[NOISES FROM A CROWD PLAY IN THE BACKGROUND]
PERSON 1: What is [PAUSE] Stonewall?
[PIANO MUSIC PLAYS]
PERSON 2: I've heard of it, but I don't know exactly what it is.
PERSON 3: I think, maybe —
PERSON 4: Is it some kind of a rock?
PERSON 3: — in Jerusalem, the stone wall where people come to cry, no? [PERSON 4 LAUGHS]
PERSON 5: I thought it was a band.
PERSON 6: History! Let me think. I … don't remember.
PERSON 7: Is it a programming?
PERSON 6: Um, gay rights.
PERSON 8: The Stonewall Inn from 1969 riots.
PERSON 9: The start of the revolution.
PERSON 6: People died?
PERSON 10: Black transgender women were a big part of that.
PERSON 11: What is it? It's a bar, here in the Village, where police raided it and the gays fought back. Yay!
[PIANO MUSIC ENDS, THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to “Nancy.”
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: Okay. Personally, in that montage, my favorite person was the one who said “Yay!”. [BOTH LAUGH]
KATHY: Yeah, she’s great!
TOBIN: I have to say, I feel for the people who got it wrong. Because if somebody came up to me and was like, “What is this thing?!”, I would be like, “I don’t know! Ulysses S. Grant?”
KATHY [LAUGHING]: Is that your go-to answer?
TOBIN: Yeah. Yes.
KATHY: I love the person who said it was a programming.
KATHY: Because … what even is that?
TOBIN: That’s what I’m saying! That’s absolutely what my brain would do. [KATHY LAUGHS] You know? I would misfire.
KATHY: Yeah, sure. Same.
TOBIN: Okay. But all kidding aside, Kath.
[SLOW-BUILDING PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: It is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the famous uprising that happened in New York in June of 1969.
KATHY: Yep. As our favorite montage person said, it was the night that the gays fought back when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar.
TOBIN: But, Kath, as you and I have talked about, other than the very basic fact — that there was an uprising, and queer people fought the police —
TOBIN: — it’s actually kind of hard to give a definitive account of Stonewall: like who was there, what happened. There’s just a lot of conflicting stories.
KATHY: Right. Which, you know, is kind of to be expected for something that happened fifty years ago.
TOBIN: For sure. But also, maybe there’s something to be learned from all the different stories we tell about that night. Which is why we’ve invited historian Marc Stein to the studio.
KATHY: Marc just published a book called The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History, where he sifted through a ton of different accounts of what happened at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the uprising, and in the days that followed, and he’s going to help us unpack some of these Stonewall myths.
TOBIN: So, let’s welcome to the show, Marc! Hello, Marc.
KATHY: Hey, Marc.
MARC: Hello! Thank you.
TOBIN: So, Marc, in the sort of lore of what happened at Stonewall, there's a lot of — let’s call them facts — um [LAUGHS GENTLY] that have been repeated over and over again. So we wanted to run a couple by you, just to maybe do a little debunking. Um. [CHUCKLES] And the first one we're going to start with is one that I hear a lot — and, in fact, RuPaul actually just talked about it on this season of Drag Race and stated it as fact —
[CLIP FROM DRAG RACE ALL STARS 4 BEGINS]
RUPAUL: Fed up with police harassment, the patrons of the Stonewall used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight back. And the gay liberation movement was born.
MONÉT X CHANGE: Amen.
TRINITY THE TUCK: Wow.
[CLIP FROM DRAG RACE ALL STARS 4 ENDS]
TOBIN: — did Judy Garland's funeral actually spark the Stonewall riots? [ALL CHUCKLE]
MARC: Well, of the thirty or so media accounts that I've reprinted in my book, there is one that mentions the connection to the Judy Garland funeral. So I wouldn't say that there's no chance, but there's very little evidence from the time that that really played an instigating factor. The theory that I work with is actually, uh, one that was invoked at the time by a few gay reporters, but was sort of lost as an explanation for what happened. And it drew on, actually, a very famous sociological theory about what causes revolutions. And it’s a theory that says revolutions happen not when conditions are at their worst, and not when conditions are slowly improving, but when a period of improvement in social conditions is followed by rapid reversal, disillusionment and despair. And there had been improvements in social conditions in the second half of the ‘60s for LGBT people. Um, and then there's the election of Nixon in ’68 and his inauguration in early ’69. And then there's a series of police killings of gay men in New York and on the West Coast in the months leading up to the Stonewall riots. So I'd be more likely to, uh — I am more likely to argue that that growing sense of disillusionment, despair … that helped create the mood in the bar and on the streets during the riots.
KATHY: So, what you're saying is, most likely not Judy Garland's funeral.
MARC: That's right. [TOBIN LAUGHS] You very effectively boiled down my long-winded answer. [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH] I can give you the five-word answers, if you’d like, [KATHY LAUGHS] on the other questions you’re gonna ask.
KATHY: Who exactly started who exactly started the riot? If there's one person. ‘Cause I feel like I always hear that it was Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender activist.
MARC: Well, I'm afraid I can't give a five-word answer. [ALL LAUGH] So, to begin with, two of the people who are very often credited with starting the riots — um, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — very interesting, very complicated, and very important figures in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in LGBT politics in New York. They themselves offered conflicting accounts about whether they were there when the riot started and I think we have to begin with their own words. And I think, more often than not, they did not indicate that they started the riots. I think there are more and more reliable accounts that single out Stormé Delarverie, often identified as biracial or African-American, often identified as a butch lesbian. But I guess I would also say I don't think there was any one moment or one thing. Riots are really complicated phenomena, and it's one moment, leading to another moment, leading to another moment.
TOBIN: Well, I guess in talking about how violent it got, or how serious the riots were, you know, I've sometimes heard that, like, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the cops to ignite the riots.
KATHY: I don't even know what a Molotov cocktail is.
TOBIN: It’s the cloth doused in, like, gasoline in a bottle that you light on fire.
KATHY [LONG, DRAWN-OUT REALIZATION]: Ohh!
TOBIN: So, was there even a Molotov cocktail involved?
MARC: Well, that I can't confirm or deny. [ALL LAUGH] The, um —
KATHY: Tell us how many there were! [TOBIN LAUGHS]
MARC: There are certainly reports that, when the police got trapped inside the bar, that there were all sorts of objects being thrown at the Stonewall Inn. So coins were being thrown — anything people could find on the street — bricks … and then there was there was apparently an attempt to light the bar on fire. The account that I recall is one that says that, uh, lighter fluid was squirted on the building and someone tried to light a match —
MARC: — and then the police inside were trying to use water hoses to prevent the fire from starting.
KATHY: A lot of people say that Stonewall is what kicked off the Gay Liberation movement.
KATHY: Is this true?
MARC: Well, I think many of us who study queer history are really working against the popular myth that the LGBT movement began at Stonewall. It's pretty well-established now that the movement began twenty years earlier and historians have now documented more than thirty LGBT protests, demonstrations, sit-ins — even riots — before the Stonewall riots. Those activists saw themselves as part of the revolutionary movement of movements. They were aligned with the Black Panthers, and with the counterculture, and the sexual revolution, and Women's Liberation. They participated in anti-war activism. So that was all beginning to happen in the months leading up to Stonewall.
KATHY: Why Stonewall, of all the queer events in America's history? Why is that the most pivotal?
MARC: I think it was partly the level of violence on the street, the length of the riots, the fact that it played out over several days, the number of people involved. But ultimately I think really what made Stonewall so central in the way we imagine queer and trans history is what happened afterwards. The fact that it led to mass mobilization, social diversification, political radicalization, and then the decision to start commemorating the riots one year later. That really built into the Pride parades and marches and protests that now have been going on for five decades.
[BOUNCY MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Marc. Thank you so much for talking to us.
MARC: Happy to be here.
KATHY: As Marc said, the Stonewall riots fifty years ago led to a pride parade the following year that laid the groundwork for even more marches and queer activism and protests. One of the groups leading the charge was called the Gay Liberation Front. Karla Jay was a leader in that group, and the first woman to be chair. But before the uprising, she was just a 22 year-old living in New York, who wanted a safe place to hang out with her friends, and be herself.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
KARLA: The bars were oppressive. And we went there because we were grateful to be there, to have a place to go. And there was no place except the bar to go. Other lesbians in bars, they trained you, you know? When I was a baby dyke and I went into a bar, I was told, “Look! You see over there? When — if the police come in, there are lights that are going to go on. They’re — They’re red or they’re — they’re white. They're going to flash. If those lights flash, and you're dancing with somebody, stop dancing.” It was illegal to dance with someone of the same sex. If you're wearing, you know, a tie — pull it off, get rid of that thing. So they taught me to count before I went to the bar. Because you had to wear three pieces of women's clothing. In 1969, if you were wearing a pair of jeans and it zipped up the front, those were men's pants. So, if the police came in and they saw a fly in the front, the police would then pull you into the bathroom and strip you to see whether or not you had three pieces somewhere.
TOBIN: Wow. [PAUSE] Do you remember where you were when you first heard that the Stonewall riots were happening?
KARLA: Yes. I — I think I'm the only lesbian in New York who is not in the Stonewall or gay man. [TOBIN AND KARLA LAUGH] I was not there. I — I usually, on the Saturday night, I went to the movies.
KARLA: And it was much cheaper than going to the bars on Saturday night. So my choice was the double feature. And the next morning, I heard about the Stonewall uprising on the radio, and I — I was amazed that — that people had resisted.
KARLA: But I didn't know where it would go. I mean, I didn't have a crystal ball. I thought, “Well, the Fourth of July is coming. All the gay men I know, they'll go off to Fire Island and that will be that, won't it?” But it didn't.
TOBIN: You went the second night —
TOBIN: — to sort of check it out and see what was happening. What was the scene like when you got there?
KARLA: I went down to the Stonewall to see what was happening, like everybody else. I got off and there were police barricades around the streets, around the Stonewall. Mostly the people were on the side streets, over by Waverly and Perry, off the square, and people were yelling and shouting, and you couldn't get in front of the Stonewall. But it was the Gay Liberation Front that changed everything. The fact that we organized, that we commemorated the Stonewall uprising with a march, that we decided we weren't gonna take this garbage anymore from the police, that we weren't going to be treated in this fashion again.
KARLA: We didn't always get along.
KARLA: But we decided that we could share a goal.
KARLA: We could share this goal of changing the world, that the world had to change, that we couldn't go on being in bars where any minute the police were going to come in and ruin our lives.
TOBIN: Can you describe what the scene was like in those early meetings? And what were those conversations like, about trying to get organized?
KARLA: Someone chaired each meeting. But we sat there and mostly we screamed at each other. And so we had equal opportunity screaming in there, and we very quickly divided into what we called “cells,” and the cells then got the work done. So in addition to the Aquarius cell, which organized social activities, we had, um, some political cells, which organized demonstrations.
TOBIN: Mhm. Um. You reference that there was, in those early meetings, a lot of screaming. What — Why screaming? And what was it about?
KARLA: You know, when you look at our community — I mean, this is really our issue now, and we still have the same issues today. If you look at the LGBTQA plus-plus-plus community, what do we really have in common?
KARLA: We have in common that those bigots out there hate us all the same way. They don't see us as different people. They think we're all these reprehensible queers that they hate. And when you get down to the root of that, that held us together. But it also made people angry. You know, the trans people, the people of color, uh, the women, the bisexuals — these people all felt that their voices were not being heard in the Gay Liberation Front.
KARLA: And the more their voices could not be heard, the louder they shouted.
TOBIN: Amid sort of, like, the disagreements, and trying to get organized, and that sort of thing, what do you think that group did well, or right?
KARLA: I think that our idea that we had to change society. Uh, whereas the previous organizations — which deserve tremendous credit — they felt that they had to present themselves as looking like and acting like straight people, and that eventually mainstream society would realize that we weren't a threat and they would accept us. We felt that straight society had to change and be more like us. That we had a lot to offer them. Fashion tips, just for starters, you know. [TOBIN AND KARLA LAUGH] And new ways of interacting! We were not going to be the carbon. We were going to be the original.
KARLA: We were going to go forward. We’re going to have different ways of relating. We were going to develop our own culture. We were going to develop our own ideas, and then let them follow us. This was a very novel and revolutionary idea, and I'm really sorry that we've lost this. Society needs to be more like us, today, still.
TOBIN: Was there a moment or a change that happened because of the Gay Liberation Front where you were able to look at it and say, “We did that.” Like, “We accomplished that.”
KARLA: I think the most amazing thing that we accomplished was working on the first march. We were part of the organizers of what was called “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” uh, “Committee” that formed the first Pride march. There was actually a march one month after the Stonewall uprising, where a small group of about fifty people met in Washington Square Park at 6 PM and walked very quickly [LAUGHS] back to the Stonewall. Because there had never been an LGBT March. And, um, we did not know if people would cheer us or throw bottles at us in the Village. We said, “Off the sidewalks! Into the street!”, and people were so afraid. People were afraid to go up the street. They didn't know what would happen if someone saw them. They could lose their jobs. If they were married, they could lose their children. The laws were so repressive in 1970. So when we did that and then, fifty years later, the people of the world have joined us.
[DRAMATIC ROCK-Y ORGAN MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Karla, thank you so much for coming in to talk today.
KARLA: Oh, thank you so much for having me on your podcast!
TOBIN: So, we’ve been talking a lot about Stonewall and the activism that grew out of it, and it got us thinking about where we are right now as a queer community. How do we continue the work of the folks who started this movement?
KATHY: Coming up, we talk to activist Raquel Willis about where we go from here.
[DRAMATIC MUSIC ENDS]
[MIDROLL MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: So, Kath. We’re at this 50th anniversary moment of Stonewall. We’re celebrating Pride Month. And a thing you and I have talked a lot about is this feeling of, like, conflict. Because Pride grew out of a riot, and activism, and this feeling of rebellion. And so to see Pride now —
KATHY: With all the parties and parades and, like, glitter!
KATHY: Why must there be so much glitter?
TOBIN: Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of glitter.
KATHY: I feel very complicated about it. Because I want to be able to celebrate, but how do I square that with also really feeling like [BREATH] a lot of stuff right now is not great for queer people?
TOBIN: Totally. And this came up in a recent op-ed that Raquel Willis wrote for Out Magazine.
KATHY: You mean, the one called “Pride Month is a Disgrace”?
TOBIN: Yes, yes! Well, the official title is, “Fifty Years Later, Pride Month is a Disgrace to Our Ancestors.” And in it, she says, “With the power and resources that have been accrued in the last 50 years, none of us should be suffering, especially not the Sylvias and Marshas of today. The Riots never actually ended. Let’s ensure that one day they actually do.”
KATHY: Raquel is the executive editor at Out, but she’s also been a major leader for queer and trans rights. She spoke at the Women’s March in DC back in 2017. She’s also started a project for the Transgender Law Center called “Black Trans Circle.” It focuses on providing resources for Black trans women. So, like, she’s out there, really doing the work.
TOBIN: We wanted to talk to her about where Pride has maybe lost its way and how to fix it. So, she came into the studio, and we started by asking if she’s always been so willing to call things out.
RAQUEL: When I was growing up my dad was a very traditional, masculine, Southern man. And so a lot of times, if he said something, that was it. And you just wouldn't challenge him on it, even though you knew it was, like, incorrect or wrong. I was, like, probably, like, five, and I told my mom, I was like, “You know, you don't have to do this this way because he says that.”
You know, and my mom was just like, “You just have to pick your battles,” and dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. And I didn't get it at the time, right? Because I was like, “Well, we have to fight every battle!”
KATHY: I still think I try to fight every battle. [LIGHTLY] I’m exhausted.
RAQUEL: Same. [ALL LAUGH] Hard same.
KATHY: So, yeah. Raquel has never been afraid to stand up and speak her mind. She told us she's inspired by the Stonewall veterans she's had a chance to interview over the years, like Miss Major, a Black trans activist who was on the frontlines of the Stonewall uprising, and helped to usher in the modern-day trans movement.
RAQUEL: Her talking about how the police were out there, you know, like, a line of, like, storm troopers. And how every time they would try to get up if they were knocked down, it was like a tidal wave crashing into a city. That image is so different from this kind of rainbow, glitter-filled image that we have of Pride.
KATHY: From all your conversations, is there, like, a certain type of activism that you think is more effective than others?
RAQUEL: I think that there is such an, um, devaluing and erasing of the power of actual grassroots organizing.
RAQUEL: I think about — even, you know, the people who do the HIV advocacy at the club on, you know, a Thursday night. And, you know, they're trying to get their friends to, like, be a part of their survey or — or do their testing, and all of that stuff, um, and then their — their friends are like, “No, no, girl, I'm trying to dance!” That is that is what organizing is to me. It's those elements that get so glossed over in this larger conversation around activism solely being about visibility.
[JOURNEYING MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: I mean, hearing Raquel talk about visibility versus activism.
TOBIN: It makes me think a lot — especially, like, during this month of Pride, you know? Like, it is amazing that you can see queer people reflected as the face of major campaigns and, like, that is affirming for people, to see themselves reflected in media and whatever.
TOBIN: But that, inherently, is not the same thing as activism, right?
TOBIN: ‘Cause, like, activism is defined by a verb. Like, active doing of things. And so, like, what Raquel’s talking about, and what she really makes me think about, is how, like, it is about going out and making change and actively doing that.
TOBIN: It’s not just about, like, “Do we see ourselves reflected?” — which is amazing! — it’s about, “Are we doing the things we need to do to make that change happen?”
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
KATHY: And one of the big things Raquel takes issue with in how we celebrate Pride today is that it feels like our history gets forgotten.
RAQUEL: So when I talk about how we need to dig deeper with Pride month, I'm not critiquing the fact that we should be able to celebrate who we are and and have a party. I mean, queer folks can party, you know? That’s one of our superpowers. But that also means that we can have a real conversation about what that celebration looks like and how that celebration isn't the same as acknowledging and honoring what happened at Stonewall Inn in 1969. Because we know that the mood of that night — it was fury. It was fervor. It was anguish. It was frustration, you know? It was a riot, a rebellion. So in critiquing Pride, I hope in this 50th celebration, we will have a real conversation about the ways that all of these forces are still plaguing our community.
[INTROSPECTIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: So, Tobin, like, you read the piece. Raquel writes about a bunch of things she thinks we can fight for to carry the torch of the older generation. And I feel like some of the things she wrote about that really resonated with me are: ending the murders of Black trans women, legalizing sex work, um, making sure that healthcare is available to everyone. And right now, the mainstream way of celebrating Pride sometimes overlooks the problems we should be fighting against, even within our own community, like racism, and transphobia, and misogyny.
TOBIN: Right. There’s still a lot of stuff that needs fixing. So we asked Raquel what she thinks this movement looks like in fifty years. Like, what is the goal?
RAQUEL: I hope I'm obsolete in the future.
TOBIN: Hmm. What do you mean by “obsolete”?
RAQUEL: I'm not fighting for future generations to experience the world the way I am with, you know, my baggage, my insecurities, my, um, feelings of being silenced and erased and my trauma. And I think that necessitates us thinking about the ways in which we define ourselves, maybe, by our trauma, or define ourselves by our struggle, and not by what we hope to see, and not by what actually brings us power.
[LOW, OPTIMISTIC MUSIC PLAYS]
RAQUEL: And I hope that when we come to some conclusions around how we can define ourselves beyond what harm has happened to us, or what trauma has happened to us, then maybe we'll have more of a liberatory future.
TOBIN: So, you know, we started this episode with this question of, “What should Pride be?” You know, is it a protest? Is it a party? Because those two things feel like they’re in opposition of each other.
TOBIN: And, you know, Raquel talks about how we really need to do more to remember our history, but also says she doesn’t want the struggle to be what defines queerness. And that also feels kind of contradictory, which she totally recognizes.
[MUSIC BECOMES DANCIER, DREAMIER]
KATHY: But if anyone can make all these contradictions work, it’s queer people, right? Like, this is something we’ve talked about before. Queer people are not just our trauma. We’re not just fabulous. We’re both. We contain all of those things.
TOBIN: Totally. And I actually think Pride should be both a celebration and a protest, and they shouldn’t exist without each other. Like, we have to acknowledge how far we’ve come and take joy in that, but also keep in mind how much there still is to fight for.
[MUSIC CRESCENDOES, THEN ENDS, TO BE REPLACED BY PERCUSSIVE MUSIC]
KATHY: Alright, that’s the show! And, Tobin, you know what else it is?
TOBIN: It’s the end of “Nancy,” season four!
KATHY: That’s right. It’s a wrap, people. We’ve put out a story every week since September, and now, it is time to take a break.
TOBIN: Can we just pause for a second and talk about how many amazing stories we’ve done?
KATHY: We’ve done many.
TOBIN: Hit me with some of your favorites.
KATHY: Um, I got to talk to my very favorite singer-songwriter, her name is Katie Herzig. And I spent time with her in Nashville and we, like, walked around and hung out, and it was amazing!
TOBIN: You lost your damn mind!
KATHY: I threatened to quit if you didn’t let me go! [TOBIN LAUGHS] What about you?
TOBIN: I’m gonna do mine listicle-style. I loved talking about queer people and money. [KATHY HUMS IN AFFIRMATION] I loved talking to a son trying to give his dad a kidney. [KATHY HUMS IN AFFIRMATION] I loved asking a queer car mechanic all our dumb car questions. [KATHY LAUGHS]
KATHY: Um, if you’re confused right now, you should go listen to all of those episodes. We have such a back catalogue now!
TOBIN: It’s true! And we have so many exciting plans for next season that we’re gonna be researching, recording, interviewing …
KATHY: And that’s what we’re off to do — make great stories!
TOBIN: To the members who support this show with a donation — thank you, as always, and make sure to check your inbox, because we sent you a special update about our plans.
KATHY: And while we're on break, you can keep up with us through the “Friends of Nancy” Facebook group. If you’re not a member, now is the time to join. We'll be checking in regularly with the group.
TOBIN: And before you know it, we’ll be back and better than ever.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: Okay. Our producer —
TOBIN: Zakiya Gibbons!
KATHY: Production fellow —
TOBIN: Temi Fagbenle!
KATHY: Editor —
TOBIN: Stephanie Joyce!
KATHY: Sound designer —
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Executive producer —
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu!
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low!
KATHY: And “Nancy” is a production of WNYC Studios.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN [SEEMINGLY DOING VOCAL WARMUPS]: Ha ha! Ho ha hee ha ho.