How I Survived Stonewall
Or “How I raised hell and my consciousness that night in 1969.”
By Michael Safdiah

It was 1969. I was in my twenties, gay, ignorant, insecure and very lonely. I moved into the West Village—a lifelong wish—trying to make sense out of life. I was terribly isolated as a gay man, hungry for the company of others like myself. The bars were an important part of my social life; in fact, all of it. I was accepted there. It wasn’t easy to be gay the same way it is today. I grew up feeling different, an outsider, and I bore the scars.

It was just another warm June evening. The West Village was starting to fill up with Friday night celebrants. A tranny called Rollerina glided around on roller skates. She wore an antique faded beige party dress, making graceful backward circles. Her poker face and gray wig, pulled back into a bun, gave her the appearance of a thin specter from a southern gothic novel. She waved her magic wand, blessing the passers by. There was a glittered star at its tip: Dorothy’s Good Witch.

Outside my safe cocoon, there was a war in Vietnam, and a president we didn’t like. Sown by old leftists like Pete Seeger and by the dwindling hippie culture, the seeds of rebellion against authority were already germinating.

Gay bars were always hated, persecuted. Bars were routinely raided by police, patrons arrested, and beatings by police were common. The names of men arrested for “questioning” were printed in newspapers, and those who had their names printed lost their jobs with no recourse.

And the mood in the village had recently been dampened by these raids and arrests. The mob was supposedly involved with the bar scene, and cops were rumored to be shaking down the bars. I had just left Julius, my favorite hangout, and arrived at the crowded Stonewall, half a block away. Stonewall was considered a “protected” bar; the signs were evident: the typical goon at the door, we could buy liquor, fake ID was easy to pass, and we could dance and feel safe. To get in, you had to sign your name (fake, of course), and pay five bucks for your drink. I was on a zero budget, which is why I was in the bathroom refilling my bottle with water. I waved to Steve, the friendly bartender who knew all our names, hiding my bottle so he couldn’t see I had filled it with water.

There was music and dancing in the rear of the bar, away from the door so you could stop if intruders came. Too shy to ask anyone, I was hoping someone would walk over to me. I had no idea how to start a conversation; only my loneliness rooted me in that overheated room was filled with cigarette smoke

I hardly noticed exactly when it happened, but I became aware of a silence where there should have been noise. There were cops in the room, and a few plain-clothes, but you had to be blind to miss them. The bouncer was missing from the doorway. The rest happened so fast.


Well, Mary, there it was. They were demanding ID from the ladies and shoving them toward the door. Parked outside was the Black Maria, the infamous paddy wagon.


I shrank back against the wall. Through the open doors, I saw them roughly pushing a few of the girls into the wagon. Ten more things all happened at once and all hell broke loose. Someone started yelling; another screamed and dropped to the floor.


She started to throw bottles; someone threw a woman’s high heel shoe. It hit the cop who was behind the bar emptying the cash register, “gathering evidence.” The pump thrower managed to get behind the bar, and began to throw glasses, and then bottles. She was wearing a bright green dress. The bar mirror exploded into pieces. The evidence gatherer fled. The resistance had spread like fire in dry grass to the paddy wagon, where one captive was struggling with a cop who gave up and let go when he heard the ruckus inside. The music continued loudly as ever. I have no idea how I made it out of there; time blurs details.

I stood there in frozen time while the patrons barricaded the police inside with a parking meter, God knows how. Tactical police reinforcements arrived in riot gear, sirens blaring. The cops by then had regrouped themselves inside the bar. Dressed like alien space soldiers, the tacticals charged the crowd, which fled back over to tiny Gay Street and Waverly Place, only to regroup around the bar again, taunting the police.

I flowed with the pack to Gay Street, throwing anything I could find. The cops charged into Gay Street. I ducked down into a shallow stairway, hiding there ‘til they were gone. Ten of us managed to squeeze into each of those narrow basement apartment entrances. In that tight space, we bonded without a word. The police only saw an empty street, and when they left, we emerged laughing, and renewed our assault on the barricaded cops and the bar. Giddy laughter, “This is amazing; are you okay?” “Are you sticking around?” “What are we doing?”

The exact words faded after all those years, but it was like that. We knew this: no one had planned it, we had no leaders, and this was our chance to let them know how we felt. No one needed to remind us how abused and humiliated we had been, not only by the police, but also by society.

I can’t remember being afraid at any time; there was too much excitement for me to even think of my safety. My rage welled up, driving me; these bastards were attacking the only place I had that I could call mine. My anger at years of being forced to hide who I was just erupted. I was acting out of passion, not reason.

Later, there would be pamphlets and flyers from Matachine and hasty papers would publish the events of this night to the world. The Oscar Wilde bookstore would become the center of a movement. Eventually parades with floats featuring outrageous drag queens escorted by half-naked caramel men in gold bikinis would march down Fifth Avenue. Later, annual parades worldwide.

The police were bewildered by our resistance; they never expected that we’d stand up and fight back. To me they were the Keystone Kops, and just as funny. I needed to reduce those horrific bastards to comic proportions, but seriously, there were real guns drawn. I might have been killed. Today there’d be dead queers on the street, and they’d be saying we brought it on ourselves for being disruptive, a hazard etc. I stayed out all that night with the crowd on the streets; it was impossible to leave.

We stopped being strangers, and were sharing: “Oh my God what have we done?” “Wasn’t that fun?” “Fuck ‘em; they deserved it.” “It’s high time.” And a sobering thought: “What will they do to us next?” The rest of the night was a spectator event, a social gathering. Rollerina was skating in and out of the crowd, blessing and shouting encouragement. The crowd started to break up sometime around sunrise the next day, but more were arriving. I wasn’t tired, but there wasn’t more to see that I hadn’t already. The streets were buried in litter, broken glass, cans and paper. Half a block away, Seventh Avenue was still tied up. Horns honking, it was mayhem.

Then the word got out; Judy Garland had just died of an overdose. The brush fire got worse, as if Stonewall weren’t enough. The next few days it seemed all the gays in New York were converging in the village. Now our mood was anger mixed with grief. We’d had time to reflect; rebellion was feeding on its own momentum. The raid on that bar became the shot heard around the gay world. The media had a field day mocking it. Posters and activist flyers were everywhere; I started a scrapbook.

That night sparked my becoming an activist. As the years passed, and AIDS was largely ignored by two presidents, the importance of Stonewall grew larger in me. That night taught me that fighting back is the only way to survive.

The news photos made us look like gay kids rioting, but we were angry young Americans defending our rights. That instant in time highlighted so many wrongs and so many hurts we had endured. We had no choice but to act as we did. I’m proud, not only of being gay, which is who I am, but also for my standing up against the injustices of a backward society which strives for some stupid biblical ideal it can never attain for itself.

I was a confused, half-scared, half-thrilled spectator, watching a magnificent force of nature. We had been pushed beyond our ability to swallow any more hatred; we acted with our hearts. I never realized I was watching history being made. Does anyone ever? The city won’t ever forget that night. I’m grateful I was there.