50 Years Later, Stonewall Protestors Remember Their Secret Lives & 'Epiphany' of Fighting Back for LGBTQ Rights
Remembers one protestor: "When we charged back at the cops, we were basically saying, 'Never again will we go quietly into the night' "
Joe Caldiero grew up in Brooklyn with a lesbian aunt and parents who didn’t blink when he told them, as a teen in the late 1960s, that he was gay.
“My mom and I were very tight,” Caldiero, now 66, tells PEOPLE. “She said she knew all along. She just figured I knew, too.”
But the wider world was far less open — and far more threatening — to the LGBTQ community in the decades before a 1969 police raid on a New York City bar called the Stonewall Inn sparked an uprising that birthed the modern gay rights movement.
“It wasn’t legal to be gay in New York,” says Caldiero, who was inside Stonewall, in Greenwich Village, on the night of the raid: June 28, 1969.
“If you looked gay — I guess today they call them ‘gay-bashers,’ back then we just called them ‘hitters,’ because they hit you,” Caldiero says.
Joe Negrelli, now 67, had stepped outside of Stonewall into a park across the street when he saw the clash with police begin. The bar was one of the few places where, in secret, LGBTQ people could be themselves.
“Life for gay people was zero to nonexistent,” Negrelli says. “If you were gay, you were not going to get a job, or a legitimate job. It was perfectly legal to discriminate against you in housing.”
Gay people also were banned from dancing together, wearing clothes not matching their gender or drinking in a bar. Stonewall, like other establishments that allowed gay people to gather, were easy police targets.
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“Statutes on the books allowed them to arrest anyone they wanted to,” Stonewall historian Martin Duberman tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “Gay people felt despised and second-rate because they more or less imbibed the culture’s definition of who they were.”
But the events of that night, followed by several successive nights, saw the tide start to turn.
At Stonewall, “A drag queen kicked a cop as he was putting her in the paddy wagon,” remembers Martin Boyce, now 70. “He was beating her. He said to us, ‘You fags get lost.’ But we didn’t that time. The riot began.”
Empty bottles and cans flew, sending officers into retreat inside the bar on Christopher Street. “It wasn’t a riot, it wasn’t a rebellion, it was an uprising,” says Michael Levine, now 76.
As the lights in the bar had flicked on and police officers first entered, “I was frightened. At that time, so many of us were still in the closet,” Levine says. But once forced outside, “I just saw a bunch of kids having fun in the street, teasing the police — the drag queens, especially.”
In an urban neighborhood already churning with late-’60s civil rights, women’s rights and anti-Vietnam War activists, the Stonewall protests within days gave rise to the Gay Liberation Front. New York University student Ellen Broidy, now 73, jumped aboard.
“Keep in mind that Stonewall was a moment, and there had been others,” she tells PEOPLE. “The true significance of what happened is when activists turned a moment into a movement.”
A year later a march for Christopher Street Liberation Day became the nation’s first pride parade and helped launch June worldwide as LGBTQ Pride Month.
In the U.S., same-sex marriage is now legal, the Supreme Court has decriminalized gay conduct and gays and lesbians serve openly in the military — though, in 2017, President Donald Trump said he would ban transgender people from serving with them and his vice president, Mike Pence, has a history of anti-gay politics.
Still, a wary community watches, ready to fight for their rights like they did 50 years ago.
“We fought back. We didn’t know we could. It was an epiphany that night,” says Joel Snyder, now 73. “When we charged back at the cops, we were basically saying, ‘Never again will we go quietly into the night.’ ”
Says Martha Shelley, who happened by Stonewall that first night and later became an active member of the Gay Liberation Front: “The most important thing is that a little bunch of raggedy-ass kids who really didn’t have anything to lose changed the world.”
She adds: “We changed from ‘Please, sir, let us be a part of middle-class America’ to ‘To hell with it, we are who we are and we are not apologizing anymore.’ “