names in this commentary have been changed to protect
JUNE 27TH, WAS THE last day of school that year. And with school out, my middle-school
cronies and I looked forward to a summer reprieve
from rioting against Italian, Irish and Jewish public
school kids for being bussed into their neighborhoods.
However, the summer months in Brooklyn’s African
American enclaves only escalated rioting between
finest - the New York Police Department - and us.
During this tumultuous decade of Black rage and white police raids, knee-jerk responses to each other’s
slights easily set the stage for a conflagration,
creating both instantaneous and momentary fighting
alliances in these Black communities across gangs,
class, age, ethnicity and sexual orientations -
against police brutality.
Most of the ‘homosexuals’
the police would encounter were of color, and therefore
even more objectionable
That night of June 27th started out no differently than any hot and humid
summer Friday night in my neighborhood. Past midnight,
folks with no AC or working fans in their homes
were just hanging out. Some lounged on the fire
escapes while others were on the stoops of their
brownstones laughing and shooting the breeze. Some
were in heated discussion of Black revolutionary
politics, while the Holy Rollers were competing
with each other over Scripture. The Jenkins boys
were drumming softly on their congas to the hot
breezy mood of the night air. And directly under
the street lamp was an old beat-up folding card
table where the Fletchers and the Andersons, lifelong
friends and neighbors, were shouting over a game
of bid whist.
The sight of Dupree galloping up the block toward us abruptly interrupted
the calm of the first hour of Saturday, June 28th.
Dupree stopped in front of the gaming table and
yelled out, “The pigs across the bridge are beating
up on Black faggots - right now!”
Anderson, who was just moments from throwing in
her hand to go to bed, let out a bloodcurdling scream
that shook us and brought a momentary halt to everything.
Anderson grabbed his wife to comfort her and said,
“Cissy, calm down.”
of us not still paralyzed by Cissy’s scream quickly
gathered around Dupree to hear more.
“The motherfuckers are taken to going after the weakest among us. The pigs busted into this bar and started beating on
them.” “Nate,” Cissy cried out to her husband, “what
we gonna to do?” Someone from the crowd shouted,
“Let’s go whip their flat white
asses!” Laughter erupted from the crowd, but so
too a volley of humorous and heated insults about
GOT TO ACT. DAMNIT! We
got to act - right now!” Dupree stomped his foot
and gave a Black Power fist salute.
nodded in agreement as noisy anger rose from the
crowd and fighting alliances formed. More people
poured onto the street as news spread. The Jenkins
boys pounded their drums in a whipping beat, raising
a fierce rage and collective resolve.
in the fuck is this bar?” someone else from the
place called Greenwich Village,”
Dupree shouted above the noise.
“You mean upstate New York?”
ain’t got no car,” another voice shouted.
that Connecticut?” someone else shouted
“I still ain’t got no car,” shouted the familiar voice.
dumb ass. It’s someplace in lower Manhattan,”
Dupree, annoyed, shouted back to whomever asked
We witnessed two white cops
pummeling a Black drag queen
Less than twelve hours ago was the last day of school and none of us school
kids could have expected to be in another riot so
soon, and especially outside of Brooklyn.
Very few of us that night would have known of Greenwich
Village, not only because of the insularity of our
neighborhoods, but also because of our undisclosed
history and impermanent residency in the Village.
VILLAGE IN THE 1800s had housed the largest population for former slaves in the
country. “Little Africa,” the area around Bleecker,
MacDougal, Sullivan, and Thompson Streets established
the country’s first Black newspaper, Freedom’s
Journal (1827-1829), and first Black theater,
the African Grove (1821-1823).
gentrification forced racial relocation and led
to Harlem becoming the Mecca
of Black America.
On the surface, the Village appeared then and appears to this day to be
a site of easy racial and social coexistence. Its
worldly reputation as an artists’ enclave, a Bohemian
hot spot, and a gay refuge of progressive thinkers
and cultural tolerance already attracted people
worldwide. And for African Americans running away
from the stinging indignities of Jim Crow America
and the religious homophobia of the Black
Church, it brought hope.
But the Village’s entrenched milieu of race and
class elite liberalism relegated Blacks to the margins
of the community.
Edgar Hoover’s FBI and
the police department kept a running list of us
For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) African Americans,
our presence in the Village by the 1960s had less
to do with the white LGBTQ community’s marginal
tolerance of us than it had to do with our permanent
eviction from Harlem. As a
Black cultural and social Mecca,
Harlem was home and refuge to New
York City’s Black population beginning in the early
1900s. And within Harlem various
groups of African Americans found their specific
niche of self-expression and acceptance. By the
time of the Harlem Renaissance, roughly from 1920-1935,
LGBTQ African Americans, too, carved out for themselves
a queer space of self-expression and acceptance.
During the Harlem Renaissance, a subculture of African American LGBTQ
artists and entertainers emerged. Rent parties,
speakeasies, sex circuses, and buffet flats were
places where many of the major gay and bisexual
male literary figures like Alain Locke, Countee
Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman,
and Richard Bruce Nugent met, and many of the major
bisexual and lesbian blues singers like Bessie Smith,
Ma Rainey, “Moms” Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Alberta
Hunter, and Gladys Bentley performed. The renowned
Savoy Ballroom and the Rockland
hosted drag ball extravaganzas with prizes awarded
for the best costumes. Langston Hughes depicted
the balls as “spectacles of color.” George Chauncey,
author of Gay New York, wrote that during
this period, “perhaps nowhere were more men willing
to venture out in public in drag than in Harlem.”
Harlem was both a complicated open and closeted queer social
hot spot. The annual Hamilton Lodge event openly
referred to the drag ball extravaganzas as the “Parade
of the Pansies,” “Dance of the Fairies” and “‘Faggots’
Ball.” These balls were wildly popular and growing
among Harlem’s working class, but the constant harassment
by white policemen patrolling the neighborhood made
the trans community a conspicuous target along with
public denouncements of them by Black ministers
like the famous Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. of the
Abyssinian Baptist Church.
In the Village, LGBTQ African
Americans carved out for themselves a queer space
of self-expression and acceptance
By the ’50s, the country was on a campaign to restore traditional gender
roles that had been disrupted by World War II, and
McCarthyism was its policing mechanism. Special
attention was given to LGBTQ Americans because J.
Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the police department kept
a running list of us. Many of Harlem’s
prominent LGBTQ denizens, who enjoyed a relative
openness about their sexual orientation from the
1920s through the 1940s, were driven into the closet.
By the 1960s, known queer spaces in Black urban
communities like Harlem had
for the most part disappeared. With the early part
of the 1960s shaped by the Black Civil Rights Movement
that was led by homophobic African American ministers,
and the latter part of the ’60s shaped by the Black
Power Movement that was built on the most misogynistic
and homophobic strains of Black Nationalism, Black
LGBTQ sexualities were perceived as a threat, not
only to Black male heterosexuality, the Black Church
and community, but also the ontology of blackness
DUPREE STOPPED IN FRONT of Mr. Fletcher’s game table, he was signaling to his aunt
and uncle that their son Birdie, who sang like a
beautiful songbird, was more than likely in the
melee across the bridge. Everyone knew Birdie was
gay, and we wondered where he and his “brother-girls,”
as he dubbed them, had gone on the weekends when
they laughed and spoke in code on Sundays about
their exploits while robing-up for choir.
DETESTED THAT HER ELDEST, Nate Turner “Birdie” Anderson, Jr., went outside the community
to a white neighborhood to be himself. As it was,
Cissy felt she had no control in protecting her
children. Her youngest children were ensnared in
the ongoing bussing debacle where the court mandated
they attend school outside of their neighborhood;
and now Birdie went out of the neighborhood to Greenwich Village. She worried about cops killing him, or a gang of
white thugs chasing him to his death.
And her fears were not unfounded. That’s what had happened to her middle
brother, Herndon, twenty years before, in 1949 in
Lynchburg, Virginia. He was gang-raped, but his
death was reported as a lynching. Herndon was gay,
an effeminate and slight man, no more than five
feet seven inches tall, weighing roughly one hundred
forty pounds, like his nephew Birdie. When he went
to visit friends on his own while strolling down
dirt roads in Lynchburg, rednecks a bunch of them together - would try to catch him.
When they did they would tie him to the back seat
of their pick-up truck and take him into the woods
to gang-rape him, and make Herndon perform fellatio
on them. On the day they killed Herndon, he’d refused
to give them the satisfaction they demanded. The
men mutilated Herndon, vying for his genitals as
souvenirs to sell; but they eventually divided the
pieces among themselves and kept them.
Nate, Sr., too, worried about his eldest son. When Birdie told his dad he was gay, his father asked him if he understood that
he didn’t know how to keep him safe, especially
if his son wandered out of his purview. Mr. Anderson
took great pride in keeping his family together
and safe, which is why he had hightailed it up North
to Brooklyn, bringing his childhood sweetheart Cissy
with him after he’d shot dead two of Herndon’s rapists
- and turned Bo Milt, the third rapist, into a quadriplegic
by repeatedly running him over with his truck while
Bo Milt yelled, “Nigger, stop!”
TURNER ANDERSON SR. WAS a race man: like the African prince High John the Conqueror,
he was handsome, charming, beguiling, and not to
be messed with. At six feet eight inches tall, Nate,
Sr. was barrel-chested and a blue-black complexioned
man of few words with a distinctive bass voice that
commanded attention. When his voice rose above Dupree’s
and the crowd, we were as shocked to silence as
we were by Cissy’s bloodcurdling scream.
son is somewhere there and I need you all to help
me find him and bring him home safely to his mother
charge to find Birdie trumped, for some, our rage
to fight cops. Rechanneling our energy around Nate,
Sr., groups of us hopped the IRT 7th Avenue subway line to the Village.
Coming out of the subway station at Christopher Street we could hear the commotion. The shoving and pushing
by both protestors and police yanked three of us
away from the core group; we were left to fend for
ourselves. When we made our way into the crowd swarming
the front of the Stonewall Inn, we too threw bottles,
garbage, and anything we could get our hands on.
In the midst of the riot I realized the moment looked
and felt similar to the Martin Luther King riot.
But this time I knew who the LGBTQ folks fighting
along with us were.
THE MOMENTUM OF THE crowd pushed my small group to Waverly Place, a block away from the Stonewall,
we witnessed two white cops pummeling a Black drag
queen. “I should shove this stick up your ass,”
said one of the cops as he pulled up her dress with
a nightstick in his hand. The taller of the two
cops yanked off her wig and laughingly tossed it
to the other cop. In spotting us, the cop who caught
the wig threw it at us yelling, “You nigger fags
The wig missed and landed about a foot away from us, but the cop’s words
hit, striking fear. And with just the three of us
traveling together - the boys were high school football
linebackers and me, a middle schooler - and being
the youngest and only girl with them, I felt vulnerable
after having lost Nate, Sr. and the group. Witnessing
the beat-down and disrobing of the drag queen made
me want to cry, but I fought back the tears and
ran, following the boys down the block.
Past midnight, folks with
no AC or working fans in their homes were just hanging
When we came home the night of June 28th, we still had no idea of Birdie’s
fate. Throughout that day and the night before we
had witnessed so many Birdies beaten badly. We stopped
by the Andersons to convey our concerns and that we had looked for Birdie.
Cissy told us that he was safely home, having sustained
a number of blunt trauma injuries - a black eye,
assorted bruises, broken ribs, a sprained ankle,
and a busted lip. None of us know how Nate, Sr.
found Birdie in the riot, but he did - we assumed
parental instinct trumped the seemingly impossible.
I look back at the first night of the Stonewall
Inn riots, I could have never imagined its future importance. The first night played
out no differently from previous riots with Black
Americans and white policemen. And so too, it being
underreported. But I was there.
THE FIRST NIGHT OF the Stonewall Inn riots, African Americans and Latinos
were the largest percentage of the protestors because
we heavily frequented the bar. For Black and Latino
homeless youth and young adults, who slept in nearby
Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn was their stable
domicile. The Stonewall Inn being raided was nothing
new. In the 1960s gay bars in the Village were routinely
raided, but, “Race is said to have been another factor. The decision by the police
to raid the bar in the manner they did may have
been influenced by the fact that most of the ‘homosexuals’
they would encounter were of color, and therefore
even more objectionable.”
Although, today, African American and Latino trans communities are relegated
to the margins of Greenwich
Village, if not expulsed from it, these communities,
nonetheless, force their way into being a visible
and powerful presence in our lives, leaving indelible
imprints while confronted with not only transphobia
but also “trans-amnesia.” The inspiration and source
of an LGBTQ movement post-Stonewall is an appropriation
of a Black, brown, trans and queer liberation narrative
and struggle. The Stonewall Riot of June 27-29,
1969 in Greenwich Village started
on the backs of working class African American and
Latino queers who patronized that bar. Those brown
and Black LGBTQ people are not only absent from
the photos of that night, but have been bleached
from its written history. Many LGBTQ Blacks and
Latinos argue that one of the reasons for the gulf
between whites and themselves is about how the dominant
queer community rewrote and continues to control
the narrative of Stonewall.
is one of several pieces in the newly released June
2012 anthology Love,
Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City
, editor Thomas Keith, intro Christopher Bram.]
Board member and Columnist, the Rev. Irene Monroe,
is a religion columnist, theologian, and public
She is the Coordinator of
the African-American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and
Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the
Pacific School of Religion. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a
graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological
Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a
pastor at an African-American church before coming
to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as
a Ford Fellow. She was recently named to MSNBC’s
list of 10 Black Women You Should Know. Reverend Monroe is the author
of Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible Prayers
for Not’So’Everyday Moments. As an African-American feminist
theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that
is frequently invisible. Her website is irenemonroe.com.
Click here to contact
the Rev. Monroe.