(Originally posted under the title One Night In America on 6/11/ 16)
If you were a snazzy dude or a stone-cold fox in Santa Rosa, CA, on 6/28/69, you were in luck. The Grateful damned Dead was in town and for the price of a ticket, or a boost up the venue’s drainpipe, you could kick the shit off your rock and roll shoes. You could get down, or get high, or get busy, or get real loose with it, or you could get into some real heavy shit. The cops would give you the stink-eye, and pick off the dumb and unlucky, but mostly it was a summer night in America and you could fall in love.
If you were gay in Manhattan and wanted a drink, you were fucked. I mean: you could purchase a beverage. You just couldn’t be gay while you drank it; it was illegal. And actually, the beverage itself probably was illegal, as the only bars that catered to homosexuals were owned by the mob. An establishment that tolerated homosexual behavior would get its liquor license pulled, and there were undercover cops scouring the city looking for enclaves of gays and lesbians who had the temerity to be thirsty and want to dance to the jukebox. A legitimate restaurateur needed his license, so even if he were sympathetic (or secretly gay himself), he wouldn’t permit gayness in his place.
Criminals, on the other hand, couldn’t give a shit about licenses, and they owned the gay bars. Every week, the local precinct’s bagman would swing by for his payment, and every month or so, a bunch of cops would swing by to arrest people: men for dancing with one another, or women for wearing “un-feminine” clothing. These bars were terrible and filthy places with stolen and watered-down liquor, and the worst bathrooms in Manhattan until CBGB’s opened. One place, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, didn’t have running water.
Veteran’s Auditorium in Santa Rosa had running water. The kids could dance, and wear whatever the hell they wanted.
The undercover cops I mentioned? They’d hit on guys, and arrest them for responding. The paper would print your name and address the next day, and lawyers wouldn’t take your case. And–and this is the important part right here–society was happy to see you get what you deserved, fairy. You weren’t a criminal. You were the crime.
A drink in a clean, well-lighted place. A dance floor, and dimes for the Wurlitzer. It isn’t too much to ask.
On June 28th, 1969–probably at exactly the same time the kids in Santa Rosa were doing exactly what they wanted to do–the cops raided the Stonewall, where the kids were not allowed to do what they wanted.
I called them kids.
The busts were usually peaceful, but not this night; the riot lasted three days and sparked the modern gay rights movement. People will only eat shit for so long, and there are stories of drag queens ripping up the sidewalks to throw chunks of paving stones at cops. I hope those stories are true, but there’s no tape. Not even an AUD.
’69 was a long time ago, but not that long, and society’s come far, but not far enough. The finish line keeps moving itself backwards, it seems.
Some people like to go to Dead shows, and some people like to go to gay bars; they’re the same thing: something to drink, and someplace to dance, and people who understand you. Maybe even want to kiss you. Somewhere you could let your light shine.
It isn’t too much to ask.