“I never thought that a woman throwing a brick 50 some years ago would change the world, but now I know it was a night I was lucky to have witnessed.”
My grandchildren lean in, excited to hear the story as my daughter smiles at me proudly. I smile back.
“I learned a lesson that day I don’t think I’ll ever forget.” I continue, turning back to the bright-eyed children, and the couple of teenagers who are kindly pretending to be interested. “I was a woman of 23 years, and my eldest daughter, who you all know as ‘mom’ or ‘auntie,’ was only 1 year old, on that fateful day in 1969. It being a Saturday, she was at home, with your grandfather, and I had decided to go out with a few friends for the evening.
“We were walking down the street when my best friend at the time, Susan, recommended we go see a show. We ended up deciding on Dames at Sea at the Theatre de Lys. I actually took you guys there last year, you might remember, though now it’s known as the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Since we had gone to watch it fairly late, and the show was nearly an hour long, we ended up leaving around midnight. My friends and I were not tired yet though, and so we decided to continue the adventure of the night. We wandered around, getting ice cream and laughing and talking until we had totally lost track of time. After some time we came to 53 Christopher Street, and that’s when it happened.
“We noticed a crowd and a large group of police officers. We stood back and watched from afar as they lined everyone up. We had no clue what was going on, we had never seen anything like it before. The police officers were being incredibly rough, and were pulling people out of this building. I remember thinking the way the people were dressed was a bit odd, I had never seen anything like it. They continued to be pulled out of the building, until a little over 200 people were lined up.”
“200?” My grandson asks. “All lined up?!”
I nod, happy to have gotten the 15 year old’s attention. “We found out later in the news that 230 people were in that building.”
He leans in, now excited and curious to hear the rest of the story.
“We watched in horror as these people submitted to the police’s cruelty. We had no clue what they had done to deserve such treatment.” I continue. “When the last people seemed to be lining up, a woman picked up a brick and threw it one of the police officers. Chaos broke out, the people fought back, some spitting on officers and others throwing punches. The cops were taken aback, not expecting this sort of insubordination, and were unable to keep the people under control. I ran towards the chaos, my friends screaming at me to stay back. I was too curious though, and did not heed their warnings.
“I grabbed the nearest person, a man, I think. I asked him what was going on, who were these people, and why are they being arrested. He answered me well, yelling over the commotion that the building they were being pulled out of was called the Stonewall Inn, a place for queers to gather. The police were raiding it and trying to arrest everyone inside, but they, for the first time, had decided to fight back.
“At first I was disgusted, having grown up believing that these people were different, unnatural even, but as I watched the police treat them like animals, rounding them up and yelling insults at them, a sort of empathy filled my heart. Of course they would fight back, they were being hurt. At the time I still did not agree with how they lived, but I didn’t think anyone deserved to be called such names and handled in such ways. As they fought the atrocities of the police, I felt some inescapable need to join them, to help in their liberation. I tried to fight, beginning to go towards a police officer, but a woman held me back. She had been in the building.
“She told me to stay back, that this was not my fight.
‘I want to help!’ I yelled desperately.
‘I know you do, but this is not the way.’ She explained, just barely loud enough for me to hear. ‘They’ll arrest you and then check to make sure you truly are a girl. Let us fight this one, you can help tomorrow.’
‘But how?!’ I cried.
‘Use your voice. Tell of the evil you’ve seen today. Protest with us, and protest for us, they might actually listen.’
“That woman was one of the wisest I ever met. I went back to my friends, chattering about how I seemed like a madwoman, and I told them what was happening. They were horrified, but not justly so. They were horrified at the existence of the people in the building, commenting on how they deserved what they were getting. Being weak, I silently nodded in agreement. I wanted my friends to like me, and chose that over speaking up for what’s right. I headed home, and broke down when I saw my husband.
“He asked why I was crying and I told him, and he was so understanding. We knew of the existence of the police raids but had no clue how cruel they were. Within the year he attended a few gay rights protests with me, but as time passed, so did the memory of that night, and the feeling that came with it. We stopped going to protests, stopped caring so heavily. Sure, we had grown to accept these people more than most at are time, and that did not go away, but we stopped lifting up their voices as we used to.
“With the passing time, my daughter grew up. She never had a boyfriend in high school but we didn’t see this as particularly odd. Then when she was twenty two, she came home for thanksgiving with a woman. She told us that she was her girlfriend, and they had been together for 8 months. We accepted her, but were worried for how she might be treated by the rest of the world.
“She went through an array of girlfriends throughout the years, but met her soulmate in the year 1996. Carson already had a child, of about 1 year, from her ex husband, but we were happy to welcome the both of them into the family. They married as soon as it was legal, which was a great deal of time later, but in the time leading up to that adopted two more children. All three of you sit here before me today.
“I don’t want to know how horrible of a mother I might have been if I did not witness the events of that night so long ago, but I can say that I am grateful for my family, all of you, and so happy to be spending this thanksgiving with all of you. Both that day and your mothers, or aunts, taught me to be kind to people, even if they are different, and I hope they have taught you the same.”
I look around the room at my four children, a daughter and three sons, and all of the grandchildren they have blessed me with. Pride and warmth fills my heart, as those beautiful grandchildren run off to play games and eat food. My eldest daughter-in-law takes hold of my hand, and speaks in a sweet, quiet voice.
“I always did love that story.”