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Could the Stonewall Riots Be Staged as a Battle Reenactment in NYC?

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The popular practice of "battle reenactments" has been conducted by history enthusiasts for centuries, so why not hold a reenactment of the Stonewall riots in New York City?

The LGBT community is about to mark the 43rd anniversary of the riots, and the details of the moments that began at the Stonewall Inn on the night of June 28, 1969 have been told, studied, restudied, debated, documented, celebrated, and merchandised ever since. Though accounts sometimes contradict one another (these were the days before cellphone cameras), they are listened to with a shared excitement that a turning point in history had occurred at that moment, a moment when American LGBT people decided to fight back, refused to back down, and forever changed the status quo.

There are countless historic-battle-reenactment organizations and societies worldwide. Everything from large-scale American Civil War battles to specific Viking sea skirmishes are celebrated by dedicated enthusiasts who stage these accurate fight scenes for crowds large and small, or just for themselves. These subcultures provide a medium for those interested in examining historic moments, exploring them by mapping out what happened in real time and space.

In fact, there are already successful "historic riot reenactment" groups. London and France both host a number of collectives that reenact historical riots regularly, drawing from their cities' rich histories. In the United States a heavily attended reenactment of the infamous Haymarket riot was staged in Chicago last year, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of that labor-rights battle. It was enacted in its original spot.

The site of the Stonewall riots, the Stonewall Inn, is still in business in its original location, despite several ups and downs since. The bar and surrounding area (named Stonewall Place) was officially recognized by New York City as a historic landmark in 1999, and as a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Young gay people visiting NYC in search of their roots will find various plaques at the bar, along the street, and in Christopher Park, but otherwise will discover that Stonewall now is just another rather successful gay bar in an increasingly modern metropolis.

The stage has always been there. Are there enough people interested in the riot's history to join together as a collective, get permits, assign roles, build props, make uniforms, and stage a recreation as accurately as possible? Like any battle, it was a complicated affair, rich with individual stories, separate skirmishes, villains, heroes, and drama, drama, drama...

Actual participants who were at the riots themselves could participate (there's an official Stonewall Veterans Association) or coach others. Imagine what could be discovered by trying to put all the pieces back together again?

Stonewall Place is a tight squeeze. Where would spectators watch from? Surrounding residents and businesses may not love throngs attracted to the spectacle of a mock-riot, but it wouldn't be more of a nuisance than other events in June.

There's also the problem of the Stonewall Inn itself: The interior of the original was destroyed by the riots. Perhaps some theater props and stage effects could work their magic? Also, would they be willing to change their front door back to the one it featured in pre-riot days? As a gay speakeasy, its opaque door had only a small peephole through which visitors were inspected before being granted entry.

After dark the players could begin the reenactment inside the bar. As it was the only gay bar in NYC that allowed dancing, they could cavort to the bubblegum pop, girl-group and Tiny Tim records of the era ('60s gay bars generally didn't care for hippie rock) while wearing that period's latest in "confirmed bachelor" fashions as their battle uniforms. Slightly effeminate dress for gay men was just going out of style (mostly). A lesbian was any female exhibiting less than three of the required feminine articles of clothing (an arrestable offense!). I'm sure there would be no shortage of trans women and drag queens in New York up for the task of reenacting the important roles they played in the stand-off (back then they were sometimes called "flame queens" but were referred to as "transvestites" by most everyone else). The crowd could be peppered with a few beady-eyed participants playing undercover cops from the New York City Public Morals Squad, who would infiltrate gay bars before raids to gather evidence of men holding hands or wearing earrings.

Certainly, some appropriately suited men could be rounded up to play the police? Why not ask members of NYC's Gay Officers Action League? Maybe scout potentials at "uniform fetish" night at the Eagle bar? (Talk about role playing!) You wouldn't need many; the authorities were outnumbered by hundreds that night.

Spectators could watch from across the street, and wait. At some point in the evening, the music could be turned off inside the Stonewall to signal the beginning of the raid. The doors could swing open as the bright interior lights snap on. Those playing policemen from the city's Sixth Precinct could arrive, announcing, "We're taking over the place!" as they roughly lined up patrons, inspecting and arresting them for offenses like wearing a scarf. Those let go could convene outside rather than run home in shame (as they'd usually done). People playing curious neighbors and passersby could stop to join the swelling mob, watching handcuffed men and women carted one-by-one from the bar to a paddy wagon, some humorously posing for the cheering crowd. The participants could begin shouting, "Let's pay them off!" while throwing coins at the police (which happened when rumor spread that the mafia, which owned Stonewall Inn and controlled it with shady practices, hadn't paid off the cops that month). They could start openly booing even louder, as surprised policemen occasionally waved a baton and shouted, "Go home queens!"

Could a troupe of young guys play the community of runaway gay youths who camped in Christopher Park back then (many who hustled for a living), who reportedly were the initial instigators? They're captured in the only known photograph of the first night, here.

A key role would be the famous and still-unidentified "butch dyke" who (according to many reports) was the individual who sparked the tense group at the front of the crowd outside the bar, looking at them as she was being arrested and shouting, "Why don't you guys do something?"

A full-scale reenactment of the first wave of violence could ensue, with '60s-themed gays throwing fake bottles, old-school lesbians throwing paper trash, "flame queens" burning garbage cans, and the runaways from Christopher Park uprooting a prop parking meter and using it as a battering ram against the mock doors of the Stonewall (after the police barricaded themselves inside out of fear).

What's that coming down the street? It's backup police, (finally) arriving to form a street-sweep line to control what was reported as a "homosexual uprising." And whats that coming down from the other side of the side street? A spontaneous army of locals and neighbors banding together after word spread of what was happening. Watch the drag queens forming singing kick-lines, chanting, "We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls!" on the front lines as they collide with police shouting, "You're charged with inciting a kick-line!" Watch sympathetic police free the handcuffed detainees in the paddy wagon before protestors slash the tires and attempt to turn it over (after which it sped away, then later returned). The mob is growing! Look! There's "smoke" coming out of the Stonewall Inn's windows, now on fire! The gays are trying to smoke the cops out of their own gay bar!

Oh... what a riot.

Of course, that's just off the top of my head. A completely accurate reenactment of the Stonewall riots would be impossible. It would need to be safe, and events would have to be dramatized, condensed, and altered for logistical purposes (have they already?). A smart recreation of the event would fall closer to street theater.

Seasoned history recreationists often conduct "experimental archeology" with battle reenactments, by logistically removing elements or switching things around to see how history might have altered if things had happened differently. How would the gay history books be changed if three times as many police had initially shown up? What if the authorities had been able to disperse the crowd to another location? What if Judy Garland hadn't died six days earlier?

Sure, there would be those who might groan that a public Stonewall-riots reenactment is another example of the co-opting and corporatization of gay and bohemian culture. Compared to what? Broadway? Times Square? I'd hardly call a detailed public study of an illegal, violent, LGBT riot "Disneyfication." But who knows? It may end up downright corny. Camp, even! Hell, it could end up as pure, all-American, family entertainment.

It wouldn't be hard to inspire younger gay generations by allowing them to participate in a dramatic public staging of a turning point in our past when we decided to fight back.

Veterans and enthusiasts recreate battles as a way to remember their fallen comrades, teach others what a war was all about, or gain a historical perspective on the turbulent times it occurred in. These reenactments also help participants trace their ancestry back to those who fought in these important wars.

It's an interesting idea to think about bringing a public reenactment of the Stonewall riots, an important battle in American history, kicking and screaming into the 21st century.