It’s hard for us to know what exactly went down during the Stonewall Riots, the June 28, 1969 uprising that kicked off of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. For one, most of the people who were there are now dead, and secondly, modern retellings of the event have liberally mixed fact and fiction, leaving us modern queers with a hazy picture made up of historic fragments and legends.
This weekend, gay columnist Michael Musto published an interview with gay activist and media professional Jim Fouratt, a man who observed some the events from the riot’s first night.
“By no definition can what happened that night be called a riot,” Fouratt said. “I’ve been in riots. They’re very scary events — people out of control, looting and robbing, the breaking of windows and turning over of cars. That did not happen the first night of Stonewall. The Stonewall rebellion actually started out quite small.”
Fouratt witnessed the scene outside of the bar while walking home from his job at Columbia Records around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, June 27, 1969. Although historical reports say that the real action started Saturday morning at 1:20 a.m., below are three of the most interesting things Fouratt shared from his historic vantage point:
1. The Stonewall Inn wasn’t a big hangout for queer people of color.
Fouratt says that the mafia actually ran separate bars for white people and people of color. “They had gay bars for people of color, mostly black gay people, but they were on 42nd Street and up in Harlem,” Fouratt says. “Most of all the other gay bars in the ’60s had very little mix of races.” Racism played a huge part in keeping the bars segregated, Fouratt says.
2. The bar wasn’t usually filled with trans people and gender non-conformists either.
“The Stonewall Inn was pretty well known as a place where closeted gay men, usually married men, went to make arrangements with younger gay men, and the younger men, for the most part, were certainly not drag queens,” Fouratt said. He added that he didn’t particularly like the bar because it had no dance floor and a standard jukebox that sounded like every other jukebox in the city.
The most controversial quotation from Fouratt’s interview with Musto is undoubtedly when he says, “The problem I have is people trying to claim to be a part of something which they weren’t. The whole question of both drag queens and people of color at Stonewall…” However, Fouratt’s interview with Musto is very brief and doesn’t get into a deeper explanation of what he saw and how he reached his conclusions.
3. The first arrest was of a butch lesbian who escaped
Fouratt also says that the first night wasn’t filled with lots of arrests, but that he witnessed “a biological female dressed in men’s clothing” walking out in handcuffs. After the woman got into the back of the police car, she began rocking the car with her bulky body, nearly tipping it over. He adds that the police forgot to lock the back door, so she escaped, slipping her slender wrists through the handcuffs, much to the delight of the crowd of 40 or 50 people who had gathered outside.