacked [WHACK] the Councilmember across the face with them. The Councilmember then took the petitions and co-sponsored the bill.
Many years later, Sylvia was once more in the vanguard, when a grassroots drive she organized succeeded in adding the words “and gender identity” to the New York City Gay Rights Law – transgender rights now proudly and explicitly stated in the law, Enshrined in the law!
Sylvia was a cherished member of MCCNY. [PICTURE HELD UP]. This is a picture of Sylvia at the Church. Sylvia was Baptized at the Church. She was active in the transgender ministry and all the social justice ministries. And she ran the Church’s Food Pantry. Every morning Sylvia put up the Rainbow flag outside – showing her Queer Pride and signaling that the Food Pantry is open and serving all who are hungry.
Sadly, Sylvia’s health declined. But even on her deathbed her activist zeal still blazed as she made the impassioned, irresistible plea to Bishop Pat: “Promise me you’ll do it” – open a shelter for homeless Queer youths at the Church. And so it was done. Today, 14 youths find emergency shelter here, on the first floor, every night, and many more use the shelter’s extensive drop-in services on a daily basis.
So when we see Sylvia’s urn, let’s remember what she did to win the freedom and human rights we have today – and let’s commit anew to support the good works that bear her name, the Sylvia’s Place Shelter and the Sylvia Rivera Food Pantry at MCCNY.
NARRATOR: And finally, to bring us into the 21st century, a reading about the successful quest to enact Marriage Equality in New York State, a drive led by our own MCCNY congregant Cathy Marino-Thomas.
READER # 5: Victory for Marriage Equality in Albany was won on the eve of Pride Weekend 2011. In fact, the victory in the State Legislature in Albany in 2011 came on the exact day – the last Friday in June – and at the exact hour – close to midnight – when the Stonewall Riots had broken out in 1969. It was a magnificent victory in Albany, the result of many years of activism and agitating. Thank you, Cathy Marino-Thomas.
Contributing significantly to making that victory possible were the well-timed and widely-publicized civil disobedience actions of Metropolitan Community Church of New York’s Pastor Bishop Pat Bumgardner. Bishop Pat officiated at then-illegal marriages on the steps of City Hall – just as Mayor Michael Bloomberg was walking by, of course, causing him to focus on the issue for the first time and then become a crucial supporter – and at the Bronx County Courthouse, and even in the City Clerk’s own official wedding chapel – after a take-over there, orchestrated by Bishop Pat’s spouse Mary Jane Gibney, who waited for just the right moment and shouted, “QUEERS, MOVE IN!” and then locked the doors shut behind us with the guards on the outside. All of those civil disobedience actions made front-page news; they helped put a human face on our cause, spotlighting the diverse couples getting married, who people could relate to, and by doing that shifted public attitudes in favor of Marriage Equality.
And many observers say our victory in New York, a major state, was the momentum-creating tipping point that propelled Marriage Equality on to become the nationwide ‘Law of the Land’ just four years later, on the eve of Pride Weekend 2015. Thank you, Bishop Pat.
NARRATOR: I trust that this presentation has fired all of us up with a renewed sense of militancy and urgency to carry forward the Queer Liberation work that began with that spark at Stonewall 49 years ago.
And one more time now, as we kick off this Pride Week 2018, what was Stonewall? Stonewall was a riot!