American Experience “Stonewall Uprising”

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In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois and gays frequently found themselves being hauled off to jail, their names splashed in the next day’s newspaper. The vast majority of medical authorities at the time decreed homosexuality a mental disorder and often prescribed brutal treatments, including lobotomy. Even in Greenwich Village, where thousands of gay people moved to escape the constant oppression of their hometowns, patrons of gay bars were accustomed to frequent police harassment. But on June 28, 1969, the gay community experienced what one Village Voice reporter who was on the scene called its “Rosa Parks moment,” when the N.Y.P.D. raided a Mafia-run gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. For the first time ever, patrons refuse to be led into paddy wagons, setting off a violent three-day uprising that launched the gay rights movement. Based on David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s Stonewall Uprising will premiere on American Experience on Monday, April 25, 2011 at 9 p.m. on Eight, Arizona PBS.

Told through interviews with Stonewall patrons, reporters and the policeman who led the raid,  Stonewall Uprising  recalls the fervently hostile climate that gays were forced to live in, when public service announcements warned youngsters against predatory homosexuals, respected news outlets reported on the “homosexual problem,” and police entrapment was rampant. Being arrested could cost one their livelihood since licenses to teach, practice law or medicine or even cosmetology, were frequently denied or revoked.

But 1969’s so-called “Summer of Love” would be a time of radical change across America including within the gay community. At the height of that summer’s social turmoil, the cops once again raided Stonewall, but this time the patrons did not leave quietly. Fighting back, they triggered three nights of pandemonium, beating back a small army of tactical police armed with tear gas and billy clubs. Once the dust settled, the world realized a movement had been born. Exactly one year later, America saw its first Gay Pride Parade as thousands marched up Sixth Avenue. Says a man who was part of that historic day, “It’s very American to say ‘this is not right.’ It’s very American to say, ‘you promised equality, you promised freedom.’ And, in a sense, the Stonewall riots said, ‘deliver on the promise.’ So, in every gay pride parade every year, Stonewall lives.”

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