Playing the Riot Box

The beat of the heart my love / Is stronger than the charts my love / Your water sign just lit my fire.

–“No Matter What Sign You Are,” Diana Ross and the Supremes.

There’s a lot of Motown sound coming out of a hole-in-the-wall bar on Christopher Street. That sound, that space, that park, changes with almost every year. The street changes so that elements of its past are forgotten; others are compartmentalized. The voices coming through the speakers are mostly smooth and harmonize with each other. The feeling is sentimental, in an uplifting way—exactly the sort of thing you would expect in any bar with a decent jukebox. Music, while it covers the air, doesn’t cover the less-desirable elements of the bar. You might not want to order a drink, sources say that they didn’t really clean the glassware, and some nights the bar gets so crowded that movement, dancing, even the flow of the music itself seems impossible. The whole scene can seem like something out of an upside-down wonderland. All of these people come together in this space after thinking for years that they were the only ones who lived and loved in a particular way.

 

Record and Glass
Photograph by the author

After the riots, the rebels of the bar go back and piece together the records in the jukebox. There are some questionable selections, but the list holds up, and eventually it is posted to the internet for world consumption. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, the Fifth Dimension. You can still hold a pretty decent dance party to this list. I did just that, alone in my house for an afternoon with a friend and a bottle of vermouth between us. We put up tissue-paper lanterns and sunflowers on the walls and ceiling of my room and danced and talked in equal measure, making occasional platitudes about gay power and the need to reinvent our revolutions between trying on someone else’s heels.

 

The Stonewall Riots occurred in June 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. To raid a gay bar was a common enough occurrence. Most gay bars were run by the mafia, and routinely enacted a strategy of blackmailing selected customers, knowing that they would lose their jobs if they went to the police, who had no interest in helping anyway. The bind of pre-liberation queerness—to be caught between the police and the mob—is the kind of drama that pulp novels were made for. Perhaps this is why so many of the first fictions to actually address the subject of homosexuality with explicit detail came out as cheap paperbacks with leery covers that suggested the scandal burning up inside—both inside the pages and inside the characters. The queer was walking down the thin line of their own lawlessness, waiting for the moment of discovery of madness that would tear them apart. Rarely did these stories have any kind of happy or redemptive ending. (Indeed, that’s part of the reason why the charm of Todd Haynes’ film, Carol, was completely lost on modern audiences—Highsmith’s novel was the first lesbian love story pulp to feature a happy, non-suicidal, ending. Even Gore Vidal’s “literary” The City and the Pillar ended in self-violence of one kind or another, depending on which of Vidal’s two endings you consumed.) The bars were dirty—who could complain? Dirty space is better than no space. Holding a space in the realm of Christopher Street was more than could be hoped for by those in suburban areas. The bar scene was mostly younger people, some of whom were not even eighteen the night of the first riot.

 

Mattachine Society sign.jpg
A message from the Mattachine Society, a pre-Stonewall LGBT+ activist organization, painted on the window of the Stonewall Inn in the days after the riots.

Most of the major homosexual writers either frequented metropolitan playgrounds where queerness was an after-dinner reprise, or else left the states to find locations in Europe or some other land with more history and a tradition of classical/historical sexual ambiguity. Vidal alternated between Europe and the coasts, Capote lounged in the gilded worlds usually reserved for soap-opera wives (producing less and less, becoming more and more incoherent with drink and drugs), Highsmith wandered through Europe, settling in Switzerland and alternating between writing the psychological fiction that made her name and anti-Semitic screeds to the local paper, Paul Bowles lounged in Morocco, and Djuna Barnes wasted away in Greenwich Village, barely able to continue writing and being visited on her doorstep by cliques of younger women (including Carson McCullers) at whom she shouted through her window. James Baldwin returned to the United States to chronicle the Civil Rights movement, and witnessed friend after friend assassinated. He would live out the rest of his days in France, returning to the United States for speaking tours and to research for his books, but he would never return permanently. The nature of the city allows for something that the insular suburbs and rural world still do not—a difference tolerated as a new kind of eccentricity, the species “homosexual.” Reading the literature of the time, it becomes clear that to exist as a queer person, to discover one’s voice, one had to be born to one of these meccas, or one had to become an exile.

 

Of all the singers on the jukebox, Sinatra has the most unusual relationship to the gay men of the bar, courting them while reinforcing his own heterosexuality. Sinatra appeared in the film Advise and Consent as the disembodied crooner of the gay bar scene—the first gay bar to be featured in detail in an American film—in 1962. Sinatra’s voice was the object that the queer men were all lusting after, his crooning being directed back at him. How many of us changed the lyrics or the names of songs, adding in boyfriends to take the place of girlfriends? (I’ve sung “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by the Beatles about enough boys that it has almost become a running joke.) The terrible jokes “My Way” inspires have always made the song an object of pity for me, especially when Sid Vicious isn’t the one singing it. Sinatra’s version seems to strike an odd note between sincerity and absurdity, in which the man who did it his way was plodding and pedestrian, with almost nothing original about it. I can imagine someone putting it on at the end of the night, to make everyone go home. At the same time, it asks some of the foundation questions of theorists: “What is a man? / What has he got, / If not himself?”

When the fire comes up the night of the riot, and the police are pushed into the back of the bar, replacing those they sought to harass as refugees in this dark box of a back room, worried that they may have to shoot their way out through the crowd of street kids, the first lines of Sinatra’s song take on new meaning—it’s time to go home, because the world as we knew it this morning is ending. The softness of the voice and the twinkle of old blue eyes retain a hint of the young man photographed in a police mug shot—the crooner who rose up from looking almost like rough trade, growing into his face, turning into a tuxedoed king of the easy listening set.

 

Sinatra Mugshot
Sinatra’s Mugshot in Bergen County, 1938

 

I think about my friends walking down Christopher Street on a class trip and ask myself if I could bare to see them face fire and clubs. So many of the “street kids” involved in the riots were just that: kids. It is the rage and bravery of youths that comes through most in these few images we have. The marked difference between the documentary photographs and odd film clips we have of the Stonewall riots and the pride marches that follow is not ideology—Stonewall was about police violence and the systematic targeting of a minorities by the state; modern prides are about corporatized communities and, apparently, making straight people feel tolerant—but the total, unrepentant chaos of the riot in full motion. There is no pattern to the images apart from what might be seen by an overarching deity as the blood pours off a young person’s chest and a woman nurses a bruise. There is no denying that the first move towards modern pride was the release of a tremendous rage.

 

From A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):

 

4 policemen hurt, 13 persons arrested after hundreds of youths rampage, Greenwich Village, because of plainclothesmen’s raid on Stonewall Inn, bar which police say is well-known for homosexual clientele; police, acting on repts [sic] of illegal sales, confiscate liquor; Dave Van Ronk among those arrested. (6)

 

Listening to the music, looking at the photographs in detail, it is astonishing how much of Stonewall’s history has been whitewashed. There are so many connections with the burgeoning Black Power movement—the same songs that empowered a racial minority empowered the sexual minorities within it. There is no gay rights movement without the movement for black civil rights in the face of anti-black racism. Many of those writers who have commented on the Riots have stated that “Gay is Good” as a chant began as the direct descendant of “Black is Beautiful.” There is also no movement without the trans, gender-variant, and queer people. The movement for queer rights has always been about gender as well as sexuality. The number of Stonewall vets who have been read as white men “dragged-up”—that is, denying the reality of their transgender/gender non-conforming identity (how they present themselves, the legal name changes they applied for, the surgeries they stole for, the marriages to male partners after surgeries, the declaration time and time again that her name is Sylvia once and for all)—is astonishing. Pronouns are difficult and inconsistent source to source, and it becomes more complicated as our own vocabulary changes in the 21st Century. Respect for the names people use for themselves is thin in many accounts—it takes me a while to realize that various sources are writing about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, because they refer to them by other names, deadnames, and treat their female identities as a form of roleplaying rather than a means of existing as themselves. Identity construction is an inherent part of any civil rights struggle, that is the ability to determine both where one stands in relationship to the world and what that world’s limits are upon your person; how far the world can cut into you, and you cut into it.

Chants beget chants: “Black Is Beautiful” gives us “Gay Is Good” in response. This leaves us asking, Queer Is…?” The mountains of paper generated by theory can only direct, not answer, this question. The riot was not a calculated, planned, act of rebellion asserting the autonomy of those who consented to be in the bar that night. It was born out of exhaustion—tired of being made victim yet again by a state that refused to view them as anything other than a nuisance.

 

Again, from A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):

heavy police reinforcements again clear Sheridan Sq area of NYC when crowds angered by raid on Stonewall Inn frequented by homosexuals sweep through area; 3 persons held. (6)

Riots are something you quell, something that is either beaten back or burns out the soul of their location. Watts, we are told, was never the same after the 1965 riots. Part of why the Stonewall Riots could go on was structure of the square where they occurred. The square is actually an uneven triangle, and it is not hard to run down one street to the other to stop the police for retreat. The triangle is the early symbol of Gay Liberation, reclaimed from the bodies of gay prisoners in concentration camps. The view from Christopher Street comes to a small triangle almost like the tip of a thin dagger. The intersections by Christopher Park are hellish, with traffic seemingly coming from eight directions at once. Even so, when I’ve visited in pilgrimage, the traffic has mostly been from young people exiting the subway. Standing in the Park, one can see how easy it would be to become trapped in this location. My friends and I run around the triangle, away from the Stonewall Inn, across streets with oncoming taxis, and finally back to the origin point, waiting there for us with a drink.

 

Streisand, too, is one of the few artists that step out of place in the jukebox. Already a gay icon by 1969, the exuberant lavishness of the Hello Dolly! soundtrack leaves the listener pining on. Remembering her role in the film of Funny Girl, the romantic build-up of “My Man” seems it would do better, mixing with Sinatra’s peculiar “way” of being in the back of a gay bar. Her early voice has the power to hold notes and go without breath for (seeming) minutes. Deviating from the playlist, my friend and I throw in the clip from Funny Girl where a tearful Streisand sings a song of devotion to the man who’s just broken her heart, pulling herself together to end the song—and the film—on a high note, and earning herself a permanent place in queer hearts, in the space that Judy Garland left behind. The seemingly anti-feminist message of the song takes on a different context when placed in the realm of queer triangles of relation, and the devotion that two men can have for each other. In Hello Dolly!, she reembarks into the world after the death of her husband, she makes this her coming out, a way to feel her heart coming alive, joining in the parade marching towards the future, rather than letting it pass her by.

If there is a modern gay pop aesthetic, one can see it forming in these songs on the jukebox. Under the beats, the messages that can be read into the songs demonstrate why they click in this bar. “No Matter What Sign You Are” suggests a love that triumphs over the universe itself, even if the nebulous forces threaten to crash everything. “The Young Folks” draw on the desire of protest and change; “You better make way” because things cannot be the same. The energies of these songs move towards a future desire, the love that is to come around the corner—I love you more today than yesterday, / but not as much as tomorrow. The music pushes towards the energy of love,  even as around the world, Vietnam continues to burn in the year after the My Lai (4) Massacre, Solanas shot Warhol, Martin Luther King is assassinated, and the specter called Nixon takes the Presidency.  The construction of the playlist of jukebox singles is in part a construction of queer identity. Under the rhythm, the beat of the oncoming disco explosion can be heard. The lyrics offer reassurance, the live performances offer a sense of life lived on a larger scale than most people could ever experience. I sometimes wonder if the theatrical bent so many of us queers seem to have has to do with the uneasy feeling that one is always playing a role—theatre offering a legitimate reason to reveal the act of role-playing itself. (When I dress myself, do I dress the part of a homosexual? Only when going to parties.)

White statues stand in Christopher Park today. In the aftermath of the first AIDS crisis, they serve as testimonials to the way the past still walks in the park if you sit and watch quietly. Blue plaques make clear that this is the sight of something important. The Stonewall Inn still operates, with a back room dedicated to the days of the riots, filled with memorabilia and collages to its history. It became a national landmark in 2015—the first dedicated to LGBTQ+ people—and in 2017 its status was “put under review” by the President—quite possibly a record for Government turnaround. The Stonewall Inn is proof that queer people have had something to contribute to changing the face of this country. That the memorial commemorates the progress made in part because of the combination of violent and nonviolent protest, it makes more sense that an agency of power, such as a government interested in making the queers disappear, would have an interest in forgetting it. This music provides a link to this riot and rebellion that would ignite the energy of generations of protest. This is the dance the offspring of Emma Goldman swayed in the sidewalks and narrow alleyways. This is where Edmund White walked as the City Boy he describes in his memoirs, heading towards the trucks that held dozens of bodies cruising in the night. This is the lane of red light neon becoming black streets walked on by all colors living out in the open one night a week, and those living on the street, wandering in to an apartment bedroom for a paid respite. This is where we gather together in a worship called love. This ground is sacred, and the music is our hymnal.

 

 

 

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