Fifty years ago today, members of the LGBT community gathered at a bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan.
In the early morning hours, as they had many times before that, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, arresting and roughing up the customers — transgender women, homeless gay youth, drag queens and others seeking refuge within their community from anti-gay laws.
But this time when the police attacked, the customers fought back, leading to six days of rioting.
It’s been called the Stonewall Riots or the Stonewall Uprising, and it gave fuel to the burgeoning gay rights movement in America.
Several members of the Lancaster County LGBT community recently spoke about what life was like for them before the gay civil rights movement, and the impact Stonewall has had on their lives and those of other LGBT people.
When Stonewall happened, the Rev. Mary Merriman was a sergeant and dental assistant in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Andrews Air Force Base.
She says there were a couple of paragraphs about the raid and riots in The Advocate, a new LGBT newsletter — now a national magazine.
“I didn’t understand what homosexuality was, or what that meant, when I went in the military,” says Merriman, who recently retired from her visitation ministry with Grandview United Methodist Church in Lancaster. “While in the military, I began to meet other lesbians.
“Out of Stonewall came the Pride events,” Merriman says. “The community started really responding to that call to stand up and not take any more abuse.
“When I was in the military, we would go to a bar called Joanna’s on Eighth Street (in Washington, D.C.) ... and everyone was trained to watch the shoes of people coming into the bar,” she recalls. “If they saw shoes that looked like part of a military uniform, all the LGBT people would go out the back door to get away, because we were about to be identified and our lives changed forever.”
Merriman says she herself was the subject of investigations into her private life “numerous times” before she was honorably discharged from the military after three years.
David Walker, who grew up in Lancaster County and now lives in Hummelstown, was a radio broadcaster living in New Hampshire when Stonewall happened.
Growing up gay in Lancaster County “was very quiet,” Walker says. “I never came out; I was never ‘in.’ I was the weird kid in theater club.”
Right after he graduated from Lebanon Valley College in 1968, Walker got his draft notice.
“When I went for the draft physical, on the questionnaire was, ‘Do you have homosexual tendencies?’ I said, ‘I do,’ ” Walker says. “And that resulted in a very long interview. Shortly after that, I got a 4F card ... absolutely no admittance into the armed services.
“I had to tell my father, who was very pro-Army, why, and that didn’t go well,” Walker says. “Actually, for the rest of his life, it didn’t go well.”
But, he adds, “being myself out loud — I found that very good.”
He worked at WITF, in radio and television, for many years, and was “blown away” by the fact that the station covered people’s domestic partners under their health insurance.
Walker’s longtime partner died three years ago.
After Stonewall happened, Walker says, “I think there became a freedom with sexuality that had not existed before.”
Mark Stoner, 59, who is a design technologist at the Godfrey marketing firm in Lancaster, was 9 when Stonewall happened.
“I started hearing about Stonewall when I started coming out in college (Penn State, in the late 1970s),” Stoner says. “The gay organization on campus was called Homophiles of Penn State (HOPS). I would volunteer for things they were doing, and they acted as a social and support group. And we had a phone line.
“I think (Stonewall) has affected every LGBT person’s life,” Stoner says. “The amount of change that’s happened since then is phenomenal.
“There’s a huge difference between my generation and the one 10 years older,” Stoner says. “They grew up in a time when there were almost no voices other than those saying you were sick or immoral. At least when I started dealing with it, there were voices saying that wasn’t true.”
Barry Loveland, of Harrisburg, chair of the LGBT Center of Central PA’s History Project, was 12 at the time of Stonewall.
“It wouldn’t be until years later when I came out and started learning more about what was going on in the community,” Loveland says. “I was probably around 21 or 22 when I understood its impact.
“I think (Stonewall) gave me a sense of wanting to be an activist,” Loveland says. “When I did come out, I helped start the first gay group at my college (in New York state).”
Through the History Project he directs, oral histories of members of the central Pennsylvania LGBT community, including those in Lancaster, have been recorded.
Protection of theater
Victor Capecce, associate professor of communications and theater at Millersville University, was 19 and a camp counselor in the Poconos at the time of Stonewall.
“I visited home that weekend in Easton,” Capecce recalls. “My mom hid the newspaper from me — not for Stonewall, but for the front page, above the fold (that said) ‘Judy Garland Dead.’ ”
A huge Garland fan, Capecce was devastated at her death a few days before Stonewall.
“I was not really aware of (Stonewall) for many years,” Capecce says. “First of all, I went to a theater department (at Yale University School of Drama) and all my classmates were gay.” Because of that, he says, they felt somewhat protected from anti-gay violence elsewhere.
He became more aware of what happened at Stonewall after moving to New York in 1976.
“I think Stonewall became actually more significant through the years,” Capecce says.
“It puts an identify, a centerpiece and focus to a common goal,” Capecce says. “We’re an incredibly diverse group” in the LGBT community. “We had a whole range of men and women, of all shapes, sizes and flavors, but all gathered.”
Joanne Carroll, of Lancaster,, wants people to remember the courage of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women of color who were among the unsung heroes of the Stonewall Uprising. They were two of the first to rise up against the police.
“The Stonewall Riots occurred because of trans people,” Carroll says. “They were referred to as drag queens, but it was those individuals who were targeted (at Stonewall). ... That started the gay pride movement."
Carroll, of Lancaster, was born male, and lived that way for 60 years before she transitioned to her life as a woman.
She is the executive director of Trans Advocacy Pennsylvania and a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.
In 1968, “I was just back from Southeast Asia (while serving with the U.S. Air Force) ... and I was so in denial about my own authenticity,” Carroll says, “I probably didn’t know about Stonewall.
“It had a greater impact on me when I came to grips with being more authentic,” she says, “as I started the transitioning process back in 1997 ... and got in greater contact with the LGBT community.
“Obviously it has given all of us in the LGBTQ+ community greater visibility,” Carroll adds.
‘Long way to go’
Lancaster musician Bobbi Carmitchell, 61, of Pequea, was 12 when Stonewall happened.
It would be 10 years and at a distance of a couple of states, before she would understand its impact — or define herself as a lesbian.
“As a kid growing up (in Willow Street), I didn’t feel different, because I didn’t have anything to compare my difference to,” she says. “I was fine working on a dairy farm and having crushes on the cheerleaders in school.”
After she started wearing jeans and flannel shirts to high school, Carmitchell recalls, a guidance counselor called her into his office.
“My guidance counselor didn’t like the fact” we were wearing pants and flannel shirts. Perhaps, she says, it was “to squelch what that represented.”
“He pulls a pocketbook out of his desk and slides it across the table, and says, ‘this is what girls are supposed to be carrying. This is going to help you blend in. Don’t you think you’d be happier if you did?’ ”
She later found out that her parents, who she says were always supportive of her being a lesbian, knew nothing about the encounter.
“In a rural area we live in, it’s no wonder young gays and lesbians flee and flock to big cities, because there’s safety in numbers,” she says.
She was able to realize that she was a lesbian — to put a name to her identity — while living in Virginia in 1980, attending Stonewall anniversary parties, being around other LGBT people, and then starting to sing in a group with two other women.
“I grew up here, this is my hometown, and I love my hometown,” Carmitchell says, “but I travel across the country and I can be much more out playing other places in the country and the world.”
“What Stonewall was about was resilience,” Merriman says, “because LGBT people have been in captivity for millennia.”
“It certainly sparked a lot of energy and activism,” Loveland says. “Even though Stonewall was ground zero for that, I think that sentiment spread pretty quickly through those who were inclined toward activism.
“It really did fuel a sense of wanting to work toward getting equality and civil rights for LGBT people,” he adds.
Stonewall and its aftermath have made things better for LGBT people, Carmitchell says, “but we still have a long way to go.
“How long do we have to keep carrying this banner (for gay rights)?” she asks. “Well, I’ll never put down my banner.”