‘I was there’: University of Iowa performers, President Harreld to celebrate Stonewall, 50 years later

Hit the Wall opening night

University of Iowa E.C. Mabie Theatre — Friday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m.
Performances run through Feb. 8

Stonewall 50th Anniversary Celebration

University of Iowa Theatre Building — Friday, Jan. 31 at 10 p.m.

The Stonewall Inn in 1969. A sign in the window reads, “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village—Mattachine.” — Diana Davies/New York Public Library

Seismic social change sometimes starts at a dive bar. In the summer of 1969, a spontaneous uprising that began outside the Stonewall Inn inspired the gay rights movement and eventually transformed the ways we think about gender and sexuality.

The University of Iowa is honoring the 50 years that passed since that formative event with a production of playwright Ike Holter’s explosive 2012 play Hit the Wall and, immediately following its opening night, a Stonewall 50th Anniversary Celebration.

The pioneering transsexual glam-punk singer Jayne County was a regular at Stonewall, located on Christopher Street, a gay thoroughfare in New York City’s West Village. She described it as a dumpy little room with a bar to the right and a brick wall in the back that had a jukebox blasting everything from the Supremes to the Doors.

“All types of people went there,” she said of the largely poor and working-class patrons. “Butch lesbians in men’s clothes, wild drag queens, street kids, gay hippies with long hair, all sorts, even a few straight people.”

The UI celebration aims to attract an equally broad swathe of the community. Drag performances anchor the evening’s activities, which kick off at 10 p.m., and dancing will continue into the wee hours. Adding to the “all sorts” at the event is featured speaker, UI President Bruce Harreld. In November, UI Health Care released a video of Harreld and his wife speaking about their transgender child, which struck a chord with many in the community.

The area surrounding Stonewall welcomed people like Agosto Machado, a Zelig-like figure who participated in the counterculture movements of the 1960s, along with 1970s underground theater, gay liberation and punk rock.

He arrived in the neighborhood in the late 1950s after growing up in some rough New York neighborhoods such as Hell’s Kitchen, where he endured schoolyard taunts like “Ooh, you’re so queer you should go to Greenwich Village!”

“People came from different parts of the city to express yourself in the Village,” Machado said. “I didn’t really feel I was part of the majority culture, which is why so many people who were trying to find themselves gravitated there.”

“There was no internet,” he explained, “so how do you find out what’s happening? You go out on the street and you can hang out in Sheridan Square, Washington Square Park, and you’d find out more or less what people were doing.”

The street scene created networks of social support for those who had been rejected by their own relatives, a place to create a new extended family. “They were just hanging out, and you expressed yourself on the street, developed your own persona and then figured out your own place in that world. You could reinvent yourself.”

Machado likened it to street theater, with different people making an entrance and putting on a show. Village characters like Roller-Arena-Skates glided around on cobblestone streets wearing a soiled dress and holding a wand, looking like a shabby Glinda the Good Witch.

Holter’s play works hard to echo that sense. It follows the interwoven stories of 10 archetypal characters who were in attendance that night — repeatedly beating the refrain, “I was there.” A Chicago Tribune review contemporary to Hit the Wall’s premier praised its ability to “blow past all the usual rules and reach for something great.” A five-piece onstage band serves to heighten the surreality as the story dips almost into the ceremonial.

For those who actually were there, though, the situation was more visceral than mythological.

Men could still be arrested for wearing women’s clothes in public, so Machado and his friends carried their drag finery in shopping bags and then changed once they hit a critical mass. After the sun went down, they promenaded up and down Christopher, which intersected with Gay Street, a couple blocks away from Stonewall.

“Honey, where are we? Gay Street!” they’d all shout.

“The queens, all the way down Sheridan Square, would have an audience,” Machado said, “people walking by, people on the stoop. And as the evening wore on, they got a little louder and grander — showing their new fabric they got, or a new wig. It was a street society, and you could walk around and feel that your community would protect you.”

Stonewall rebellion participant
Jayne County onstage, 1973. — Paul Zone

While there was safety in numbers, they were still harassed. “You’d have the police clear the sidewalks and the streets,” Machado recalled, “so where could you go? Into mafia bars, or after-hour clubs. Conveniently, Stonewall was just down the street from where a lot of people hung out on Christopher Street.”

It was also illegal for two males to dance together in New York, and gay bars and their patrons were often subject to police harassment, something that sparked the Stonewall Rebellion on June 28, 1969. Yippie co-founder and early gay rights activist Jim Fouratt was walking down Christopher Street in the wee hours of the morning when he saw a police car parked in front of Stonewall, and the bar door flew open.

“Out comes what you would call a bull dyke,” he said. “The nice term of that period was called a ‘passing woman.’ She passed as a man. She was like, Rr-rr-rr, like being as butch as she could be, and the police officer puts her in the car.” (She was arrested for not wearing clothing “appropriate to one’s gender,” as was mandated by a New York statute.)

About 50 people gathered outside as the woman, whose identity is still unconfirmed, slammed her body from side to side until the door popped open and she fell out, then began throwing her weight against the police cruiser, which nearly tipped over.

“There’s a moment — which is, to me, the critical moment — where the crowd screams,” Fouratt recalled. “It’s the moment of, to me, liberation. It is the moment when all of that stuffed-down feeling, all of that oppression that every gay person had ever had, gets released, in that crowd.”

The “raided premises” sign just inside the door at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. A 1969 police raid here led to the Stonewall riots. This picture was taken on pride weekend in 2016.

As they began fighting back, an African-American street queen known as Marsha P. Johnson began throwing debris at the cops as the crowd danced in the street. “It was fun, almost,” Fouratt said, “and the police had no clue what to do because gay people never acted like this before.”

For more background on New York City’s gay and underground scenes, check out Kembrew McLeod’s most recent book The Downtown Pop Underground from your local library. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 277.

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