by Troy Williams
The Stonewall Inn during the 60’ was an unassuming bar in Greenwich Village. It was owned by the mafia and frequented by the queer rabble of New York City. The regulars were described as the “lowest of the low”; drag queens, street hustlers and the otherwise sexually deviant. It was a different New York City then.
The police were determined to clean up the criminal enterprises of the mob and their perverse patrons. When the police entered the Stonewall for a routine raid in the summer of 1969 something snapped. The drag queens rebelled. The streets erupted in song and rage for three nights. The police fell back in fear for their lives and the gay liberation movement was born.
In conjunction with the premiere of the PBS documentary Stonewall Uprising I interviewed Steve Packard. He grew up in Salt Lake City and at the age of 17 moved to New York with a boyfriend. He was there when the riots broke out. We spoke recently on KRCL’s RadioActive.
Podcast the entire interview HERE.
Steve Packard: Visions of grandeur! San Francisco was the big thing then but I was moving to New York which I thought would be better. But Salt Lake, it turned out, was a bit more open than New York at that time.
TW: Really? How so?
SP: Let’s start with housing. Two girls could go get an apartment together no problem. But two guys? Forget it. You couldn’t get an apartment in New York as two men. We had to show our ID’s and say “this is my step-brother”. That’s how we got in.
TW: Did you identify as a gay man in Salt Lake City as a teenager?
SP: Oh no. You had to be very careful. You couldn’t tell anyone. You could loose your job, get thrown out of your apartment or get beat up.
TW: Police raids were common. Describe what that was like?
SP: In Salt Lake we had Radio City Lounge and the Tin Angel. Those were our bars. We used to sneak in and everyone knew we were underage. The cops would flash the lights and we ran out the door. That was it. But I got to Manhattan and within a matter of weeks the fear was instilled. You couldn’t’ do things that we could do in Salt Lake. New York was clamping down really hard on gay people. It put fear in you and that was something I wasn’t accustomed to.
TW: I understand that Christopher St. was the only place were gays could show affection toward each other.
SP: Carefully. You looked around. We always told people about our girlfriends in Salt Lake. If there was a work function you better have a girlfriend with you. You also had your Playboy Magazine subscription and you made sure that you read it so you could go to the drinking fountain at work and say, “did you read this Playboy?” You had to have your cover.
TW: What’s your first memory when you reminisce?
SP: It would have to be Julius’ Bar which is a block away from Stonewall. It’s the oldest gay bar in New York City. Even today it has the best hamburgers.
TW: Talk about what happened that first night.
SP: People were arrested and kicked out – they had had enough. Stonewall was the drag queen bar. And here were these ladies standing up to the cops and pounding on them. It was a wake up call for the rest of us. We all said, “hey wait a minute – if these drag queens can do this so can we!” The crowds got bigger the second night.
TW: What did you see when you first came around the corner?
SP: The Puerto Rican drag queens were rocking a bus. And these drag queens picked up the filthy garbage cans and dumped trash on the cops. We were watching these people fighting saying, “Enough!” You saw the whole area full of people. Not just gay people but straight people screaming “Enough!” Everybody was saying, “why are you picking on these people?” This is the safest party of the city. Everyone took care of each other. It was a very special area. And it just got bigger and bigger. I loved it. And the cops couldn’t get away. They were trapped.
TW: I understand that folks from the Black Panthers were there, the anti-war folks and the Hippies were there also.
SP: It was two or three thousands people. It was pretty impressive. I’m so glad I was there. It was liberating.
TW: did you have any idea of the impact?
SP: No. I was too young and naïve but it felt like yes, this is my turn! Did I see it in that moment? No, I couldn’t comprehend. But others did. It was just great.
TW: And it was rather jovial?
SP: It was a spirit of freedom. And after we watched everything we would go over to Julius’ have a drink, discuss what was happening and then we’d all head back over. It was amazing. We didn’t back down. Nobody backed down. This was the New York that I dreamed about. And over the years you started to see change. The police and the patrons of bars and neighbors started to work together. When a gay friend of mine passed away the police had an honor march for him. We went from one extreme to another. Change came. But it took people standing up and saying “enough”.
TW: How do you see Salt Lake City today?
SP: Salt Lake has always been progressive. Salt Lake still in further ahead than many big cities. The people here are giving and warm. I live in a neighborhood that loves having gay people in it. Recently I was ill and they were there for me. Salt Lake has always been great but now more than ever.
(photography courtesy of David Newkirk)