As a 44-year-old man born in 1969, I can only imagine what it was like for those who were in New York City during the Stonewall riots that year. This is why it is wonderful to be able to talk to someone who witnessed it firsthand: Donald Reidlinger, a retired New Yorker lives with his partner of 28 years, Ron Glick, and remembers being a teen during the summer of '69.
Gregory G. Allen: I can't thank you enough for speaking to me and sharing the photo of you from 1969. Each June we celebrate gay pride because of a major occurrence in the West Village of New York City that year. Tell us what you were doing during that time in your life?
Donald Reidlinger: I had just finished my sophomore year at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn and was about to turn 16. At the time I didn't consider myself gay but bisexual. I had girlfriends, partially because it was expected, but I was truly fond of them. It was a widely held belief that boys "experimenting" with each other was a phase, but I knew deep down for me it wasn't.
Allen: For the younger generation, can you set the scene of what it was like to be gay in New York City at that time?
Reidlinger: Due to the drinking age being 18 and having fake proof, I was able to get into bars and clubs at an early age. Most gay people were deep in the closet at the time, many married with families, and their lives would be destroyed if anyone found out. The bars were dark, dingy places. Sometimes the police would send someone in to take the soap and then close it down for a health code violation, so the gay bars had bars of soap nailed and bolted in the corner of the ceiling with layers of heavy wire screen.
Allen: Wow, I've never heard that story before. Can you recall the night of June 28 and the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City?
Reidlinger: The hippie counterculture and anti-war movements were prevalent among high-school- and college-age people. Many of us had already had encounters with riot police and/or National Guard troops. I always carried a backpack which contained a change of clothes, a bandanna and a jar of multi-purpose Vaseline. I had learned that putting Vaseline on one's arms, face and hair and having a wet bandanna would help mitigate the effects of teargas and mace.
Allen: I can't even fathom the need to have to carry that around.
Reidlinger: It was extremely hot, the air was still, and word got out that the police were raiding a bar in the area. A crowd gathered quite rapidly and began taunting the police. They threw change at them and began rocking the paddy wagon. Several people broke free; the crowd went wild. Seeing the size of the crowd, the police called in the tactical police force that arrived rapidly. I knew trouble was brewing, so I got my bandanna wet from a leaky fire hydrant and quickly applied Vaseline where needed. When the tactical police showed up, people started throwing bottles and anything they could get their hands on. For some reason there were bricks available all over the place. Police would come at us, and we would run around the small, oddly shaped blocks and come up behind them, pelting them with whatever we could get our hands on. They began throwing tear gas into the crowd and beating anyone they could in the head and body with their nightsticks.
Allen: For those not there, it seems like a movie instead of something that could actually occur in our country.
Reidlinger: This tumultuous dance went on for quite some time. I made my way out of the immediate area to catch my breath when mounted police came down the street and cornered some of us. The cop was side-stepping the horse while swinging his club at us until we were pressed against the building. At that time a queen next to me took out a hatpin and sunk it into the horse. The horse reared up, and I darted underneath it. I looked back to see the people pulling the cop down and kicking him on the ground. I remember feeling bad for the horse. I turned the other way and saw a wall of tactical police. One of them grabbed me by the arm, but I was able to literally slip away. I turned to run and got cracked in the back of my head with a nightstick. Pain shot through my head, and I became disoriented. I somehow managed to find my way out of the melee. I am reminded of that night every time I wash my hair and feel the six-inch crease in my skull.
Allen: An incredible experience for a teenager to witness and still relive. Was the tension in the city palpable?
Reidlinger: The relationship with younger people and the police at the time was contentious. The general mood was that we were just plain fed-up with being harassed by the police.
Allen: Is there anything you can compare it to that we have experienced since?
Reidlinger: The recent Occupy Wall Street movement reminded me of those days, especially one incident I saw where a police officer was macing some penned-in protestors.
Allen: So jump ahead to the following year, 1970. What was it like to be in New York City for the first pride march?
Reidlinger: There were no real spectators lining the streets -- rather, people with confused looks on their faces, not quite knowing what was going on. There were some catcalls of "faggot," but there were also cheers of "right on!" It was both frightening and empowering.
Allen: As someone who grew up in Texas and couldn't wait to move to New York City so that I could feel free enough to be myself, it puts a lump in my throat to think about it. When did you get the chance to let go and just be you?
Reidlinger: In 1975 I underwent a 12-plus-hour surgery for Crohn's disease. During the surgery I was clinically dead for more than 30 minutes. Having survived that, I decided to live life completely on my own terms.
Allen: I'm sure that experience would make you view life completely differently. So much has happened since 1969 within the gay community, from the AIDS epidemic to all that's happening with marriage equality today. What are your thoughts on where our country is in 2013 as many celebrate pride this month?
Reidlinger: There is no doubt we've made tremendous progress. Things are much better now than they were when I was young. But we as a country still have a long way to go until everyone is free to be themselves in every state without fear. I take heart in the fact that the vast majority of young people see our struggle as a civil rights issue.
Allen: Some of our need to fight has caused a backlash, with more hate crimes in New York City.
Reidlinger: Years ago gay bashings were fairly common, and going to the police was pointless. In the '70s we carried whistles to call each other for help. The recent hate crimes illustrate that we still have obstacles to overcome, but the police response has been great. Ron and I have been on the same streets where gay people were battling them decades ago. Now we stopped to thank them.
Allen: Did you ever think you would see the day that same-sex marriage would be available in the state in which you live?
Reidlinger: It wasn't even on my radar as a young man. More recently I knew it was bound to happen.
Allen: Do you believe you will see full equality for gays and lesbians in your lifetime?
Reidlinger: I am hopeful that the entire country will get there eventually, but it may take an executive order for all states to grant us our rights.
Allen: I can't thank you enough for taking the time to relive such an important moment in our collective history, and I wish you and Ron the happiest of pride this month and every day.