THE STONEWALL RIOTS:
COMING OUT IN THE STREETS
Written by Gayle E. Pitman
(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
Gayle Pitman’s latest, the enlightening middle grade nonfiction, The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets, has a double meaning. Not only is it a meticulously researched recounting of the riots which began on June 28, 1969, and what likely led up to them, it’s also a condensed and highly readable history of being gay in America. Pitman details the societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians beginning in the early 20th century when “Homosexuality was considered to be criminal behavior, and people could be arrested and jailed for it,” to the secret and then open organizations that burgeoned as a reaction to the unjust vilification and mistreatment of the LGBTQ community.
Presented through multiple perspectives in chapters based on images of 50 relevant objects (including photos, posters, flyers, a police hat and even a parking meter), Pitman’s book starts by shedding light on the actual structure of the Stonewall Inn. I’m a former New Yorker still fascinated by its history so I found this approach to be an ideal way to introduce the subject. Learning about the significance of the Stonewall Inn is paramount to understanding the growth of the gay movement ultimately solidified and legitimized by the Stonewall Riots.
Comprised of two buildings at 51 and 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, NY, when first built in the 1840s, the Inn has housed many different businesses over the decades, the first being livery stables. We learn that over time, the Mafia became the primary landlords of gay clubs including the Stonewall Inn because no one else would rent to homosexuals. Owning these clubs became a great way to bring in easy income while acting as “a front for other illegal activities.” Plus there was always plenty left over from the sale of stolen or bootlegged booze pedaled as watered down, overpriced drinks to pay off the police and sometimes blackmail the very clientele the club was serving. Talk about racketeering!
You may be surprised to learn that police raids on gay clubs were not uncommon (even if they were on the Mafia’s payroll), however the news of them was often buried deep within a publication and filled with euphemisms for gays because that was the genteel way. Also “reputable newspapers were forbidden to use language that was considered to be profane or obscene, and anything associated with homosexuality fell into that category.” Peoples lives could be ruined if they were arrested and their names and occupations could be printed, not unlike the McCarthy era.
In 1966 there were several different schools of thought among gay rights activists, some more radical than others. Typically, over the years the Mattachine Society chose to demonstrate peacefully that homosexuals were law-abiding citizens who deserved to be treated the same as heterosexuals. That is until Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell (president and vice president of the Mattachine Society of New York), as depicted in the image below along with John Timmons and an unidentified barman covering a glass, got fed up with being silent about their plight. If being gay meant having to remain in the shadows of society, nothing would ever improve. They decided to challenge one of the existing norms in a more “in your face” way. That particular one was that bars and clubs could deny service to gays or someone they thought was gay or lesbian. The three men decided to go on a pub crawl they called a Sip-In and were eventually joined by a fourth friend. If they were denied service somewhere, “they could make a formal complaint to the SLA (State Liquor Authority)” and garner publicity. They succeeded which was an empowering accomplishment. “… it forced government officials and policymakers to address the issue.”
By the time The Stonewall Riots took place in 1969, several other high profile raids had occurred, one in San Francisco in 1966 and one in L.A. in 1967. New York’s Greenwich Village would be next. Pitman acknowledges several times in the book that varying views exist of what exactly happened at The Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28. The same applies to who was there when the riots began. In other words piecing together a complete picture may never happen since so many of those involved or possibly involved are no longer alive but it seems as though this book likely comes close. One thing is clear, patrons were provoked and, rather than going quietly, this time they chose to defend themselves. “The moment a lesbian woman fought back against police, the routine police raid turned into an all-out rebellion.” It lasted three days and fueled the course of gay power and the Gay Liberation Movement.
By studying the assorted objects and photographs presented in Pitman’s engaging book, we see how change was on the horizon, but it would not be a fast or complete reversal of opinion. It took brave, bold individuals willing to face arrest and/or public condemnation to fight the continued discrimination against the gay and lesbian community. Much progress has been made but still much remains including transgender rights, healthcare, and marriage equality.
It’s great that, in addition to the candid Foreward by activist Fred Sargeant, Pitman also includes a helpful timeline, a comprehensive notes section and a bibliography. I feel fortunate for having had the chance to read and be educated more thoroughly on the gay rights movement and what happened during and as a result of The Stonewall Riots thanks to The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in The Streets. On the fiftieth anniversary of the “violent and chaotic demonstrations” that ultimately proved transformative, I hope Pitman’s book finds its way into the hands of middle grade readers as well as onto bookshelves in homes, libraries and schools across the country.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel