A brawl at Stonewall, a movement born

June 11, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Twenty-five years ago this month, Anthony Coron went to a gay bar in Greenwich Village to celebrate having come to terms with his sexuality. By the end of the evening, however, the 27-year-old Wall Street employee was standing in the street throwing objects at the police -- and participating in what would later be called the birth of the gay rights movement.

It was June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a dingy bar and dance floor. Such raids were routine then. But this night was different: The men and women at Stonewall fought back.

The wee hours of the morning found Mr. Coron, still wearing his three-piece suit, standing in the street amid a handful of other bar-goers. They hurled insults at the police, then pennies, bottles and trash -- "anything we could find," he said.

What began as a brawl escalated into five nights of riots. News that homosexuals were resisting police spread throughout the country. Eventually the events at Stonewall -- and the name itself -- became a slow catalyst for other gays and lesbians to assert their civil rights.

Now, as members of the gay community nationwide prepare to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, they are taking stock.

Many are finding much has changed for gays and lesbians; a lot has not.

This weekend, Baltimoreans are marking the occasion with marchesand parties. Tonight, a gay- and lesbian-pride parade is scheduled to wind through downtown streets and to end in a block party.

Tomorrow, the 18th annual Pride Festival, in the Wyman Park Dell, will include craft shows, food booths, games and music.

In addition, an international Stonewall 25 celebration will be held in New York on the weekend of June 26.

Although gay activism had existed before 1969, something about the events at Stonewall -- perhaps because they came at the end of a decade already rocked by challenges to authority -- strengthened the resolve of homosexuals.

Indeed, one month after the riots,the Gay Liberation Front, a political organization, was formed in New York; six months later, the Los Angeles chapter was founded.

Public attitudes toward homosexuality also slowly have changed.

Portrayals of gays or lesbians in mainstream popular culture are increasingly common. Last spring, for example, the Swedish-based furniture company Ikea became the first corporation to feature a gay couple in a national television commercial. And, increasingly, the casts of popular prime-time TV shows such as "Melrose Place" include gays.

But gay activists still face opposition. Conservatives are mounting a campaign to slow their efforts to gain civil rights. The new policy of "don't ask, don't tell" adopted by the military falls short of what many gays wanted. And incidents of gay bashing and discrimination continue to be reported.

Nationally, the movement has suffered other setbacks. The issue of domestic partnership -- and whether to extend health benefits the partners of gay employees -- is a topic of hot debate.

In Baltimore this year, a proposal to create a city registry for domestic partners was voted down by City Council members.

Eight states have civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In Maryland, although three counties and two cities prohibit discrimination against gays, efforts to add sexual orientation to the state's civil rights law have failed repeatedly.

Until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Because of that, many gays lived a life cloaked in secrecy.

"I never told my parents because I knew they would try and get me 'help,' " said Bryon Predika, a 55-year-old Baltimore resident.

"Many people of a certain age hid being gay and are still hiding it today," said his partner of 25 years, Jon DeHart, who is 56.

Mr. DeHart, who grew up in Cumberland, says he knew he was "different" by the time he reached first grade. He also "knew instinctively not to tell anyone."

To fit in with the other students in high school, Mr. DeHart "picked out a girl named Marjorie and dated her. I hid behind her."

Not until they met at their 25th high school reunion, did Mr. Dehart tell Marjorie that he was gay.

Mr. Coron, too, felt isolated for much of his life.

"I felt like that Beatles' song 'Nowhere Man,' " said Mr. Coron, who wound up working with the National Gay Task Force throughout the 1970s. "You didn't say anything, you didn't talk about anything, you didn't admit it. In other words, you tried not to exist."

But Stonewall helped change those feelings: It was at New York's first gay pride parade in 1970 that Mr. Coron finally told a relative that he was gay.

"I timed it so that my brother and I went for a walk just when the parade was. It was a little silly looking, but when it went by I said, 'I belong there and not here,' and I stepped off the curb into the parade, and ever since then I have felt like I belong."

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