Fifty years ago, a group of gay men, lesbians and drag queens fought back against police oppression – unware they were kick- starting the LGBTQ rights movement…


Stonewall Inn’s Tree Sequoia picks up the Activism Award 50 years on from the rebellion

Many of us live in a world where, although intoleranc­e towards LGBTQ people exists, we are protected by the law and can enjoy the same liberties as our straight counterpar­ts. We can marry who we love, provide a home for children, serve in the military and feel protected from discrimina­tion at work.

These liberties have been won over the decades by tireless, passionate, brave activists who have picked up the baton from the previous generation and pushed for change.

June of this year marked the 50th anniversar­y of the 1969 Stonewall riots, when New York’s marginalis­ed LGBTQ community decided that “enough is enough” after years of oppression and being caught in the middle of a turf war between the mafia and New York’s police force.

Accounts of the first night of the rebellion are many and varied, and have given rise to urban legends as to who was the first to fight back.

This year, we’re dedicating our Activism Award to all those involved in the uprising, for — at the time unknowingl­y — kickstarti­ng the LGBTQ Pride movement.

One of those present at the Stonewall Inn on that fateful night and now part- time bartender in the iconic bar is Tree Sequoia.

Now 80, he accepted the award on behalf of all those he fought alongside, and recounts his version of events.

I WAS BORN and raised in New York, and on the night the Stonewall uprising started — 28 June 1969 — I was working at a bar called the Ninth Circle in the West Village. I also worked part- time at Mama’s Chicken Rib restaurant. After work, my friends and I used to walk over to the Stonewall to dance. My pal Johnny was a bartender there, and he told us not to drink the liquor because it was watered- down junk, but we’d pay the cover charge to get in and just dance.

Johnny was going to Fire Island to work and suggested me as his replacemen­t, so I was due to start a couple of weeks later. But then the raid came. I was in the Stonewall dancing the lindy hop on the night of the rebellion.

At that time, queer people had no rights. We had to knock down doors to go to gay bars because it was against the law to serve alcohol to known homosexual­s in New York City. Many of us weren’t out to our families; every time we saw a camera, a bunch of us would run and hide.

I had a boyfriend my mother thought was a roommate — we were the same age. He was killed in a car crash after 22 years together, and my next boyfriend was 25 years younger than me. That’s when I had to explain to my mom. We were in a restaurant for my birthday, and it was full of lesbians and gays — girls with short haircuts, men wearing nail polish. She looked at my boyfriend, then at me, then looked again and went: “Oh.”

After that, I used to drag her to every gay restaurant, I took her backstage to Broadway shows and introduced her to all the stars; they all knew her and she loved the attention.

Anyway, back to 1969. The Stonewall Inn was a burnt- out bar that the mafi a had painted black — the walls, fl oors and ceiling, everything. It was a dump, the toilets always overfl owed. There was the entrance bar, then a teeny bar in the back, and we danced to a jukebox and loved it because it was a place for us to relax and be ourselves, with lesbians and fag hags as well. In those days, we touched each other while we danced, not like nowadays when you can dance by yourself for fi ve hours.

We were used to raids from the cops.

They raided the bars not because they were homosexual hangouts, but for pay- off s.

They thought, “If the mafi a makes money, why shouldn’t we?” Normally, it was just the local precinct cops but on the night of the


rebellion, it was the police headquarte­rs, and they were after the mafi a bosses.

We were inside dancing when we heard everybody outside start to scream. We heard this queen we knew, Gypsy — she always said the same thing when cops raided the place: “Don’t touch me, my husband’s a cop!”

When they walked in, they weren’t nice like the usual neighbourh­ood cops, who would say “OK girls, line up.” These guys came pushing and shoving, and throwing drugs on the fl oor, saying, “Step on that, that’s yours.”

They pushed one person really hard, and Stormé DeLarverie — I’d met her in 1958 — punched one of the off icers in the face. It took two cops to pull her off him. She was a lesbian with a moustache, and the cops thought she was a man. Even when she died at 93, she looked like a little old man.

Then the riot broke out. I was with my friends Bubbles, Frankie and Charlie, and a Catholic priest named Gregory. Our neighbourh­ood precinct policeman walked in, because he was


on the beat. He saw us and urged us to sneak out because he knew that Gregory would get in a lot of trouble if he was caught.

Once outside, we heard a window break. According to legend, it was a high heel, but a high heel could never break a window. Then it was supposed to be Marsha P. Johnson who threw a brick. That was the story for years until she admitted she didn’t get there until after the riot was half over. So, we never found out who threw the rock but it didn’t matter because we were so busy having fun — shaking police cars, setting fires... I was a goody- two- shoes all my life, and here I was being a bad boy — and loving every minute of it.

After the windows were broken, and we had nothing else to throw, people started to pull a parking meter out of the ground. They kept shaking it, concrete and all, and used it as a battering ram to knock the Stonewall doors down. Inside, behind tables and chairs were the cops, along with some customers and one of the mafia bosses.

We lit garbage cans and threw them through the open windows, to set the bar on fire. Of course, as soon as they hit the ground, half of the fire went out, so it was never going to really set anything alight. We did set some of the cop cars on fi re, and that’s when the riot squad came. The precinct police wouldn’t come to help because the whole debacle was screwing up their opportunit­y to get pay- off s.

When we saw the riot squad coming down Christophe­r Street from 7th Avenue, we ran like hell back to Mama’s Chicken Rib, and we all swore that if the police came in ( because it was also a gay hangout), we’d say we’d been there all night. But they never did.

That was the first night. The next, it started again, and it went on for about two weeks before New York mayor John Lindsay went on TV and radio and told the police to leave the village alone and let everything calm down.

He was a nice guy; we’d always thought he was gay because his wife looked like a lesbian, and his best friends were three lesbian Broadway and movie stars.

Some people like to think that the uprising happened because of Judy Garland’s death. We all loved Judy, she was the biggest fag hag in the world but it wasn’t because of her. We’re not going to riot for Judy, we’re going to riot because the cops started pushing people.

A few months after that first night, the Stonewall was closed down — but the LGBTQ equality movement had begun.

I worked at the Ninth Circle for 20 years or more, and then Julius’, the oldest gay bar in the city, for five years. I tried to semi- retire but everybody pulled me back in and when I got too old to work I said, “I can’t retire because everybody I know who’s retired is ready to kill themselves, they have nothing to do.”

I decided to work for a couple of days a week at the Stonewall — it’s been resurrecte­d in various guises during the past 50 years but the current incarnatio­n has existed since 2007.

We get tourists from all over the world coming to visit, especially since Obama establishe­d the Stonewall National

Monument in 2016, and they never believe I’m 80 years old. But they always want to know about the uprising — I can be asked 50 times a day. If I’ve told the story too many times, I’ll pretend I wasn’t there, or tell them to google me. But I’m proud to be part of our history and to carry the torch.

At the time, we thought it was just fun, that it wasn’t anything signifi cant. The next year, the fi rst gay Pride parade took place, and we fi gured that after that, nothing else would happen. Who knew that 50 years later we’d be here talking about it? Or that I’d make a speech at the UN for the 25th anniversar­y of the rebellion, and that I’d be accepting this award on behalf of everyone who was there?

All gay bars got raided, we didn’t know it was going to be part of history that the whole world would know. I always say that I was in the right place at the wrong time, or the wrong place at the right time.

I’ve been able to travel the world to celebrate Pride. The requests and invitation­s come out of the woodwork every April or May.

This year, with it being the 50th anniversar­y, has been particular­ly busy but I’m having the fucking time of my life! I’m already planning trips for next year and the year after, and it’s never going to stop and I intend to be working behind the bar until I have a heart attack and die there.

 ??  ?? Words Tim Heap
Photograph­y Puryear Menelik
Words Tim Heap Photograph­y Puryear Menelik NOVEMBER 2019
 ??  ?? EYE- WITNESS: Tree Sequoia was at the Stonewall on the fateful night
EYE- WITNESS: Tree Sequoia was at the Stonewall on the fateful night
 ??  ?? INN THE MOOD:
Tree Sequoia still works at the
INN THE MOOD: Tree Sequoia still works at the Stonewall
 ??  ?? BAD BOY: Tree as a young man
BAD BOY: Tree as a young man

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