2019 Art+Pride Exhibit
Exhibition Dates: June 22-July 21, 2019
Opening Reception: June 22nd, 2019 from 5:00 pm to 8:30 pm
Location: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St. San Francisco
In honoring the Stonewall riots 50 years ago, Harvey Milk Photo Center proudly present you the Stonewall 50 Years Anniversary Art Exhibit. This exhibit is intended for local artists to showcase their best contemporary artworks focusing on celebrating LGBTQ community.
Dave Christensen, Director, Harvey Milk Photo Center
Nicola Bosco-Alvarez, Entertainment Producer
Illustration by Gordon Silveria
Stonewall 50 – and Before
By Hank Trout
In 1966, three members of the Genovese crime family pooled their resources and bought The Stonewall Inn, a sleepy restaurant and nightclub at 51-53 Christopher Street in New York City’s fabled Greenwich Village that catered to straight customers. Despite the citywide campaign to rid the city of gay bars that began earlier in the sixties, the Mafia owners immediately turned the Inn into a gay bar. The bar was a mess! It had no running water behind the bar and there were no fire exits, and the toilets overran constantly. Once a week police officers wandered into the bar to collect envelopes stuffed with payoff because the Inn had no liquor license. But it was the only bar in New York City that allowed same-sex couples to dance, and that brought the gay folks into the Inn like moths to a flame.
Police raids on gay bars were, it seemed, a naturally occurring phenomenon. Bars were routinely raided at least once a month, their liquor seized, and patrons harassed and arrested along with the bar’s employees. The Stonewall was raided as often as any other gay bar in the City.
This time would be different.
At 1:20 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes police officers, a detective and a deputy inspector from the Public Morals Squad, stormed into the Stonewall Inn, announcing, “Police! We’re taking the place,” proclaiming their plan to close the Stonewall for good. The patrons who had never experienced a police raid were confused and terrified; the ones who were veterans of other raids ran for the door and the window in the bathroom to escape. But the police had barricaded the window and the door. Two hundred five patrons and bar staff were trapped.
However, the raid did not go according to the policemen’s program. As typical of all such raids, some of the drag queens and transgender folks were the first arrested. The police permitted those not arrested to exit the front door. But instead of going home or off to another bar, those patrons, some 150 of them, stayed and hung around the door of the Stonewall. Soon other gay folks just out walking the Village joined them.
An officer shoved one of the drag queens, who responded by hitting him over the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo. One African-American self-described “butch dyke” who was roughed up and put into one of the patrol cars, Storme DeLarverie yelled at the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something!?”
That was when the crowd turned into a mob and the scene exploded. Soon the patrons were throwing pennies at the cops, then beer bottles. They overturned one of the patrol cars, slashed the tires on another. The cops, having chased all the patrons out of the bar, were themselves now trapped inside with hundreds of enraged queers at the door. And thus began three nights of rioting that shocked the cops, stunned the nation, and empowered the LGBTQ community of New York to gather resources for the coming fight. The drag queens, the transgender women, the street kids who lived in Christopher Park across the street from the Stonewall, bystanders who suddenly became bystanders no longer, all have joined the pantheon of LGBTQ heroes and heroines. On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the Stonewall National Monument, putting the Inn, Christopher Park, and the 7.7 acres surrounding the Inn under the protection of the National Park Service. And just last month, the city announced that two of the transgender women of color who battled at the frontline of the clash, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, will be honored with a monument saluting their bravery during the riots and their leadership roles in the gay liberation movement that began with the Stonewall Riots.
Oops! I just plunged headlong into the prevailing but mistaken narrative that the Stonewall Riots “started” the gay liberation movement. Just as it is not true that the queens rioted to express their grief over Judy Garland’s burial earlier on the afternoon of June 27, some twelve hours before the riots, it is equally untrue to say that the gay liberation movement began with the Stonewall Riots.
Decades earlier, in 1948, twenty-one years before Stonewall, Harry Hay, a queer die-hard communist living in Los Angeles, established the Mattachine Society, a rather conservative (by our standards) liberation group that sought the peaceful assimilation of LGBTQ people into the society at large. Once a year, for several years, Harry and other Mattachine members quietly picketed in front of the White House, the men in stiffly starched white shirts and black ties, the women in very proper knee-length A-line skirts and button-down blouses. In 1955, fourteen years before Stonewall, San Franciscans Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who had been lovers for three years at the time, started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the country; their names still grace the Lyon-Martin Health Services center. Neither the Mattachine Society nor the Daughters of Bilitis was exactly ACT-UP, in tactics nor in impact, but their contributions to gay liberation can never be forgotten or devalued.
We must also remember the riot here in San Francisco at Compton’s Cafeteria. For many years, Compton’s Cafeteria at 101 Taylor Street was one of the few places in the city where transgender people, especially trans women who had been hustling all day and evening, could congregate publicly. Shamefully, transgender people were not welcome in gay bars due to blatant transphobia. Convinced that the drag queens and transgender women were loitering too long and driving away other, more “respectable” customers, Compton’s management and staff frequently called the police when the transgender women were present, causing them to suffer harassment and arrest for a crime called “female impersonation.” In response to police arrests, the transgender community picketed Compton’s Cafeteria. The picket was unfruitful — Compton’s continued harassing the transgender women in their cafeteria — but this picket was the very first demonstration against police violence towards LGBTQ people; it deserves to be remembered for that.
I spent hours searching in vain for the date that the Compton’s Cafeteria riots occurred, only to find out that no one is exactly sure when it occurred! Turns out, police records from the 1960s no longer exist, and no newspaper, not even the San Francisco dailies, covered the riots. We know that on an otherwise nondescript August night in 1966, three years before the Stonewall uprising, after Compton’s management called the cops again, a transgender woman resisted arrest by throwing coffee at a police officer. The drag queens and transgender women poured out into the streets, fighting the cops with their high heels and heavy purses. Dishes were hurled across the cafeteria, furniture was broken up and thrown around or used as weapons, the rioters busted the restaurant’s front glass window into shards, shattered police car windows, and torched a couple of sidewalk newsstands. On the following night, the Tenderloin’s street people and other members of the LGBT community joined in a picket of the cafeteria — Compton’s management would not allow transgender people back in the cafe. The demonstrators destroyed the newly installed plate-glass windows.
The Compton’s Cafeteria riots marked a major shift in the local LGBTQ movement for liberation. As a result of the riot at Compton’s, activists created a network of social, psychological, and medical support services for transgender people. In 1968, local talents created the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.
Some seven years before the Compton’s riots, in May 1959, a smaller riot broke out in Los Angeles at the Cooper Do-Nuts shop. Drag queens, lesbians, gay men, and transgender people who hung out at Cooper Do-nuts frequently faced harassment from the LAPD. On this particular night, patrons fought back when police stormed in and arrested three people, including the author and hustler John Rechy, who wrote about the riots in his very explicit autobiographical novel City of Night. Patrons began pelting the police with donuts and coffee cups. The LAPD called for back-up and arrested several of the rioters. Remember, this was 1959, ten years before the Stonewall riots.
Reviewing these pre-Stonewall uprisings, I certainly don’t mean to diminish the singular importance of Stonewall in our collective history. Far from it. Stonewall was the first LGBTQ riot of that size and that duration. It was reported in newspapers across the country and its impact has been felt worldwide. It will never be forgotten; it will be rightfully celebrated every year. But to be true to our history, to be true to ourselves, it is important that we recognize that the Compton’s Cafeteria riots and the Cooper Do-Nuts riots also played a significant role in the gay liberation movement. And thus, to all the drag queens and transgender women, all the street hustlers and punks, in San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York City, who stood nose-to-nose with some of the most vicious, bigoted cops in the country and refused to back down, I say thank you. Even as we celebrate Stonewall 50, we will never let you be erased from our history.