13 Artists Reflect on the Stonewall Riots
The riot ignited from person to person because that connection was already there. That cross-pollination is very important, and so was the confidence of the ’60s that we could achieve great things for humanity. Tremendous excitement came from the civil rights movement — naturally, we wanted our rights, too.
“Scare drag” was a very important aspect of that world. It’s rarely talked about today, but back then it was against the law to wear any kind of drag. As a man, you had to have at least three articles of men’s clothing on (and that didn’t include socks). But teenagers are endlessly inventive. “Scare drag” meant wearing all men’s clothing, but giving it feminine accents, like knotting your T-shirt to create a little bra line. Someone with longish hair (this was the time of Beatle haircuts) might put on hair spray and tease it up a little, give it a slight bouffant. It was very freaky looking — it looked queer in every sense of the word. But it all had to be done so that it could be squashed down into something masculine if a cop came along.
The braver queens would put grease paint on their eyelids and then put glitter onto that. It wasn’t like it is today, when you can just go into Duane Reade and buy glitter. They used broken glass, like squashed Christmas ornaments, or shards of metal. Some did end up in the emergency room, but they took it in stride; I never heard anyone say, “Don’t do that again.”
Stonewall opened in 1967, when I was a teenager. It was very inconspicuous from the outside, not like it is now. It had black plywood over the window and a guy would look through a peephole to decide whether you should get in or not. Inside, it was amazing — I had never thought that there were that many gay people in the world, and here they all were dancing with each other. I would say the décor was “mafia utilitarian.” The whole place was black inside.
You could buy two kinds of beer: house beer, which is like some watered-down god-knows-what, or you could get cans of beer that probably fell off a truck. There were people called “waiters” who went around like spies, making sure people were spending money. So what you did was you found a can of beer that someone else had put aside and just filled it halfway with water. The waiter would sniff it, and it would still smell like beer, but he wasn’t going to take a chance and taste it. He would just feel the weight. And then you could dance for the rest of the night and not be bothered.
The police came a few times a week and it was humiliating. That was the most horrible part — it was taken as a given that they could walk in and assault you, pinch or grab your ass, and just laugh hysterically. They felt that they could get away with putting people down.
What was different about that night? They told us to stop dancing. Slow dancing is an affirmation of being — you’re holding onto each other. It comes from the gut and the heart and the soul. And so the riot itself came from the gut and the heart and the soul. It wasn’t a big thought-through thing. We just felt they couldn’t treat us that way and fought back.