1969: the year

Richard Burnett

The very day I came out at the age of 19, I literally bumped into the man who decriminalized homo sex in Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The former PM was stepping out of Montreal’s old downtown Tramway restaurant with his sons in tow as I walked blindly in, terrified about coming out to my lifelong friend Audrey, who sat patiently waiting inside.
I practically knocked Trudeau over, looked up and apologized without realizing how surreal that moment really was.

“It's okay,” Trudeau told me. But I’ll never know if he saw the fear in my eyes.

It was that same fear Trudeau sought to alleviate when he rammed through his 1969 Omnibus Bill C-150 that not only decriminalized homosexuality in Canada, but legalized contraception and therapeutic abortion.
“There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” Trudeau famously observed.

Bill C-150 became the law of the land 42 years ago this Aug. 26. But 1969 was equally notable for Woodstock (which only happened thanks to the efforts of Elliot Tiber, a fabulous gay man), the first man walking on the moon and, of course, NYC's Stonewall Riots (where Elliot Tiber helped overturn a police car!) which ignited the global modern-day gay civil rights movement.

So on the eve of the 40th anniversary of those riots, I visited the Stonewall Inn for the first time – a pilgrimage of sorts, really – on Christopher Street.

And this coming April 25, the critically-hailed PBS TV newsmagazine The American Experience will air the superb doc Stonewall Uprising, which is based on author David Carter’s 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the definitive account of the six-day riots. I saw Stonewall Uprising when it first screened at Montreal’s Cinema du Parc last summer, and it is the best doc on Stonewall and the mainstreaming of gay activism that I have ever seen.

“People still come from around the world to take photos in front of the Stonewall,” Carter told me recently. “The exterior has hardly changed at all since 1969.”

The Stonewall was originally built in 1843 as stables and was never a hotel. When the stables were gutted by fire in the 1960s, it reopened on March 18, 1967, as the Stonewall. In those days police routinely raided gay bars in big gay metropolises like Montreal and New York (the first recorded gay establishment in North America was Moise Tellier’s “apples and cake shop” in Old Montreal in 1869, where men met to have sex).

“Just being gay was a heroic activity,” NYC poet John Giorno, first superstar of the Warhol Factory and William Burroughs' best friend, now age 75, told me over lunch last summer. “I may have been called a fag or a queer but I was determined nothing was going to stop me. It became an idea to champion, especially when I met Burroughs and Ginsberg.”

But historians have mixed fact and myth since that first fateful night at the Stonewall on June 27, 1969. Carter – also a consultant for the PBS doc – says that prior to the raid Interpol uncovered the theft of negotiated bonds which were turning up on the streets of Europe. The bonds were being stolen by gay Wall Street employees who were victims of a blackmail operation run by Stonewall Inn manager Ed Murphy.
Murphy, in spite of having been previously arrested for running an extensive national blackmail ring based on homosexual prostitution, had never been to jail because he had incriminating photographs of one of the prostitution ring's most prominent customers, then-FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover. “Hoover was a sonuvabitch,” Carter says.

But once the NYPD learned the theft of bonds was tied to blackmail at the Stonewall Inn, the order went out to shut down the club. Then came the infamous riots and a legend was born. As NYC drag queen RuPaul once told me, “Stonewall is a subject very dear to me because it was those [drag] queens who had the guts to throw that first brick [at the police]. It's my goal to never let those brave drag queens be forgotten. That type of tenacity is what led this movement from the very beginning.”

Carter says, “Certainly the drag queens were among the first and most fierce resisters. But the people who resisted most were gay street youth, non-gender-conforming butch lesbians and effeminate young men.”
Nor does the real reason for the police raid diminish the symbolic importance of Stonewall.

“It's clear the people who resisted thought this was just another regular police raid,” Carter says. “Even though the police were just trying to shut down a mafia operation, they were brutal [to the bar patrons].”

So the following year, in June 1970, the first-ever Gay Pride parade was held in NYC to commemorate the riots, with a then-unknown Bette Midler taking centre stage to entertain the marchers. Today, there are hundreds of Gay Pride parades worldwide, most of them in June in honour of Stonewall.

“Stonewall is the single most important symbolic moment in gay history, perhaps even worldwide,” Carter says. “It caused a wave of gay civil rights activism to go global. It all had to happen, of course, otherwise Stonewall today would merely be a footnote.”