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Book Summary: Stonewall – The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America

Stonewall (1994) is the definitive history of the 1969 uprising that catalyzed the gay rights movement in the United States. By examining the lives of six gay and lesbian people involved in the movement, author Martin Duberman sheds light on the systems of oppression – as well as the incredible dedication and bravery – that led to mainstream society’s greater acceptance of the gay and lesbian community.

Book Summary: Stonewall - The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America

Content Summary

Genres
Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? An inspiring story of activism, bravery, and pride.
A sense of identity was forged in childhood.
Independence made way for new experiences.
In late-1950s New York, connections grew into communities.
The gay political community grew into a movement.
Despite opposition, organizers grew more ambitious.
One fateful summer night, everything changed.
The Stonewall riots sparked new confidence – and a new plan of action.
The first Pride parade marked the potential for a better future for gay and lesbian people.
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Read an Excerpt
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video/Podcast/PDF Preview

Genres

Psychology, 20th Century U.S. History, Domestic Politics, History, LGBT, Queer, Politics, Gay, Social Movements, Social Justice, New York, Historical, Social Issues, Activism, LGBTQ+, Human Rights

Who is it for?

  • Activists
  • Those inspired by grassroots movements
  • Anyone interested in how communal action can lead to change

What’s in it for me? An inspiring story of activism, bravery, and pride.

The American gay rights movement has come a long way. In the 1950s, 15 states included homosexuality under their “sexual psychopath” laws. Police officers could judge for themselves what that entailed and indefinitely confine the people they arrested. Gay sex acts were illegal in all 50 states. By contrast, gay people today have the right to marry. It’s progress, undeniably, but it needs to be contextualized.

The movement began as a strident pushback against state violence – a full-scale assault not only on the laws that targeted gay and lesbian people, but on gender norms, wars, and the mistreatment of racial and ethnic minorities. The Stonewall uprising marked a major turning point. From its aftermath sprung a group called the Gay Liberation Front, who rejected the class structure that most Americans denied existed. They were out and proud, signaling a new era of gay: uncompromising and unapologetic.

The people depicted in these summaries each took their own path from childhood to New York-based activism. Representing only six facets of the gay movement, which is as colorful and diverse as the rainbow itself, their unique journeys are an informative and inspiring example for fellow travelers.

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • why the Stonewall Inn’s reputation among gay people in New York was decidedly mixed;
  • how the gay rights movement used humor as a weapon; and
  • what Beat poet extraordinaire Allen Ginsberg had to say about the riots.

A sense of identity was forged in childhood.

Craig will never forget the day in 1947 when his mother, a struggling divorcée, drove him to the home for troubled boys outside of Chicago. He was six, and terrified. Despite the initial fear, Craig remembers his years there fondly – not least for the sometimes erotic friendships that developed between the boys. Sex play was common enough that even the nonsexual boys would walk the grounds holding hands. Craig came to see sex between males as natural.

Yvonne was raised in Brooklyn by an outspoken Black woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right. Yvonne had her mother’s spirit, too: she refused to be baptized at age 12 because she didn’t believe in God. She also felt confident in her sexuality – at age 13 she announced at the dinner table that she was a lesbian. Her parents pretended that they hadn’t heard her.

Karla’s parents were distant. Her primary role model was an aunt who had been a vaudeville singer and who drove a car – highly unusual for Brooklyn women in the 1950s. She also cursed like a sailor, told dirty jokes, and even played touch football with the boys. Karla, too, had no patience for traditional gender roles. She’d rather roughhouse in the street than play with the dolls her mother gave her.

Jim was a beautiful boy; he was even selected as a Gerber baby-food model. As a teen he became involved in politics, including a stint for anticommunist Senator Joseph McCarthy – something he later became deeply ashamed of. Campaigning required Jim to hitchhike across his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. He quickly learned that in exchange for a blow job, men would happily drive him anywhere.

When Ray was three, his mother drank a glass of milk laced with rat poison in their Spanish Harlem apartment and instructed him to do the same. It tasted so bad that he couldn’t drink it, so she drank his glass instead. She was 22. Ray went to live with his grandmother, whose neighbors noticed his effeminacy and teased him about it. By age ten he was regularly having sex with a married man down the block. He started wearing his grandmother’s makeup in fourth grade, but no one noticed except one of his teachers, who performed sex acts with him in the back seat of his car. In sixth grade, Ray left home for good and headed straight for 42nd Street, where he’d heard that people like him hung out.

Foster, older than the others, was from a family rich in money but not in love. Foster internalized his parents’ constant hectoring and was mired in self-doubt. He was also academically gifted, which led him to Columbia University. By the age of 20, he knew he was gay. But he was so mixed up about sex that he was celibate nearly his whole life. This might account for his eventual zealous commitment to organizing the nascent gay movement.

Independence made way for new experiences.

No one ever accused Yvonne of not being cool. She was hip to the jazz scene, obsessed with Thelonious Monk, and a regular at the clubs in Greenwich Village. She also frequented underground lesbian bars. Harlem was a retreat from the racist Village gay scene, where bouncers turned away Black women. Lesbian bar culture enforced strict roles, but Yvonne was OK with that. She leaned butch, cross-dressing to clearly indicate to both men and women what her preferences were.

Craig loved the adventure of the gay cruising scene in Chicago. Once, a hookup showed Craig a stack of magazines – including one called the Mattachine Review, put out by what he said was an organization of homosexuals. Craig was thrilled; he had never heard of gay people organizing, or promoting their rights. He made up his mind to move to New York, the epicenter of gay America. After a few years of saving up money, he got on a bus and checked into the 34th Street YMCA.

Karla loved school. Her school was all girls, and she loved that a girl was always the smartest kid in class and the best athlete on the team. School also helped her begin to understand her sexuality; there was a fair amount of homoerotic activity between students. Karla read about lesbians in books but was demoralized to learn that the lifestyle could result in negative consequences.

Foster had struggled ever since his graduation from Columbia in 1949. His counselors recommended psychotherapy; he opted to move to Florida instead. He worked for his father’s prefab housing business and made a lot of money. Bored, and paralyzed by his insecurities, he settled into an undemanding career at a nonprofit, where he would stay until he found a cause worthy of his remarkable talent and dedication.

After an aborted attempt to become a priest, Jim wound up in New York. He was committed to becoming an actor in the avant-garde theater – and secure in his homosexual orientation. There were very few gay bars in the Village in the early 1960s, but Jim could cruise for hookups in all-night coffee shops or public baths, subway station men’s rooms, or the YMCA. A gay-hip scene was also emerging in some downtown cafés. The message that it was OK to be gay began filtering out into the wider New York hipster scene.

Gay hustling had been centered in Times Square since at least the 1940s. Ray started hustling there when he was 11 – and he loved it. He made enough money to leave his grandmother’s house and move in with another street hustler he’d fallen in love with. He made fast friends who quickly became his family, and he was formally rechristened “Sylvia” in someone’s uptown apartment. The ceremony was officiated by Marsha, who was only 17 but already considered an “old queen.” Marsha taught Sylvia “not to take no shit from nobody and not to give a fuck about nothing.”

In late-1950s New York, connections grew into communities.

Oppressed communities frequently develop their own grammar of resistance. They also forge their own religion and music to express their experiences. Gay and lesbian bar culture developed similarly, as a kind of refusal of the status quo.

The experiences of gay men and lesbians during World War II created a collective consciousness that would later result in a political movement. During the war, people from small towns all over the country came together and realized that they weren’t freakish and alone, as society had led them to believe. After the war, these people settled down in subcultural enclaves where gay and lesbian bars proliferated. Bars became critical social institutions for gay men and working-class lesbians, facilitating a new type of community.

In 1950, a group of left-wing gay men in Los Angeles founded the Mattachine Society. They argued that political struggle was needed to challenge society’s view that gay people were sick. But by the time Craig arrived in New York in the late 1950s, Mattachine was no longer a radical voice. Its new message was that gays should conform and be respectable. Still, Craig couldn’t wait to join. He got increasingly involved and was soon running the newsletter. Unlike many Mattachine members, he used his real name despite the threat of police retaliation.

But Craig didn’t just love to organize the gay community in New York; he was a joyful participant in the revelry. Outdoor cruising – especially in Washington Square Park – was de rigueur despite frequent verbal and physical abuse by the cops. One night Craig was jumped by three plainclothes police officers who screamed epithets, slapped him in handcuffs, and took him to the station. When he asked why he had been arrested, they beat him up in a side room.

Yvonne felt more at home than ever in the gay Village scene. In addition to taking classes at NYU, she worked part-time as an attendant in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. She partied hard and facilitated her burgeoning drug habit by dipping into the hospital storeroom for prescription medication. She hung out at softball games and Black lesbian house parties. Despite the rampant homophobia gathering steam in political movements, including the Black civil rights movement, she started to get involved in organizing the movement against the looming war in Vietnam.

Yvonne’s love life was as chaotic as the rest of her life. She was always entangled in a series of dramatic affairs – and always searching for her next big love. In her relationships, she was simultaneously afraid of being smothered and abandoned, and she increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol to help her manage the pressure.

But for the most part, she was living her truth and having a great time being young, Black, and gay in the overflowing excitement and explosive possibility of New York in the early 1960s.

The gay political community grew into a movement.

In 1963, the New York Times ran an anxious piece about the rise of homosexuality in the city. The closing quote was from a psychoanalyst insisting that gay and lesbian people were “ill” and that through psychotherapy they could be “cured.” Despite the negative view, this article marked an end of public silence on homosexuality.

The “homophile movement,” as it was increasingly called, remained miniscule compared to the civil rights marches. But organizations like Mattachine, which emphasized freedom and individuality, still represented a general assault on traditional values; they were the first glimmer of hope for an improvement in status for members of the LGBTQ community.

In 1964, Foster walked into the Mattachine office where Craig was working at the reception desk. Foster had read about Mattachine and wanted to get involved. At first, Craig thought Foster – in his three-piece suit and crew cut – was a government plant.

Foster thought the homophile movement urgently needed a unifying central body to become truly disruptive. But he was worried that hippies would make the whole movement look flippant. He recommended strict admission criteria for Mattachine.

Meanwhile, Craig tried to draw younger and more militant people into Mattachine – often the long-haired beatniks Foster disparaged. Craig organized leaflet teams in the Village and instructed them to stay civil even when faced with abuse. For Craig, visibility was the key to ending oppression, and he searched for ways to help people come out as gay. Craig’s community – the new Mattachine – believed they had to make society adjust to them, not the other way around.

Karla, by now a student at Barnard, didn’t fit into either the butch or the femme role expected of her in the radical lesbian scene. As a result, she was uncomfortable there and focused mainly on her studies. But in 1968, when students occupied Columbia to protest the university’s mistreatment of its Black neighbors in Harlem, Karla was electrified. She was radicalized by the students’ audacity to stand up for something they believed in – and she was equally appalled by the police’s violent reaction. She couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore.

When Sylvia first went to prison for solicitation, she weighed 140 pounds. By the time she got out, she’d lost 20 pounds and picked up a heroin habit. She teamed up with a straight hooker to hustle johns. They made a lot of money – enough to finance Sylvia’s habit and experiments with hormone treatments. After a few rounds of hormones, though, she decided she didn’t want to become any more feminine than she was naturally.

Jim was increasingly involved in the radical New Left political movement, but he was appalled by the rampant homophobia of its leaders. He started hanging out at Max’s Kansas City nightclub – the epicenter of the late 1960s avant-garde, which orbited around Andy Warhol. Although he found Warhol repellent, Jim was energized by the scene, and he used it as an opportunity to distribute the New Left publication he printed in his apartment.

Despite opposition, organizers grew more ambitious.

At 41, Foster was always the oldest person in the room at organizing meetings. He was exhilarated to be in the thick of things and utterly convinced of the movement’s importance. Ultimately, his efforts birthed the first national gay rights organization – the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, or NACHO, which was founded in 1966. This new organization fought for equal rights and, eventually, equal social status.

But NACHO was born into chaos. In the 1960s, arbitrary authority was under attack everywhere you looked. In this atmosphere, the assimilationist civil rights goals of NACHO seemed out of touch. That said, even the gay and lesbian young people who affiliated themselves with radical politics weren’t yet ready to come out. NACHO’s one radical stance – that homosexuality was neither abnormal nor unnatural – was still too much for them.

Craig’s dreams were also getting more ambitious. In 1967, he opened a bookstore for gay literature – the first in New York that didn’t also stock smut. In the gay community, the shop was a success. Jim would come and argue with Craig about politics for hours. Even Karla dropped in, although some of the male clientele shot her nasty looks for coming into their space.

The straight reaction was largely vitriolic. Some mornings Craig would find death threats and homophobic slurs scrawled on the front of the shop.

The bookstore carried pamphlets and buttons related to the homophile movement; it also had a community bulletin board, reflecting Craig’s desire for a more grassroots, action-oriented New York homophile movement. He was fed up with the gay bar scene in New York and how it was controlled by homophobic Mafia men who openly mocked their gay patrons – when they weren’t sleeping with them. The bars were the only public spaces most gay people could claim, and yet even these spaces weren’t really theirs.

For Craig, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in the Village epitomized everything that was wrong with the bar scene. It was owned and operated by the Mafia, who paid the police to look the other way. The drinks were watered down and overpriced, and the whole place was filthy. Craig was also put off by a bouncer at the Stonewall who dealt drugs and accepted “tips” for “making introductions” between pretty young hustlers and their older admirers. But the Stonewall also had its staunch defenders as an oasis for gay men in New York, drawing street queens and stuffy uptowners alike. Some of the younger queens who frequented the Stonewall were homeless, camping out in the park directly across the street.

The clientele included the new kind of gay men beginning to emerge – long-haired hippies with radical political orientations like Jim and Craig, and finger-snapping, irreverent street queens like Sylvia who were unafraid to talk back. It would soon prove to be a potent cocktail.

One fateful summer night, everything changed.

On the evening of Friday, June 27, 1969, Sylvia was feeling wretched. Distraught over Judy Garland’s death and itching for heroin, she was in no mood to go out. But her friend Tammy wouldn’t take no for an answer. So Sylvia popped a “black beauty” – a prescription upper – and headed downtown to the Stonewall.

Heading home from his habitual nightcap at Max’s Kansas City, Jim noticed eight cops outside the Stonewall. At first he shrugged; police raids were customary. But this time, instead of fleeing the scene, a group of men were gathering around the cops, watching to see what would happen. Craig, who had also been on his way home, stopped as well. The air was tense with nervous energy.

The cops barreled through the door of the Stonewall, demanding that patrons line up and present their IDs for inspection. Normally, they would only arrest people who didn’t have IDs or those dressed in clothes associated with the opposite gender. They’d shove a few people, toss around some epithets, and then everyone would be back dancing. But tonight, people’s nerves were on edge. It seemed clear that this time would be different.

A cop shoved Sylvia and told her to get the hell out. Not everyone fared so well. A 45-year-old man was arrested for not having ID proving he was over 18. Someone else was arrested for talking back to a cop.

The police led prisoners out into the street and started loading them into a paddy wagon, as the increasingly hostile crowd jeered. A cop shoved a queen and told her to keep moving. She told him to stop touching her. He didn’t. She started swinging, and the scene exploded. The prisoners escaped the paddy wagon and ran away. People knocked down cops, kicked them, stole handcuff keys, and unlocked their friends. The crowd chanted “Pigs!” and “Gay Power!” As the police cowered against the crowd, people threw whatever objects they could find: coins, cans, even dog shit.

Shocked by the crowd’s unexpected fury, the cops retreated inside the bar and called for backup. The crowd whooped in triumph and pent-up rage.

Soon, the sound of sirens came down the street; it was the fearsome Tactical Patrol Force, or TPF, a highly trained riot-control unit armed with billy clubs and tear gas. They moved up Christopher Street in a formation inspired by a Roman legion. Craig knelt down and took photographs.

As the TPF approached, the crowd dispersed, only to reform at the rear of the unit; this happened several times. The riot cops would spin around to find themselves faced with a chorus line of mocking queens, kicking their heels like Rockettes and rebelliously singing:

We are the Stonewall girls,

We wear our hair in curls.

We wear no underwear,

We show our pubic hair!

It wasn’t until after 3:00 a.m. that the cops finally cleared the streets, and an uneasy calm settled. It wasn’t to last.

The Stonewall riots sparked new confidence – and a new plan of action.

The next day, as word got out, people came down to Christopher Street to gawk at the damage. The police had smashed up the Stonewall and pocketed the money from the cash register.

As the summer Saturday night fell, a block party atmosphere developed on Christopher Street. “Stars” from the previous night’s battle campily posed for pictures, and gay couples openly kissed on the street. People chanted “Gay Power!” and chorus lines continued to belt out refrains of “We are the Stonewall girls.”

The cops were out as well, batons and shields in hand. But they couldn’t cow the crowd; including curious straights and leftists excited to fight cops, it now numbered in the thousands. Whenever a car turned onto the street, the crowd would surround it, rocking it back and forth until the terrified passengers were grateful to make a hasty exit. The cops beat people indiscriminately, determined to go to any length to quell the demonstration. Skirmishes continued until 4:00 a.m.

Not all gay people were energized by the carrying-on at Stonewall. Wealthy gay people from Fire Island tended to characterize Stonewall as the demented work of “stoned, tacky queens.” Some even praised the closing of what for years had been perceived as a sleazy, embarrassing part of their community.

On Sunday night, the police were spoiling for trouble. “Start something . . . just start something,” one cop repeated over and over. “I’d like to break your ass wide open.” One brave young man retorted, “What a Freudian comment, officer!”

But by 1:00 a.m. the TPF had cleared the area, and the crowds dispersed. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was gay, popped over to check the recovery efforts inside the Stonewall. He said that gay men had “lost that wounded look” that they’d had ten years before.

Rain quelled the tension for the next few days, but thousands of people came back on Wednesday night, throwing bottles and lighting trash cans on fire. Cops openly beat people up and left them bleeding on the street. That was the last night of the Stonewall riots.

For Craig, Stonewall made clear that a new day had dawned – requiring different, more militant tactics. He was done with pleading for inclusion in a society he felt was inherently misguided. What had happened at Stonewall should be commemorated with pride, not shame; the Christopher Street Liberation Day would become New York’s first Pride march the following year.

A few days later, Mattachine called a meeting designed to derail the very type of demonstrations Craig had in mind. But the young people of Mattachine had had enough. They didn’t want acceptance; they wanted respect. Jim gave an impassioned speech calling for more riots and violence, and it was received with wild applause. He led a group of about 40 like-minded people out of the meeting and into a neighboring space. That night was the first meeting of their new militant group: the Gay Liberation Front.

The first Pride parade marked the potential for a better future for gay and lesbian people.

The Stonewall riots didn’t start the gay revolution. But they became a symbolic event that has served as a motivating force and rallying cry ever since.

In the immediate aftermath of Stonewall, gay men and lesbians felt a flood of energy and were eager to continue challenging the stereotypes.

In the Gay Liberation Front, Karla found a group of suddenly visible young gay and lesbian people with experience in prior radical struggles. They brought a rich set of insights from the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the antiwar struggle, and the countercultural revolution. Within this group, Karla shared the optimistic view that results were the inevitable outcome of action.

Another group formed, too – the Gay Activists Alliance, which focused specifically on securing rights for gay people. Foster became a supporter and helped them rent an old firehouse in SoHo that turned into a nexus for all branches of the homophile movement, as well as a popular dancefloor.

Craig needed to find soldiers to bring about the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee. He turned to Foster, whose politics had proved sound despite his square appearance. Foster also took kindly to Craig, a hard worker among unrealistic – and, yes, stoned – dreamers. They, along with eight other volunteers, organized a march through midtown Manhattan and up through Central Park. The Police Commission insisted on security bonds totaling $1.25 million against potential damages, but an ACLU suit at the last minute caused a judge to strike down the unprecedented demand.

All of our heroes were in New York for what became the first Gay Pride parade except for Karla, who attended the sister march in Los Angeles. Everyone was enthusiastic except Yvonne, who wasn’t sure she wanted to attend. Being gay, for her, had mostly been about getting high and dating lots of women. She didn’t know if she was ready to get political. But she set her alarm anyway, just in case.

At 2:00 p.m., an hour before the march was set to begin, Craig was dispirited. Only about a thousand people had turned out, and the mood seemed ominous. But he was cheered up by some of the signs he saw. “BETTER BLATANT THAN LATENT” was a favorite. Having decided to attend, Yvonne caught up with the march around 34th Street. Joining was a major turning point for her. Her identity as a lesbian was no longer about partying; it was now about committing to her own liberation.

Counting the numbers, Foster excitedly realized that the size of the march had more than doubled; at least two thousand people were there. Paraders poured into Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, elated. For each person, the march was a testimony to overcoming a difficult past – with a potentially better future in view.

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

The Stonewall riots in 1969 weren’t just the beginning of the gay rights movement or the reason we celebrate Gay Pride in June. They were the culmination of journeys of self-acceptance for a wide variety of gay and lesbian people. Stonewall showed a generation of gay people that they didn’t have to be ashamed of themselves – and that they should demand and expect rights and respect from mainstream society, too.

About the author

Martin Duberman is a historian, lifelong New Yorker, and gay rights activist. He came out as a gay man in a New York Times essay in 1973 and has since written prolifically about civil rights issues and myriad other topics.

Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is the author of some twenty books, including Charles Francis Adams (winner of the Bancroft Prize); James Russell Lowell (finalist for the National Book Award); Paul Robeson (winner of the George Freedley Memorial Award); Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion, Essays 1964–2002; Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community; and Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey. His recent novel, Haymarket, has been published in several languages. Duberman’s play In White America won the Drama Desk Award. He lives in New York City.

Historian, biographer, essayist, playwright, and academic, Martin Bauml Duberman is the author of many books, among them Haymarket; Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion; and Midlife Queer: Autobiography of a Decade. Duberman is an award-winning scholar on gender and race issues and a pioneer in LGBTQ studies. He received his undergraduate degree in 1952 from Yale, and later earned a PhD in American history from Harvard in 1957.

Table of Contents

Cover Page
Title Page
Dedication
CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
PREFACE
THE CAST
PART ONE GROWING UP
PART TWO YOUNG ADULTHOOD
PART THREE THE EARLY SIXTIES
PART FOUR THE MID-SIXTIES
PART FIVE THE LATE SIXTIES
PART SIX 1969
PART SEVEN POST-STONEWALL: 1969–70
EPILOGUE: 1992
NOTES
INDEX
About the Author
Copyright Page

Overview

The definitive account of the Stonewall Riots, the first gay rights march, and the LGBTQ activists at the center of the movement.

“Martin Duberman is a national treasure.”—Masha Gessen, The New Yorker

On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, was raided by police. But instead of responding with the typical compliance the NYPD expected, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life.

In Stonewall, renowned historian and activist Martin Duberman tells the full story of this pivotal moment in history. With riveting narrative skill, he re-creates those revolutionary, sweltering nights in vivid detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for LGBTQ rights. Their stories combine to form an unforgettable portrait of the repression that led up to the riots, which culminates when they triumphantly participate in the first gay rights march of 1970, the roots of today’s pride marches.

Fifty years after the riots, Stonewall remains a rare work that evokes with a human touch an event in history that still profoundly affects life today.

======================

The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. At a little after one a.m. on the morning of June 28, 1969, the police carried out a routine raid on the bar. But it turned out not to be routine at all. Instead of cowering — the usual reaction to a police raid — the patrons inside Stonewall and the crowd that gathered outside the bar fought back against the police. The five days of rioting that followed changed forever the face of lesbian and gay life.

In the years since 1969, the Stonewall riots have become the central symbolic event of the modern gay movement. Renowned historian and activist Martin Duberman now tells for the first time the full story of what happened at Stonewall, recreating in vivid detail those heady, sweltering nights in June 1969 and revealing a wealth of previously unknown material. This landmark book does even more: it unforgettably demonstrates that the Stonewall riots were not the beginning — just as they were certainly not the end — of the ongoing struggle for gay and lesbian rights.

Duberman does all this within a narrative framework of novelistic immediacy. Stonewall unfolds through the stories of six lives, and those individual lives broaden out into the larger historical canvas. All six came of age in the pre-Stonewall era, and all six were drawn into the struggle for gay and lesbian rights as a result of the upheaval at the Stonewall bar and the events that followed.

Read an Excerpt

CRAIG

Marion Rodwell had been reluctantly boarding out her young son, Craig, during the week. Divorced and working in Chicago as a low-paid secretary, Marion hadn’t known what else to do; she couldn’t afford to stay home and she didn’t have enough money to hire a competent babysitter. For several years, Craig lived during the week-Marion reclaiming him on weekends-with Mrs. Ryberg, a kindly woman who took in a number of neighborhood children. As soon as he was old enough, Mrs. Ryberg gave him chores to do, including the job of kneading yellow coloring into the margarine to make it look more like butter (this was wartime, with butter unavailable). Craig liked Mrs. Ryberg so much that he hadn’t minded the work, though it was strenuous and he was little more than a toddler.

But when Craig was five, Marion decided he should be in a more stimulating environment, and she turned to an inexpensive day-care center on Chicago’s North Side. But it quickly became apparent that the low rates reflected the minimal individual attention given. Marion felt at her wit’s end when a Mrs. Merkle, who sometimes worked at the day-care center and had taken a shine to Craig, told her that she would board the boy full-time if Marion would pay her a small sum each week. Marion agreed, hoping Mrs. Merkle would be able to give Craig the daily affection and attention he needed.

Attention he got, but very little affection. Mrs. Merkle also took in laundry to piece out an income, and she put Craig to work running sheets and towels through a mangle, watching hawk-eyed to make sure the five-year-old didn’t slack off. Craig worked in constant terror of getting his fingers caught in the mangle, and he soon grew to hate Mrs. Merkle. But she found the arrangement profitable and began to play with the idea of adopting Craig as her own son (or indentured servant). Word of Mrs. Merkle’s intention reached Marion and threw her into a panic. Mrs. Merkle had a husband, and Marion feared the courts might equate that with “having a stable home.” Desperate, she confided in her boss. A devout Christian Scientist, he had connections with the church-affiliated Chicago Junior School for “problem” boys, and before long he had arranged for Craig to be admitted there free of charge.

Craig never forgot that fall day in 1947 when his mother drove him out to Chicago Junior. At age six, he didn’t entirely understand what was happening to him, but his fright was palpable. The school was located some fifty miles outside of Chicago, set deep in the country between the towns of Dundee and Elgin. A complex of old, marginally maintained buildings, Chicago Junior was surrounded by woods and sealed off by a chain-link fence. Before leaving Craig off, Marion did her best to comfort him, assuring her son that with some forty other boys as playmates, he would be happy at the school. She promised that she would unfailingly come to see him on the third Sunday of every month, the only day visitors were allowed on the grounds.

But Craig had not been reassured. During his first month at the school, he cried himself to sleep every night. And every morning at breakfast, he threw up the unfamiliar hot cereal. A housemother cured him of the crying by sternly lecturing him about how unhappy his mother would be should she learn of his “bad” behavior. Another housemother cured him of the vomiting by picking him up by the neck from the breakfast table, marching him into the bathroom and forcing him to stand over the toilet and eat the vomit.

The housemothers came in two basic varieties: the stern ones who mechanically kept to the rules (and kept the boys at arms’ length), and the warm surrogate mothers. Mrs. Wilkins, the music teacher, who doubled as a substitute housemother, quickly became Craig’s favorite. The students lived in three dormitories, twelve to fifteen boys in each, and a housemother slept in a small room adjoining each dorm. Whenever Mrs. Wilkins was in charge, she let the boys do pretty much as they liked-make noise, and stay up past their bedtime-and usually refrained from checking up on them in the middle of the night.

She would also read them stories. Craig had two favorites. One was about a pair of boys who wanted to be brothers so badly, they pricked each other’s fingers and formed a “blood bond.” The other was “The Happy Prince.” As Craig retells that story, it took place in a poor middle-European city that had a richly jeweled statue of Prince Somebody or Other in its main square. One day, a pigeon sitting on the Prince’s shoulder noticed that a tear had formed in his eye. When the bird asked the Prince why he was unhappy, the Prince explained that the people in the city were starving because of poor crops, and he urged the pigeon to take the emerald embedded in his eye and sell it to buy the people food.

On and on the story went: The Prince would cry, would encourage the pigeon to sell the diamonds on his sword handle, the rubies on his breastplate-and so on-to provide coal for the people’s stoves, warm clothing to put on their backs-and so on. At the story’s close, all the jewels are gone, but the Prince is happy in the knowledge that the people no longer suffer. Craig adored the story and contended in later years that it had taught him important lessons about the need to share worldly goods with those less fortunate. (He also learned in later years that the story was written by Oscar Wilde.)

There were only two men on staff at the Chicago Junior School. One was Mr. Lazarus, who had himself been a student there and who in summer months would take some of the boys out for a midnight swim in the ancient concrete pool on the grounds and then astonish them by diving underwater, pulling off his bathing suit, and letting his ass shine naked in the moonlight. No one, so far as Craig knew, was ever invited to touch it.

The only other man at the school was its superintendent, the hated Mr. Kilburn. He enjoyed pitting the boys against each other in competition for his favor and each night would award the most “deserving” student the supreme honor of carrying a huge dinner tray to him and his wife in their apartment on the top of the classroom building; the bearer’s reward was a Baby Ruth candy bar. Craig never once got to carry the tray. For after getting over his initial fright and settling into the school’s routines, he had quickly become something of a rebel-the boy who challenged authority and “sassed” back.

That would alone have earned Kilburn’s dislike. What intensified it was his conviction that Craig was a sissy. Two hours of sports were mandated at Chicago Junior for every student every day of the year. Craig, as the tallest boy in his group, was good at basketball, but inept in baseball-scandalously so, in Kilburn’s view. Deciding he would teach Craig how to throw the baseball “like a real boy,” Kilburn made him trudge a mile to the baseball field after dinner each night to get the appropriate coaching.

What convinced Kilburn that Craig’s prospects in life were dim was his discovery that Craig had been sending away for autographed pictures of movie stars, had managed to collect several dozen, and-scandalously, again-had been sharing them with the other boys. Kilburn promptly confiscated the collection and thereafter opened all of Craig’s incoming mail to make sure it contained no offending material. To underscore the horrendous nature of Craig’s crime, Kilburn meted out his favorite punishment: Craig was given “one hundred burdock”-that is, assigned to dig up a hundred of the burdock plants that dotted the grounds; the burdock had long, deep roots, and to kill it one had to laboriously dig out every last piece.

This was but one of several Dickensian features of the school. Corporal punishment, including paddling, was commonplace; one teacher’s favorite method was to beat offending students with an electric cord. The boys themselves did almost all the work on the place, keeping up the grounds, helping in the kitchen, serving the food. They marched in formation to meals in the dining hall, had to sit on the front part of their chairs to keep their backs stiff, and during breakfast were forbidden to speak. Strictly enforced prayer sessions began with Bible study at five A.M. and were reinforced periodically throughout the day, even during football huddles. When Craig didn’t understand something in the Bible, or in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, which the boys were also made to study, he would raise his hand and say so. Most of the teachers treated this as a form of defiance. They sternly warned Craig that he was being “difficult,” and his reputation as a rebellious child spread.

The draconian spirit at Chicago Junior produced a variety of bans. No incoming phone calls were permitted; the one phone in the place was locked up in the laundry room. Entertainment consisted of an occasional bonfire in fall and an occasional swim in summer, plus carefully monitored television once a week (the boys were allowed to watch only I Remember Mama and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and the set was turned off during commercials for fear the cigarette and beer ads might prove too appealing). And any boy being punished for any reason was automatically denied his monthly visiting day-which meant Craig sometimes didn’t get to see Marion for months at a time.

Among the boys’ few diversions were occasional square dances, which they would perform for the Evanston Women’s Club and other local groups as a fund-raising device. Half the boys would dress in regular clothes, and the other half would don little skirts and halters, which the housemothers had sewn for them. As a reward for the performance, each boy would be given a stocking filled with candy, fruit, and pennies.

There was also a Halloween party every year in the gym. The housemothers would again make costumes for the boys; one year Craig went as a fat lady, with a pillow stuck under his dress and lipstick smeared on his face. (When the boys lined up to have Craig give them kiss marks on the cheek, Mr. Kilburn ordered a halt.) The thirteen-year-old seniors were taken into the town of Elgin once a month to learn the fox-trot and the waltz-though the boys viewed this as punishment, not entertainment.

Despite these rigors, Craig was happier than not during his seven years at the Chicago Junior School and retains “wonderful, vivid memories” of the place. They center, not surprisingly, on the intensely emotional, sometimes erotic friendships that developed among the boys themselves.

Craig’s first crush, when he was seven, was on an older boy (aged eight) named Bob Palmer. Bob’s talented piano playing made him something of a school star and Craig “just worshiped” him. Epiphany came on a cold winter night. In the freezing, drafty dorms each boy kept an extra blanket at the foot of his bed, and Craig awoke one morning to discover that his blanket had been pulled up over him. He “just knew” Bob Palmer had done it, had gotten up in the middle of the night to make sure his little friend was warm.

Craig was the first boy in his age group to reach puberty, and in the showers the others never tired of staring in amazement at his emerging pubic hair. Harry, a slightly older boy, moved matters to the next logical stage. He took Craig out to one of the gigantic oak trees in the woods that the boys (disobeying the rules) loved to climb, and when they were standing at the top of the tree, he unzipped Craig’s pants and said he was going to show him something. Craig immediately got a roaring hard-on and Harry masturbated him. To Craig’s astonishment, “white stuff” flew out of his penis, great gobs of it covering his jeans-followed by panic over how to explain the stains to his housemother. Craig and Harry finally concocted a tale about “finding a can of white paint while playing in the woods.”

Not all the boys were as winning as Harry. Chicago Junior, was, after all, a school for “disturbed” youth, and a few of the boys really did have problems beyond being overweight or having rejecting parents. When Ted invited Craig for a romp in the woods, the scenario moved quickly beyond white paint: Ted wanted to stick a pin up the opening in Craig’s penis. Craig had the good sense to jump up and run. Ted tried to give chase, but he was a large, clumsy boy and Craig easily outdistanced him. Eventually Ted was sent to St. Charles, the nearby state reformatory. “We’re going to send you to St. Charles” was a standard threat at Chicago Junior, though one infrequently carried out.

Most of the sex play among the boys involved kissing and masturbation, though “cornholing” was known to happen, and oral sex was frequent enough for rumors of it to reach Mr. Kilburn. He at once convened an assembly-always a weighty event at the school-to express his indignation over rumors that boys were “inserting their penises into other boys’ mouths.” He demanded that each boy submit a statement to him, declaring whether he had or had not ever committed that mortal sin.

Craig had deeply internalized the Christian Science notion that “truth is power and that truth is the greatest good,” and he forthrightly declared in his statement that he had indeed engaged in the forbidden behavior. Worse, his tone was not defensive and he made no apology. Yet to his surprise, Kilburn did not punish him, even though some of the boys who confessed were put to pulling burdock or breaking up rocks. Craig supposes that Kilburn had already written him off as hopeless-after all, he had been the only person in the school to favor Stevenson over Eisenhower in the 1952 election-and was probably afraid Craig would make even more trouble if punished. The episode confirmed Craig’s belief-which was to be central in his life-that “telling the truth” was in the end always the best policy.

The boys, of course, went right on having sex with each other. Not everybody participated, but none of them looked askance at the activity. Intense friendships and frequent touching were so integral to the special environment they inhabited as to seem utterly natural; even the nonsexual boys would walk back and forth to the dining hall unself-consciously holding hands. Occasionally a housemother would tell them they “shouldn’t” do that, which made Craig aware for the first time that some people regarded his feelings as wrong-infuriating him, even at that early age.

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“A fascinating account of the birth of gay liberation and a replay of the turbulent, society-changing ’60s.” – San Francisco Chronicle

“Interesting…instructive…Duberman argues correctly that Stonewall marked a generational, organizational, and ideological shift that brought gay liberation into the array of social protest.” – The New York Times Book Review

“Illuminating…a vivid and stirring recreation of the Stonewall riot, probing beneath its symbolism to discover the social forces it unleashed.” – Los Angeles Times Book Review

“One of the most important books about lesbians and gays to emerge since Stonewall.” – Seattle Weekly

“Moving…Duberman rises to history’s most crucial challenges as he expertly chronicles how long and tortuous the road to Stonewall actually was.” – The Washington Post

“A powerful and compelling book that will make it harder for future ‘sixties’ books to ignore the gay liberation movement.” – The Nation

“Duberman’s best book yet…No one has mined sources as extensively to tell the story of Stonewall.” – The Advocate

“Duberman’s history lesson is like a script to some extraordinary movie…It even has a fascinating cast of secondary characters.” – The Boston Globe

“Engrossing…a long overdue look at one of the seminal events in the history of gay activism. Important and absorbing.” – Kirkus Reviews

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