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Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution

Book Review by Jack Nichols

Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, by David Carter, St. Martin's Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-312-20025-0, cloth, $24.95

In late June, 1969, New York media focused on riots at a grungy Mafia-run bar, the Stonewall Inn. These riots then became the pivotal event that many would later agree had sparked the modern gay liberation movement in the United States. For nearly two decades prior to this uprising, U.S. activists had labored to form such a movement, but it was only after "street youths" violently protested police harassment and pointless arrests at their favorite bar that the American movement began to grow by leaps and bounds.

Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, is the second major history published about the riots but it is distinguished best by being the first carefully-researched account of the uprising. An earlier work titled Stonewall by Martin Duberman, was published in 1993, but was, as this reviewer then noted, a hurried composition, suffering Duberman's tendency to make careless assumptions, thus promoting thoughtless errors.

David Carter's carefully-constructed book should therefore be welcomed as the first legitimate historical account of the Stonewall riots, research that took nearly a decade. Inasmuch as the legends surrounding the Stonewall uprising have given rise to a host of speculative musings and outright deceptions, Carter has returned again and again to compare remembrances from a variety of sources, fastidiously verifying his findings. He has thus dispensed with many of the old myths that have been too long perpetuated. In no hurry to rush this valuable manuscript into print, he was able to tackle controversial issues, including the disputed presence of lesbians, the transgendered and others.

The cover of Carter's Stonewall boasts a little-known photograph taken in the midst of the great uprising, showing "street youths" who were clearly in conflict with the police. Determining that the greatest number of the rioters were, in fact, these effeminate youths who were often homeless and roaming Greenwich Village streets, Carter dedicates his book to them:

To the gay street youth who fought and bled at Stonewall

Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution begins with a colorful history of the Greenwich Village locale where the tawdry dance bar opened in 1967. David Carter shows an admirable interest in spirits from the past who seem to linger in the neighborhood. This reviewer learned, for example, that one of his own best-loved heroes, Thomas Paine, died in June, 1809, only a few doors from the Stonewall Inn. Somehow this seems fitting, for it was Paine who wrote the famous pamphlet, Common Sense and thus inspired the American Revolution.

Over the years, intrusive New York police had raided numerous gay bars in the city and had had no reason to expect anything more than the usual "ho hum" from Stonewall patrons on the night of June 27th. Among the many exciting moments Carter so effectively captures in Stonewall is when the street crowds milling outside the bar turn from a distraught group of noisy observers into a relentless mob of angry fighters.

Among the many truly outstanding features of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution are the interviews its author conducted with Seymour Pine who led the police assault on the Stonewall. Pine provides a dramatic view from the inside of the Stonewall where he and his police cohorts were suffering intense concern about their own safety, trapped as they were by an angry street mob lobbing fiery Molotov cocktails through the bar's broken windows. The police knew that their pistols, each equipped with only six bullets, would prove ineffective against the infuriated crowd if it began to advance on the interior. Seymour Pine, Carter explains, advised his men against using those guns.
David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution

Now, 35 years later, David Carter and former Mattachine Society of New York president Dick Leitsch, will be sharing with Seymour Pine, Deputy Inspector of Manhattan's First Division of Public Morals, their thoughts and memories about the Stonewall riots. Mr. Pine, now advanced in age, will be speaking for the first time in public about the raid.

This historic event, to be moderated by Eric Marcus, is scheduled for Wednesday, June 2, 6:30 pm at The New York Historical Society (2 West 77th Street and Central Park West) Reservations are required: 212-485-9269, reservations@nyhistory.org , ($7 / $4 members, seniors & students and OP or Center members.) Although Mr. Pine's participation is expected, it will be dependant on his health. If he is unable to attend, a video interview with him that has been conducted by David Carter will be shown. A reception and book signing will follow.
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St. Martin's Press: Stonewall The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution