Edmund White: Letter to Ann and Alfred Corn, July 8, 1969
"we're part of a vast rebellion of all the repressed"
Edmund White is the author of A Boy's Own Story (1982) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), among other books and essays. He wrote the following letter just a few days after the Stonewall resistance in 1969. The letter is addressed to his friends, poet Alfred Corn and his wife Ann.
Dear Ann and Alfred,
Well, the big news here is Gay Power. It's the most extraordinary thing. It all began two weeks ago on a Friday night. The cops raided the <SW>, that mighty Bastille which you know has remained impregnable for three years, so brazen and so conspicuous that one could only surmise that the Mafia was paying off the pigs handsomely. Apparently, however, a new public offcial, Sergeant Smith, has taken over the Village, and he's a peculiarly diligent lawman. In any event, a mammorth paddy wagon, as big as a school bus, pulled up to the Wall and about ten cops raided the joint. The kids were all shooed into the street; soon other gay kids and straight spectators swelled the ranks to, I'd say, about a thousand people. Christopher Street was completely blocked off and the crowds swarmed from the Voice office down to the Civil War hospital.
As the Mafia owners were dragged out one by one and shoved into the wagon, the crowd would let out Bronx cheers and jeers and clapping. Someone shouted "Gay Power," others took up the cry--and then it dissolved into giggles. A few more gay prisoners--bartenders, hatcheck boys--a few more cheers, someone starts singing "We Shall Overcome"--and then they started camping on it. A drag queen is shoved into the wagon; she hits the cop over the head with her purse. The cop clubs her. Angry stirring in the crow. The cops, used to the cringing and disorganization of the gay crowds, snort off. But the crowd doesn't disperse. Everyone is restless, angry and high-spirited. No one has a slogan, no one even has an attitude, but something's brewing.
Some adorable butch hustler boy pulls up a parking meter, mind you, out of the pavement, and uses it as a battering ram (a few cops are still inside the Wall, locked in). The boys begin to pound at the heavy wooden double doors and windows; glass shatters all over the street. Cries of "Liberate the Bar." Bottles (from hostile straights?) rain down from the apartment windows. Cries of "We're the Pink Panthers." A mad Negro queen whirls like a dervish with a twisted piece of metal in her hand and breaks the remaining windows. The door begins to give. The cop turns a hose on the crowd (they're still within the Wall). But they can't aim it properly, and the crowd sticks. Finally the door is broken down and the kids, as though working to a prior plan, systematically dump refuse from the waste cans into the Wall, squirting it with lighter fluid, and ignite it. Huge flashes of flame and billows of smoke.
Now the cops in the paddy wagon return, and two fire engines pull up. Clubs fly. The crowd retreats.
Saturday night, the pink panthers are back full force. The cops form a flying wedge at the Greenwich Avenue end of Christopher and drive the kids down towards Sheridan Square. The panthers, however, run down Waverly, up Gay Street, and come out behind the cops, kicking in a chorus line, taunting, screaming. Dreary middle-class East Side queens stand around disapproving but fascinated, unable to go home, as though torn between their class loyalties, their desire to be respectable, and their longing for freedom. Sheridan Square is cordoned off by the cops. The United Cigar store closes, Riker's closes, the deli closes. No one can pass through the square; to walk up Seventh Avenue, you must detour all the way to Bleeker.
A mad left-wing group of straight kids called the Crazies is trying to organize gay kids, point out that Lindsay is to blame (the Crazies want us to vote for Procaccino, or "Prosciutto," as we call him). A Crazy girl launches into a tirade against Governor Rockefeller, "Whose Empire," she cries, "Must Be Destroyed." Straight Negro boys put their arms around me and say we're comrades (it's okay with me--in fact, great, the first camaraderie I've felt with blacks in years). Mattachine (our NAACP) hands out leaflets about "what to do if arrested." Some man from the Oscar Wilde bookstore hands out a leaflet describing to newcomers what's going on. I give a stump speech about the need to radicalize, how we must recognize we're part of a vast rebellion of all the repressed. Some jeers, some cheers. Charles Burch plans to make a plastique to hurl at cops.
Sunday night, the Stonewall, now reopened--though one room is charred and blasted, all lights are smashed, and only a few dim bulbs are burning, no bad liquor being sold--the management posts an announcement: "We appreciate all of you and your efforts to help, but the Stonewall believes in peace. Please end the riots. We believe in peace." Some kids, nonetheless, try to turn over a cop car. Twelve are arrested. Some straight toughs rough up some queens. The queens beat them up. Sheridan Square is again blocked off by the pigs. That same night a group of about seventy-five vigilantes in Queens chops down a wooded part of a park as vengeance against the perverts who are cruising in bushes. "They're endangering our women and children." The Times, which has scarcely mentioned the Sheridan Square riots (a half column, very tame) is now so aroused by the conservation issue that it blasts the "vigs" for their malice toward nature.
Wednesday. The Voice runs two front-page stories on the riots, both snide, both devoted primarily to assuring readers that the authors are straight.
This last weekend, nothing much happened because it was the Fourth of July and everyone was away. Charles Burch has decided it's all a drag. When he hears that gay kids are picketing Independence Hall in Philly because they're being denied their constitutional rights, he says: "But of course, the Founding Fathers didn't intend to protect perverts and criminals. "Who knows what will happen this weekend, or this week? I'll keep you posted.
Otherwise, nothing much. I've been going out with a mad boy who tried to kill me last Friday. He's very cute, and I'm sure it'd be a kick, but I think I'll take a rain check on the death scene.
Finished the first act of my play and outlined the second. My sister has a new boyfriend who's got $30 million, two doctorates, working on a third. She met him in the bughouse (shows the advantages of sending your daughter to the best bughouse in town). I'm going out to Chicago in two weeks to help her move.
I miss you both frightfully. No more fun dinners, no endless telephone conversations, no sharing of exquisite sensations, gad, it's awful.
Published in in David Bergman, ed., The Violet Quill Reader and Lisa Grunwald, Stephen J. Adler, eds. Letters of the Century: America, 1900-1999. Reprinted with the permission of Edmund White. Copyright (c) 2009 by Edmund White. All rights reserved.