Surviving members of 1969 Rebellion share their stories
By: Lauren Walleser/TRT Reporter—
The STONEWALL Veterans’ Association (S.V.A.) will mark its 44th anniversary this year as a group that unites the surviving members of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, which took place at the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and is credited with launching the modern day gay rights movement.
Williamson Henderson, S.V.A. Director and Founder, was 16 years old when he was arrested as part of the Stonewall Rebellion in the early hours of June 28, 1969. He said he believed the history of the movement is getting out now more than ever, giving some credit for this to President Obama’s mention of Stonewall during his Inaugural speech in January.
“When he stated from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, he’s talking about us,” said Henderson. “Some people who are not too bright thought he was talking about the Stonewall club, and we have to tell them no, the club didn’t create the rebellion any more than the piano wrote the concerto. This all stems from Stonewall the people, the rebellion.” [pullquote]Bermudez said that the police particularly targeted feminine men who wore makeup, along with drag queens, drag kings and transgender people.[/pullquote]
The S.V.A. performs many different services, including providing speakers to high schools, colleges, churches, clubs, companies, civic groups and symposiums; protecting and maintaining the Stonewall archives and photo collections; accommodating Stonewall vets with physical disabilities, mental health issues and those who are aging; owning, garaging and insuring the famous blue 1969 Cadillac “Stonewall Car;” and leading the annual New York City Gay Pride Parade.
David Velasco Bermudez, a Stonewall Veteran, said there were about 200 people in the bar the night of the Stonewall Rebellion. There are now less than 20 still living.
A Puerto Rican American, Bermudez said he would hang out in the back of the club with his friends and was stunned when the bar was raided around 1:30 a.m. Many people were mourning the death of actor and gay icon Judy Garland. The bar was owned and operated by the mafia at the time, and the reason given for the raid was that the bar did not have a license to sell liquor or cigarettes.
“There were a lot of kids in there that never had IDs, so if they were caught, and if a drag queen was caught in there, they would arrest them immediately,” Bermudez said. “A lot of kids I knew, their parents threw them out. They lost their apartments. They lost their jobs. It was really bad.”
Bermudez said that the police particularly targeted feminine men who wore makeup, along with drag queens, drag kings and transgender people. At the time, people who were arrested had their names, addresses and telephone numbers published in newspapers the next day.
“I was shoved by police out the front door and hurdled into a waiting paddy wagon with others and eventually taken to jail and booked in,” said Erica Kay-Webster, a Stonewall Veteran who resisted arrest by the police that night. “After a hearing the following morning I was released. I have never returned to Stonewall since. I had already transitioned with SRS [sexual reassignment surgery] and had a great job. I was petrified I would loose my job and end up homeless on the streets of New York again. I went into deep stealth for a great many years simply out of fear.” [pullquote]“I was shoved by police out the front door and hurdled into a waiting paddy wagon with others and eventually taken to jail and booked in,” said Erica Kay Webster, a Stonewall Veteran who resisted arrest by the police that night.[/pullquote]
Kay-Webster will return to Stonewall this year for the first time since the Rebellion.
Peter Fiske, another Stonewall Veteran now living on the West Coast, said he considers himself a veteran of the bar and would have been there that night if he had not left for California the week before.
“Stonewall was our home, our safe place for the gentle group of outcasts and misfits who made up it customers,” said Fiske. “When the cops came to close it and take away our home, of course we fought back.”
Reflecting on how the LGBTQ movement has evolved since the Rebellion, Henderson said it has been a long, incremental process but that he is not surprised by the recent victories for same-sex marriage.
“We wanted it back in 1969,” said Henderson. “That’s why you had songs, like by The 5th Dimension, ‘Wedding Bell Blues.’ We sure had that. Even at that age we were well aware that we couldn’t marry the person we loved.”
Kay-Webster also said she celebrates the progress within the community and noted that there are still many issues that need to be addressed.
“I believe that we have come so far now that we should begin to focus our energies on an Equal Human Rights Act in Washington, DC,” Kay-Webster said.
According to Henderson, the S.V.A—which will hold its annual reunion this June in New York— has never cancelled its monthly meeting in 44 years of existence.
For more information on the S.V.A., visit www.STONEWALLvets.org.