“Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Marsha P. Johnson, transgender activist
June 28, 1969, was a sweltering summer night in New York City. LGBTQ+ New Yorkers had gathered across the city to mourn the death of Judy Garland, the actress and gay icon — including at the Stonewall Inn, a bar located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Shortly after midnight, the members of the New York City Police Department raided Stonewall, beating and subjecting some patrons to anatomical inspections, an unfortunately common occurrence in New York City gay bars at the time.
But that night, the Stonewall patrons — led largely by transgender women of color — pushed back, a flashpoint that would become known as the Stonewall Uprising and would spark a movement for LGBTQ+ equality that would change the world.
This Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and, here at Airbnb, we are proud to be playing our small part to honor this historic Pride as a moment for connection and reflection. That’s why we have partnered with SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people, to bring some of those who were present at the Stonewall Uprising — called the Stonewall elders — to New York City for the 50th anniversary.
On Friday morning, these Stonewall elders also will join us at our WorldPride pop-up in New York City, to share their first-hand accounts of the Uprising with the community. If you are in New York City for Pride, we hope that you will join us for this discussion.
But if you can’t make it, we still want you to be able to hear from these elders — which is why we are sharing their stories here and in this short film. We hope this will help to honor these heroes who fought for the rights of many and spur conversation between younger and older generations of the LGBTQ+ community, so that we can continue to march forward.
Joel, 75, Portland, Oregon
Joel was a bartender at Stonewall and was working the night of the Uprising. Joel says that Stonewall was a major turning point in his life. Two weeks after the uprising, he moved to San Francisco, then to Portland, Oregon. He has not been back to New York since the uprising in 1969.
Joel says, “During that week, it felt different, but I guess I left New York because I could go to jail for being me, and that wasn’t the case in San Francisco. I was part of the defense department for the Gay Liberation Front and I founded the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. There was definitely a shift in me and I took it with me there. I was an out and proud gay man, even to my Army buddies; and no one dared call me faggot!”
He says that the fighting back that occurred at Stonewall had been building within the community and within himself. “I’d been bullied all of my life. I was bullied by my parents, physically and psychologically. I was bullied by the guys in my unit. I was bullied by the cops. And when you bully someone for so many years, they eventually snap. Stonewall was me snapping.”
He lived in San Francisco for 15 years, during the heyday of Harvey Milk, but “by 1984, I had lost everyone I had ever loved,” so he moved to Portland to start over.
When Joel learned that he would be returning to Stonewall with others, he cried. “I have never been one to want my name or face publicized, but now I feel like I have nothing to fear. I believe in fighting for the rights of everyone. I have seen some of the darker sides of humanity, but the bright side is teaching younger people how to fight back.”
Molly, 76, Athol, Massachusetts
Molly was one of the very few cisgender women at Stonewall the night of the police raid. She says, “In 1969, I was the wife of a wealthy scientist — my husband was President Kennedy’s science advisor and inventor of 3-D movies. I liked to go out at night to gay bars, especially the Stonewall, and my husband put up with my antics!”
Molly was 26, and already had one child on June 28, 1969. “I will never forget that night,” she says. “Zucky, the mobster who owned the bar, came up to me and told me I should leave, as the cops were on their way.” As Molly was being escorted to her car, she said to her friend, the famous lesbian “drag king” Stormé de Larverie, “I think we should stand up to this!”
“Stormé hit one of the cops, and ended up getting fairly badly beaten and arrested. At first, I felt guilty about encouraging Stormé, but it soon became clear that this was the very beginning of a rebellion that had to happen,” Molly explains. “It was the first moment when gay people demanded respect. There was no reason for police to drag us out by our hair because we were listening to music, dancing, and having good conversations. It was the very first time that we stood up and said, ‘Enough!’ ”
Val, 67, Los Angeles, California
Val is an actor and singer who had a hit with the seminal gay anthem “I Was Born This Way,” nearly four decades before Lady Gaga became a star.
“On that night in ’69 I was at a disco called the Sanctuary near Times Square with my friend Nelson,” says Val. “I was underage — just 17 — and suddenly heard that the drag queens were rioting at the Stonewall! We took the subway down to the Village — it was warm and humid that night, and there were crowds in the street, you could smell the pot smoke in the air.”
Val and his friend got down to Sheridan Square at the height of the uprising against the police violence. “We caught the whole deal — the bottle-throwing, the cops retreating, it was amazing,” Val explains. “We had no idea at that moment that it was the beginning of a revolution.”
Like many Stonewall veterans, Val eschews any notions that he played a role in sparking the fight for LGBT rights, but by being an out-and-proud gay man in 1969 took enormous courage. He says, “I didn’t do anything but watch, but I am forever grateful to all of those brave folks who stood up against the oppression of homophobia that night,” says Val. “I was different, so lucky, I never felt much oppression. I never had to come out — my mom had all these gay friends, so it was never an issue. I knew exactly who I was!”
Joe, 66, Utah
Joe is a retired state employee who was born and raised in Brooklyn. “My parents were both Sicilian immigrants, and, to our family, being gay was actually not unusual; I had a couple of lesbian aunts, and I came out at 15.”
On the night of the raid, Joe was just 16 and was inside the Stonewall. “My friends and I were in the back room with those nasty vinyl couches. I would hang around the Village with a group of friends who were also underage — we looked like a herd of unicorns — and we’d go to the Stonewall to watch the drag queens.
In my journal entry from that night, I’d written that the jukebox was playing the song “In the Year 2525” when the power was cut and the cops came in, smashing everything with their billy clubs. Someone unplugged the jukebox and the lights came on,” Joe says.
Joe says that the officers began separating the crowd into to groups: those with IDs and those without. “I was kind of excited at first,” he says. “I was a kid. I was wearing a fishnet shirt, being ‘real.’ I didn’t have my fake ID on me, and a cop shoved me out of the bar. That’s when the excitement stopped, I got really frightened.” Joe says the crowd that had gathered outside of Stonewall began to throw things at the police. “I had the cutest belt that I wrapped around my left leg — wearing on your left was code for gay — that I threw at them,” he says. “I never got pictures of that night, and I never got my belt back!”
“The day after Stonewall the world just felt cleaner — like after a rain, clean,” Joe says about how the tone New York City instantly changed for him. “The way that the cops reacted to us made me mad. We felt invaded, they came into our place.”
It was, no doubt, the beginning of a revolution to Joe, who says, “Stonewall was a wakeup call that there was nowhere to run to. I realized that there was nothing to be scared of, that standing up for yourself and being gay was OK.”
Dale, 70, Boston, Massachusetts
Dale remembers in vivid detail how the night of June 28, 1969, unfolded. “I was walking home with my lover to our West Village apartment when we witnessed the first night of violence at the Stonewall. Judy Garland’s funeral had been held that afternoon and the Village’s drag queens, many of whom attended, were beside themselves with grief. The night was oppressively hot and drug use was rampant.”
“I had just turned 20, and before the uprising, the Stonewall was my go-to bar in the Village, it was very countercultural,” he says. “You could be a hippie, a freak, a drag queen, and all were accepted, which was a rare thing at the time.”
“A sizable crowd had assembled,” Dale recalls, explaining that the police were loading people that they’d arrested into paddy wagons. “Suddenly, projectiles started getting thrown at the cops — first coins, and then rocks and stones. One of the paddy wagons had started to leave and the crowd surrounded it and started rocking it and the queens escaped.”
Dale remembers a distinct feeling of kinship within the crowd. “There was this collective roar, like our fingers were plugged into an electric socket,” he says. “It gave me a glimmer of hope — just a glimmer — that things might change for gay people in this country. Though, for a long time afterwards, a lot of people tried to write off Stonewall as a bunch of crazy drag queens on drugs.
When asked what advice he’d give to young LGBT activists today, Dale says, “We need to be vigilant about the progress we all have made since that summer night 50 years ago. As we know from history, rights that can seem immutable can turn out to be quite fleeting.”
Nance, 66, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“[In 1969], I had just turned 16, it was probably the best year of my life,” said Nance, a transgender woman. “I grew up in Philly, and, to a couple of friends and I [when we came to NYC], we would head straight to the Stonewall — I loved that place. Sometimes, I stayed in an apartment on Waverly Place — some older guy owned it and let us kids stay there. But most of the time I lived in Philly with my family.”
The night of the Uprising, Nance says, “[I was] on the side of the bar, where the big dance floor and bar was, when all of a sudden I heard a loud crash! It was like pots and pans being bashed around. I looked a friend who was a lesbian. We locked eyes (I looked like a girl), and we ran out of the door. A cop grabbed me roughly and told me to get out of there! I did not recognize Stonewall for what it was at the time — that we’d unwittingly lit the fuse for a revolution.
I have never liked to talk about Stonewall nor my transition, I am a very private person. This is the first time I am truly celebrating, because after 50 years it’s about time I shared what we went through.”
Les, 70, Bayonne, New Jersey
“I was 20 years old in 1969. I have a vivid recollection of coming out of the Christopher Street subway stop the night of June 28,” says Les. “I went into the Stonewall, and a black drag queen told me when I asked about the broken glass and bottles, ‘It’s the cops!’”
Though he witnessed the beginning of the fight for LGBT rights in America, Les is humble about his role in that history-making night. “The folks who took a stand at the Stonewall,” he says, “many were Latino, black, drag queens, homeless kids, some of the most oppressed people in our country—were so brave to stand up and say, ‘No!’ to the status quo.”
He explains, “My goal was never to be a revolutionary person — but I realize that the very act of my going to those bars in 1969, even though it was motivated by the most basic human quest for love, it made me into a radical person. Loving someone is not a political act, but back then it was a radical, revolutionary act for me to be who I was.”
Les gets wistful when he talks about his years of traveling from New Jersey into Manhattan Village in his quest to find a partner and to be around his people. “Those trips would fill me with an inexpressible longing,” he explains. “Why was the world so against what my heart wanted? When your affection for someone is denied and is legally actionable, it can warp you. When the desire to love and be loved is criminalized, it can poison you — and it is very difficult to counteract.”
The LGBT activists of today give Les a lot of hope, saying, “The whole idea of men getting married was beyond my imagining, and I think it’s wonderful that same-sex couples can now legally do so. It’s incredibly important that young gay men and women have the option and the opportunity to build a life together.”
“I am 70 years old now,” he says, “ but a piece of me will always live in June of 1969.”