The Stonewall Inn Riots
After Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band was produced in 1968 and gained a following, gay drama came out of the closet in which it had endured for decades. This was the first openly gay play to be staged in New York the year after the state of New York relaxed its ban on presenting homosexuality onstage. The second event that paved the way for gay drama through the remainder of the twentieth century, the Stonewall Inn riots, followed close on the heels of the production of The Boys in the Band.
The gay liberation movement in the United States sprang to life in 1969. On June 27 of that year, a tactical force of the New York City Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay gathering place in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Such raids, which had been a form of perpetual police harassment of gays, were frequent in New York and other large cities. They usually resulted in the arrests of a few people, causing them embarrassment and inconvenience, even though the charges against them frequently were dismissed. Records of these arrests, however, generally remained in police files and could be a source of concern for years to come among those who had been arrested.
June 27 was different from most Friday nights at the Stonewall Inn. The gay community was in mourning over the death of one of its icons, Judy Garland, five days earlier. Civil disobedience was in the air and had hung heavily over the country for some time as racial tensions, discontent over the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War, and concern over the unequal treatment of minorities led to widespread protests. The boiling point was being approached in many areas in which social discontent was seething not far below the surface. On that Friday night, large numbers of homosexual men whom the police tried to herd into their vans resisted strenuously; rioting ensued.
In the first twenty-five years of the 1900’s, Britain and the United States were shaking loose from the moral strictures that had pervaded and inhibited public life during the long reign of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, who was monarch from 1837 until her death in 1901. In the United States, an increasing bohemianism was sweeping avant-garde artistic circles. In New York, this bohemianism was centered in Greenwich Village and in Harlem, where the Harlem Renaissance was taking shape.
A tolerance for sexual freedom began to replace the Victorian restraints that had contributed to the downfall of Oscar Wilde toward the end of Victoria’s reign. The Bloomsbury Group , which flourished in London, was peppered with male homosexuals and lesbians, among them some of the most gifted writers, artists, and intellectuals of that period.
The plays of Noël Coward, particularly The Vortex (pr. 1924) and Design for Living (pr. 1933)—while they did not deal explicitly with homosexuality—skated close to the edge in implying the subject in ways that homosexuals in Coward’s audiences could scarcely miss. Among straight people, his naughtiness passed as “high camp” rather than out-and-out homosexuality. Throughout Coward’s career, his plays were peppered with homosexual lyrics, such as “Mad About the Boy” in Words and Music (pr. 1932) and “Matelot” in the revue Sigh No More (pr. 1945). British playwrights such as Coward always had to contend with the British censors. Anything sexual had to be presented with sufficient subtlety to get it past the censors and make production on London’s West End possible.
Oscar Wilde managed to evade the censors in The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895) when he invented the hypochondriacal Bunbury, whom Algernon had constantly to visit in the country. The word “bun” refers in British slang to a woman’s sexual organ, but “bum,” which is very close to it, refers to the buttocks. The censors apparently overlooked the sexual implications of Algernon’s “Bunburying,” which has since been interpreted in both...
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