In 1969, homosexuality was illegal in every state except Illinois. Homosexuality was officially labeled a mental disorder and was sometimes treated with aversion therapy, shock treatments, and even lobotomies. Queer people could not be open about their sexual orientation in any profession for fear of being fired and blacklisted. Because homosexuality was viewed as a disease, it was also considered contagious. As a result, homosexuality was regarded not just as a distasteful practice but as a public menace, and public officials and private citizens took it upon themselves to root out the perceived problem and punish offending individuals.
Such was the climate on June 28, 1969, when the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular queer dive bar on Christopher Street in the West Village.
Police raids were common at gay bars, and as Stonewall veteran Yvonne Ritter observed in an interview for The American Experience, it was an accepted injustice. “I guess this was our sort of going to the back of the bus,” she said. But that night, the patrons fought back, surprising the police and setting off several days of protests.
Just the week before, however, a precursor to Stonewall occurred in Forest Hills.
From June 18-20, a group of local vigilantes took axes and chainsaws and cut down 30 trees in a small park to prevent its use as a gay cruising area. The park, located at 78th Avenue and the Grand Central Parkway, lost 30 trees and suffered about $15,000 in damage.
While most of the culprits stayed silent, one, Myles Tashman, spoke to The New York Times using his full name, without fear of punishment. He admitted that he and others had gotten together to shine flashlights in the faces of gay men in the park and force them out. “Admittedly, it was against the law,” he said. “But we had police consent.” As to whether this same group had cut down the trees? “You can use your own imagination,” he said.
Tashman and his fellow vigilantes acted with the tacit approval of the police. Two witnesses who called the police when they saw trees being cut down said the police were slow in arriving. One witness was told that the vigilantes “were doing a job which the police were not able to do to the satisfaction of the community.” The second witness observed the police chatting with the vigilantes and then leaving the park without arresting anyone or halting the destruction of the trees.
The incident divided concerned residents and city officials. A witness suggested that the park’s destruction was the result of an ongoing battle for the space, with gay men repeatedly being chased away but then returning : “Yeah, the vigs [vigilantes] would go out at night and pick on the fags until the fags couldn’t take it anymore.” The article noted that gay men came from as far away as Connecticut and Pennsylvania to meet in the park. While Tashman claimed that his group was acting to protect mothers and children in the neighborhood, one of those mothers expressed her disapproval, calling the vigilantism “a dangerous infringement of people’s rights.” Another called Tashman’s bluff, saying “They say they were protecting mothers and children? Nonsense. What mothers and children are out at 1 o’clock in the morning?” However, most witnesses and commentators were afraid to give their real names, and the police claimed that no one who lived in the adjacent apartment buildings was willing to provide information on record.
The Parks Department denounced the destruction of the park and the harassment of gay men and called for an investigation, but the investigation never materialized. The New York Times wrote its final article about the event in September 1969, and no one was ever arrested for cutting down the trees.
While city officials dragged their feet or found themselves obstructed in their investigations, gay activists responded promptly. The New York chapter of the Mattachine Society began raising money to replace the trees, and called a meeting to discuss other possible responses.
In the interim, however, the Stonewall riots occurred, which eclipsed the events in Queens and marked a major turning point in gay rights activism. The rioters at Stonewall were largely young and poor, and their type of activism was influenced by the more militant movements of the middle and late 1960's. A group of activists splintered off and founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which in turn spawned the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).
While the Stonewall Riots are often viewed as the starting point in gay history, the vandalism in Queens provides one window into gay life before the riots. It demonstrates how harassment of queer people was routine, expected, and often condoned by, if not led outright, by the police.
Yet it also shows how sentiments were changing. Not all residents approved of the vigilante group’s actions. Several decried the destruction of property and went farther to specifically mention the harassment as an unfair violation of gay men’s rights. Most importantly, the men being harassed stood up for themselves. That they returned to the park after being chased away and that they defended their right to be there is what prompted the destruction of the park in the first place.
The vandalism in Queens, the growing number of raids on gay bars, and the coalescing of a young, idealistic group of people shaped by other political movements of the 1960's all provided the fuel for Stonewall and led to the next chapter in the long struggle for queer rights.
Katie Uva is a PhD student in History at the CUNY Graduate Center and an Associate Editor of the Gotham blog. She also works as an educator at the Museum of the City of New York.
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