ST. PETERSBURG — He’d fussed over the words, printed them out in big capital letters, practiced saying his story aloud. Now, on the first hot morning of June, Jay Chetney took his place at the corner of City Hall and dabbed his gleaming forehead with a handkerchief.
Soon the mayor would read the city’s Pride Month proclamation, and Chetney would help clip the rainbow flag into place. He’d clap as those six stripes unfurled in the breeze — a benign moment of civic fanfare that, 50 years ago, was unimaginable.
It had taken him weeks to sift through the jumble of memories and arrange them into this stack of pages. Nobody had really asked him about Stonewall until the city’s LGBTQ liaison asked around for people who had been there, and someone suggested Chetney. Until now.
The retired nurse bowed his head of white hair and listened to the applause and yipping dogs as Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that this year, the flag would fly all June, marking the 17th year of the city’s Pride parade.
“Speaking of anniversaries,” Kriseman said, “it is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. ... And Jay Chetney, an advocate for LGBTQ rights, was there.”
Chetney looked surprised, as if he still couldn’t believe the honor. He shook the mayor’s hand and reminded himself to go slow.
• • •
Almost immediately, the story of what happened at the Stonewall Inn spread and swelled, spilling beyond the borders of truth, into the territory of myth.
Who threw the first brick?
So many of the rebels are no longer alive to tell the story, now that people want to hear it.
That moment, when the fragmented gay rights movement became formidable, has become something like Woodstock: The number of nostalgic attendees far outweighs actual capacity.
We know that in the early hours of June 28, 1969, fed-up patrons of New York’s Stonewall Inn fought back against a police raid. What was a frustrating but commonplace event turned violent as a churning crowd of rebels shouted and threw anything they could.
Much of the story — down to the who, what, why and how — has been hotly debated since.
We’re left to sort through tall tales, derisive news clips and muddled rememberings. Many firsthand accounts were snuffed out by the AIDS epidemic or otherwise lost to time. Queer history went long undocumented. We look for meaning in photos out of context.
Chetney’s story, too, is difficult to corroborate. He knows this. Most of his compatriots are long gone. He sees his face in an iconic photo of the first night’s uprising — an event he didn’t witness, and which a historian says can’t be him. His name doesn’t surface in news clippings. He keeps few photos.
But then again, when living as a criminal, on a commune, who would document his participation? As an anonymous marcher for gay rights, never a leader, who would write down his name?
He tells his story with generous historical detail. He keeps sheaths of his old antiwar and gay rights pamphlets, and his yellow GAY LIBERATION FRONT card. There’s a scar on his knee, he says, from the night he was there.
Does it matter that a single, definitive story of the uprising still evades us?
What do we do with the stories we have, messy and essential as they are?
• • •
Here’s how Chetney tells the Before.
Everybody in upstate New York knew he was gay before he did.
He kept to himself, a skier, tennis player and paperboy. Before school he served at 6:45 a.m. Mass, with the notion that he’d become a priest.
His dad didn’t like how much he read, so he sent him to camp to toughen him up.
Other boys called him a fairy. In high school, he went to a library — not his local one — to look up what a homosexual was.
To be gay was to be criminal under the law. It was to be condemned as deviant, perverted, a menace to all things decent. When police cracked down on these outcasts, nobody blinked. Homosexuality was a diagnosable mental illness.
Any gayness Chetney saw in the world was distant, a quirk of famous men like Truman Capote and Liberace.
By college, he thought of his sexuality of fluid, even as he feared that letting his knee brush another man’s in the library made him an outcast. He learned to change the pronouns when he talked about who he was seeing on weekends. He came to know police raids, saw cops brandish their batons.
After college he worked on Wall Street, but his vegetarian potter friend Edna showed him the way of consciousness-raising and transcendental meditation and antiwar activism.
He moved to a muddy commune on a farm in the mountains, then to another in Connecticut, home to the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action.
He learned how to go limp in the arms of policemen. Followers modeled themselves after Martin Luther King Jr., and got thrown in jail after chaining themselves to the doors of the draft board.
As Chetney went to Washington, D.C., for peaceful protests against the war in Vietnam, he came across a man named Frank Kameny.
Kameny had been fired from his job as a government astronomer, accused of being a homosexual. Now he was suing the federal government.
Chetney started going to some of Kameny’s gatherings and joined the city’s Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, in the mid-1960s. On July 4, he walked in the Annual Reminder march around Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in a tan summer suit.
The point was to model early civil rights protests, buttoned up and devoid of threat. GAY IS GOOD, Kameny’s slogan went.
Chetney saw mothers and fathers shield their children’s faces.
• • •
The crowd at City Hall sweated in their rainbow T-shirts and bandannas and clustered in the shade. Some had white hair like Chetney’s, but many were younger.
Chetney stepped to the lectern, palm trees at his back.
“It’s hard to believe I’m still here,” he said.
Then he told them his story.
Sleeping on a friend’s studio floor in the Upper East Side, he was shaken awake to take a call from the commune.
“The faggots are rioting!” a voice on the other end said. “They’re going crazy.”
He was told to get to Christopher Street, the hub of LGBTQ life in Greenwich Village, as soon as possible.
It had been a rough week. After hitching a ride into the city from the commune, he had slept on a sidewalk to make sure he could attend the wake of his beloved Judy Garland, an icon for gay men who knew each other as “friends of Dorothy.” He was glad to have paid his respects, but left exhausted.
This morning, though, when the caller told him that queer people were rising up, his energy flooded back.
“Finally I was no longer an odd man out,” he told the audience.
In the Village, uprooted cobblestones and broken glass covered the sidewalks before the Stonewall. Someone had set fire to the boarded-up windows.
The bar, he admitted, was not his usual spot. It was filthy, Mafia-run like most, with watered-down drinks. Chetney preferred the Candy Store, with its pretty Broadway men and jacket-and-tie grandeur. There, patrons followed the usual unspoken rules: No touching. No hand-holding.
Stonewall was different. It drew a crowd not often welcome elsewhere. Street kids and drag queens, transgender people and cross-dressers drank and danced with rare abandon.
It was these people on the fringes who had the least to lose. They were the ones who refused to disperse that first night. They lobbed coins and beer cans and sang bawdy songs in Rockettes-esque kick lines. They rammed the door of the Stonewall with a parking meter while terrified officers huddled inside.
It had been chaos.
Now young men milled around the ruins in the daylight.
“Immediately I got swamped by all kinds of tall tales of what they had done to defy the cops, bragging about how tough they’d been,” Chetney said. “But one thing came through loud and clear: That the cops had left some unfinished business, and they were going to be back.”
Chetney meandered toward the meeting house for the Society of Friends, where activists agreed: The bar must be reopened.
That afternoon, Chetney and friends gathered splinters of broken tables and swept up debris. When they hauled out a trashed cigarette machine and jukebox, a truck materialized with new ones.
As the hours passed that afternoon, they walked the Village, chanting, “Ho, Ho, Homosexual!”
They sang their campy spin on We Shall Overcome.
Then they sat toward the back of the bar, sipping and waiting. They had hashed out plans for resisting arrest without violence, but they knew anger was boiling on the Village streets.
This time the city sent its tactical force, helmets and shields. The bar lights came on. Undercover cops told Chetney to get out.
“I’m not going,” he told them, so officers dragged his slumped body toward the door.
“Just as we started going through the doorway, one of the tactical police force cops swung around and struck me with a billy club against my knee, screaming at the top of his lungs that I was nothing but a ‘hippie faggot,’ ” Chetney told the crowd.
Shocked, the other officers stepped back.
“The crowd reached in and rescued me,” he said as people listened, squinting in the sun.
• • •
Here’s how Chetney tells the After.
The front page of the New York Daily News mocked: “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.”
The uprising went on. And the story took off, reaching America’s far corners. Hope bloomed in rural Texas and Tampa. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front found their footing.
Like the gay writer Edmund White wrote, “Because of the Stonewall Uprising, people saw homosexuals no longer as criminals or sinners or mentally ill, but as something like members of a minority group. It was an oceanic change in thinking.”
Chetney went back to New York as much as he could.
He’d become a nurse, organize for gay rights and lose friends to AIDS.
He’d have a commitment ceremony with a man named Dennis on an Aspen mountaintop. They would be together 25 years. They would carry a briefcase full of papers linking themselves wherever they went. It would be the only way they could prove their connection when Dennis died from a heart attack on vacation.
He’d live to see marriage equality recognized and queer clubgoers shot dead at Pulse nightclub.
He’d move to St. Petersburg, drink coffee with fellow gay elders at the LGBTQ Welcome Center, find “quite a market for older men” on dating apps like Scruff.
He’d go to Pride and sigh at the straight partygoers just seizing a reason to drink in the streets, and the corporate sponsors that dampen the day’s rebellious heart.
But he’d also imagine the small-town kid seeing those welcoming rainbows for the first time.
He’d stand in front of St. Pete’s mayor and a police officer and a hundred unfamiliar faces to tell his Stonewall story, to stir it into that vast and swirling history.
He’d tell them about the best day of his own life, one year later. It was June 1970, New York City, at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade — what would, one day, become Pride.
The streets filled with gay marchers, from 20-odd gay rights groups. Onlookers lined the Sixth Avenue sidewalks in seeming disbelief.
“C’mon,” Chetney and others yelled. “Get off of the curb and into the street!”
He walked among hundreds, then thousands of his peers.
“It was,” he told the clapping crowd at City Hall, “the largest public gathering of gay people in the history of the world.”
At least, it felt that way.
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.