The Stonewall wasn't really a disco.
It had a jukebox, a good one, and two big long rooms where you could dance. Bars were open till four in the morning in New York; gay guys would come home from work, eat, and go to bed, then set the alarm for midnight and go out till four.
There were no internet sites, no telephone dating lines, no backrooms, and up till then no trucks or wharves open to sex. All the baths had been closed down—no, wait, maybe there was one sordid one but later it burned down and many people died in a horrible fire.
There was a lot of street cruising and a lot of bar cruising. We had to have cool pick-up lines. We were all amphetamine thin with long dirty hair and hip huggers and funny black boots that zipped up the side and denim cowboy shirts with pearlescent pressure-pop buttons. We didn't have big showboat muscles or lots of attitude. We didn't look very healthy, but we were healthy—this was 12 years before AIDS was first heard of, and all we got was the clap. We had that a lot, maybe once a month, since no one but paranoid married men used condoms. I dated my clap doctor, who spent most of his free time copying Van Gogh sunflowers.
I would go to the Stonewall and drink three or four vodka tonics to get up the nerve to ask John Stipanela, a high-school principal, to dance. I had a huge crush on him, but he wasn't interested in bedding me, though we did become friends. One night there I picked up an ultra-WASP boy working in his family business of import-export, but I found him a bit too passive—until I discovered he was the guy my officemate at work was obsessively in love with and had been mooning over for months. I felt bad about cock-blocking my officemate (or "bird-dogging" as we said then) and sort of impressed with myself that I'd scored where he (a much better-looking man) had failed.
The reason everyone got so pissed off over that particular police raid was that Mayor Robert Wagner had "cleaned up" the city and closed all the gay bars during the World's Fair of 1964. Once the fair was over, the cops seemed to forget about us and lots of new bars opened. Now we had a new, handsome mayor, John Lindsay. But he only looked better. In fact, he was in constant conflict with the unions, with antiwar protesters, with student radicals who took over Columbia—and with the gay community.
Before Stonewall, there hadn't really been much of a gay community, just guys cruising Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street. But when the police raided the Stonewall and gay men feared their bars were going to be closed once again, all hell broke loose. Though Stonewall was in the Village, most of the customers by 1969 were black and Puerto Rican, many of them tough drag queens.
I was there, just by chance, and I remember thinking it would be the first funny revolution. We were calling ourselves the Pink Panthers and doubling back behind the cops and coming out behind them kicking in a chorus line. We were shouting "Gay Is Good" in imitation of the slogan "Black Is Beautiful."
GLBT leaders like to criticize young gays for not taking the movement seriously, but don't listen to them. Just remember that at Stonewall we were defending our right to have fun, to meet each other, and to have sex.
Up till that moment, we had all thought that homosexuality was a medical term. Suddenly we saw that we could be a minority group—with rights, a culture, and an agenda. June 27, 1969, was a big date in gay history.
Edmund White is the author of some 20 books, including the recent Chaos and the forthcoming Hotel de Dream.