By Terri Schlichenmeyer, October 2015 Issue.

Your favorite hangout isn’t all that fancy.

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/AnnBausum.

It’s comfortable, though: you’ve got places to sit and your friends are always around. Best of all, nobody says you can’t be there – everybody’s welcome all the time. It wasn’t always that way, though, as you’ll see in Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum (pictured).

There was a full moon that night, and it was hot. Not hot like you’d describe a person but “beastly hot,” weather-wise, and it was even hotter inside New York’s Stonewall Inn.

For years, it’d been illegal in many cities to dance with someone of the same sex. With a few rare exceptions, being gay could get you fired from work, rejected by family and generally ostracized. If you were a man wearing women’s clothing, you could be arrested immediately. But the Stonewall Inn allowed dancing, drinking, cross-dressing, and the police looked the other way because, as Bausum explains, the Mafia had ties to the Stonewall Inn and bribes kept things running.

By June 1969, this covert freedom started causing problems: “closeted homosexuals” involved in an international bond scandal were spotted at the Stonewall Inn by “organized crime operatives” with blackmail on their minds. The New York Police Department was ordered to close down the Stonewall Inn. In the wee hours of June 28, they raided the packed bar. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

As partiers and staff were arrested, a crowd began to form to taunt police – and it grew as people ran to pay phones to call friends. Some of those arrested were freed; others were roughly handled. Bausum says that one of the latter, a lesbian, asked the crowd if they were going to do anything about it – and they did.

At first, pocket change rained down on the police, then pebbles, stones, bottles and, eventually, burning containers. Some of the officers took refuge inside the bar, awaiting backup that didn’t arrive for nearly an hour as 2,000 people raged in the streets. Riot crews eventually showed up, and were mocked.

Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum. Viking, 2015 | $16.99.

The unrest, Bausum recounts, lasted several nights. What lasted longer was that lesbians, gay men, transgender community members, drag queens and crossdressers suddenly knew that they weren’t alone.

Although it can become somewhat florid for the sake of drama, Stonewall is a nicely surprising book filled with history that few younger people may know.

The surprise comes in what author Ann Bausum shares, which seems tame by today’s news, perhaps even quaint: nobody was seriously hurt, and the single death was accidental and barely related. That almost made me afraid readers might forget that the riot marked the coalescence of activism for gay rights (better known as LGBT rights today), but Bausum anecdotally reminds us repeatedly of Stonewall’s significance.

Final chapters bring the battle for LGBT rights up to the present, touching on the AIDS epidemic, pride parades and the fight for marriage equality.

This historical account is meant for teen readers ages 12 and up, but it might be a challenge for those on the younger end. It certainly can be enjoyed by adults unfamiliar with the details of this event.

 

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