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50 years after the riot, Stonewall veterans see progress

Mark Segal, founder of the Philadelphia Gay News,

Mark Segal, founder of the Philadelphia Gay News, prepares for an interview during his visit to the Stonewall Inn, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in New York. In the aftermath of the 1969 uprising of gays following a New York Police Department raid at the Stonewall, Segal emerged as a gay rights activist just weeks out of high school. "I knew that I deserved the same rights as anybody else," said Segal. Photo Credit: AP/Bebeto Matthews

A switch flipped within Mark Segal when he and other LGBTQ people clashed with police at the Stonewall Inn in the predawn hours of June 28, 1969.

“From that little scared boy inside Stonewall — within even just a few minutes — I became empowered when we were standing outside Stonewall,” said Segal, then 18.

Anthony Coron recounted a similar surge of emotion.

He had been at Stonewall in Greenwich Village celebrating his coming-out as a gay man when the lights came on and the NYPD entered.

“I had decided that there was nothing to be ashamed of, I was tired after years of feeling as if I was sick,” said Coron, 27 at the time. “But then, I have the cops trying to make me feel as if that’s not right, that I am sick. And so, I was angry. All of the sudden, I find myself throwing stuff at them.”

Fifty years ago last Friday, what began as a routine raid of the Stonewall Inn sparked days of resistance by LGBTQ people against the police who had targeted them.

Witnesses described turning the tables on the NYPD at the popular Greenwich Village gay bar, the crowd spilling out onto Christopher Street, swelling as others joined and overwhelming the officers.

The chaos included gay men, lesbians, transpeople, cross-dressers and street youth who refused arrest and didn’t disperse even when NYPD reinforcements arrived.

It was raucous and riotous.

“It is as if on the morning of June 28, 1969, America symbolically got back the anger she had created by her neglect of her most despised children,” historian David Carter wrote in “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.”

Igniting a movement

Some details of the uprising — including who threw the first brick and whether there were even literal bricks — are disputed.

But the Stonewall riots are broadly credited with igniting the gay rights movement.

The 1960s had been an oppressive time for LGBTQ individuals.

Homosexuality wouldn’t be declassified as a psychiatric disorder until 1973.

Sodomy was illegal in every state but Illinois, and even dancing with a same-sex partner and dressing out of conformance with a person’s biological sex were punishable.

Those who identified as homosexual — the terms gay and LGBTQ weren’t used then — were subject to taunting and beatings.

Greta Schiller, director of the documentary “Before Stonewall,” described a community “living with the blinds drawn” back then.

“You could not rent an apartment if you were openly gay, you could lose your job, you were ostracized by your family,” she said. “It was a real subculture.”

Those forced to stay closeted found sanctuary at the Stonewall Inn and on Christopher Street.

“We finally had a turf,” said Martin Boyce, 21 when he participated in the uprising. “It was a place where the gay-bashers couldn’t appear and surprise you … and the vice squad couldn’t operate because we would know who they were. It was a place where you felt free.”

Apologizing for the raid

Still, the NYPD aggressively enforced the laws of the time.

Police had raided Stonewall, run by the Mafia, the previous Tuesday.

That Friday was different.

“There were no instructions except put them out of business,’” Seymour Pine, a deputy inspector in the NYPD’s morals division who led the raid, recalled in the documentary “Stonewall Uprising.” “ … This time, they said, ‘We’re not going. That’s it. We’re not going.’”

Pine, who died in 2010, in Carter's book attributed the broader scope of that night’s raid to resistance by transpeople. He said the original targets had been the bar’s operators and employees, but the police decided to take everyone in.

Pine appeared to express remorse for police treatment of LGBTQ people.

“You knew they broke the law, but what kind of law was that?” he said in “Stonewall Uprising,” voicing the film’s final line.

Earlier this month, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill apologized to the LGBTQ community for its part in the riots.

“I do know what happened shouldn’t have happened,” O’Neill said. “The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong — plain and simple. The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and, for that, I apologize.”

So-called Stonewall veterans — now seniors — agreed that 50 years have brought a sea change in public sentiment toward the LGBTQ community.

They cited greater tolerance and greater political clout.

It didn’t come without the fervent activism that sprung from the riots and seized on the momentum.

The fight for LBGTQ rights aligned with other crucial civil rights pushes of the 1960s and 1970s, including the women’s rights, socialist, anti-war and black power movements, Schiller said.

Segal, Coron and others emerged from the uprising as activists, organizing and demonstrating.

Segal was an integral member of the Gay Liberation Front. He also became known for disrupting political events and news broadcasts to protest prejudice against gay people. He eventually founded the Philadelphia Gay News.

Coron moved to Washington, D.C., where working at the Nasdaq was his day job but working with the National Gay Task Force and the Mattachine Society was his passion.

Decades of progress

The decades since Stonewall have seen momentous gains for the LGBTQ community, including the Supreme Court decision in 2003 decriminalizing same-sex relations nationwide and its ruling in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. President Barack Obama in 2012 became the first sitting president to voice support for same-sex marriage.

There also were losses to grieve, including the thousands of deaths in the AIDS epidemic that began in the 1980s, the massacre of 49 revelers in 2016 at Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando and the spate of murders of transgender people, particularly transwomen of color.

Those at Stonewall cited progress beyond their wildest dreams.

“There is still hidden hate toward gay people, but it doesn’t seem to be surfacing so easily and people are really being genuinely kind,” said Boyce, now 71 and a Manhattan chef. “It’s almost a celebration of their own tolerance and their own growth, that they can accept the idea of sexual freedom.”

They also cited discrimination left to fight from outside the community as well as within it.

“You don’t have to go far to find that people are still getting beaten up and blocked from jobs and so forth,” said Coron, 77, and living in Sag Harbor.

“We are still second-class citizens without the Equality Act,” said Segal, 68, of Philadelphia. “You can get married today anywhere in the United States, but in 28 states, you can be fired because you got married.”

Conversion therapy still is being used, transpeople are being murdered and, among LGBTQ people, racism and anti-Semitism persists, Segal said.

“We need to step up our game," he said. "Get off Twitter, get off Facebook and get into the streets, and if it need be, do what we did, and get arrested."

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