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The Perfect Gay Storm

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New York City police clash with a resisting queer. Photo courtesy Bettye Lane.

‘Stonewall Uprising’ reminds us why the struggle for equality isn’t climate-controlled
by Nancy Ford

They remember it as being clear-skied and incredibly hot that summer night in Manhattan in June 1969, a full moon illuminating the goings-on of Christopher Street. City elections were impending, increasing the frequency of raids of gay gathering places; the Checkerboard, a queer bar not far down the street from the mafia-operated Stonewall Inn, had been hit by the cops a couple of days earlier. Making matters even worse, gay icon Judy Garland had just died.

It was the perfect storm.

It’s not the easiest task to find something new to present about the Stonewall rebellion. Nonetheless, PBS airs producers/directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s Stonewall Uprising (2010) this month. And it’s not even June!

The bad old days: Stonewall Inn the week after it was raided in 1969. Photo courtesy The New York Times/Redux Pictures.

Based on David Carter’s book by the same name, Stonewall Uprising provides first-person witnesses’ accounts of the three explosive nights when the queers fought back—the event considered by many to be the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement. They retell their stories of a time when it was illegal for gay men and lesbians to openly gather together, when the ever-present threat of being outed often resulted in sterilization, castration, lobotomies, electroshock therapy, and sometimes worse.

Adding an ironic twist, Seymour Pine, a police officer with NYPD’s “morals division” at that time, recalls the rebellion that spanned three nights: “They were just kids,” he says of the young homosexuals he was required to arrest. “They broke the law, but what kind of law was that?”

There’s been much talk in recent years about why in the name of common sense does Houston hold its annual Pride celebration in June, a time when the heat is so goll-durn, dad-gum, stroke-inducing oppressive. When it comes up in conversation again this June, as it always does, politely and patiently explain to that sweat-soaked, whining reveler whose greatest challenge is collecting a neck-full of parade beads that the heat we endure at Pride celebrations today is a metaphor. It is a reminder of the stifling oppression endured by those who rose up in those three days to claim not only their turf, but their dignity and their lives, as well.

April 25, 8 p.m. PBS (houstonpbs.org).

 

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