BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | In a June 7 profile of Williamson Henderson, a man who claims he was arrested during the 1969 Stonewall riots, the New York Times at least acknowledged that “Some have called his claims into question.” The Times has profiled or quoted Henderson in four stories since 1994 and once, in a fifth, as his drag persona Queen Allyson Allante. This is the first time the newspaper has suggested his claim might be false.
The Times still managed to get the story wrong. “Some” people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community don’t question his claim; many people in the community know his story to be false because Henderson has no arrest record from 1969 nor does his name appear in the criminal court docket books from late June 1969. Henderson, now 70, also claims his 1969 Cadillac was impounded by police that night.
Other than Henderson’s assertions and those made by a few members of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association (SVA), a group he founded in 1994, no record supports him though he has said since 2000, when LGNY (Lesbian & Gay New York, the predecessor publication to Gay City News) first challenged his story, that he possesses records that prove he was arrested, but is reluctant to make them public because they contain personal information. In reporting this story, Gay City News asked Henderson to finally produce those records and promised to not publish any part of them. Henderson did not respond.
Evidence is lacking, but P.T. Barnum reminds us there’s a Times reporter born every minute
He told the Times that he “has no documentation of the arrest or the impounding of his Cadillac,” which is different from what he has said in the past. Henderson has a picture that he claims is a mug shot from the arrest. It is undated and may not even be a mug shot.
Other records disprove his story. In 2009, historians David Carter and Jonathan Ned Katz, the founder in 2008 and now a co-director of outhistory.org, an LGBT history site, obtained the police records of the riots. Henderson’s name is nowhere mentioned in those records nor do they refer to a Cadillac being towed from the scene. The records do contain a complaint made by a Volkswagen owner who said her car was damaged during the melee.
Carter authored the 2004 book “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” which is the definitive account of that event. The book does not mention Henderson nor does any other history of the Stonewall riots.
Henderson is wholly a creation of the mainstream press and, to a lesser extent, the LGBT press. He readily makes himself available to lazy journalists who want to interview a Stonewall veteran, making reporting very easy. SVA’s participation in New York City’s Pride Parade since roughly 1994 gives him credibility to reporters who are unaware that Heritage of Pride, the group that produces the annual Pride events, admits all comers to the parade. Last year, William Donohue, president of the right-wing Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, applied to march and was admitted, but he ultimately declined to participate.
SVA’s website also spreads his story to reporters, students, tourists, academics, and even LGBT groups that want a Stonewall veteran for an event. As is the case with plenty of content on the web, it does not occur to people that they may be reading a series of falsehoods. And Henderson solves a problem for those who need a Stonewall veteran, but don’t want to work hard at finding one.
In 2008, a longtime gay activist contacted Gay City News complaining that the organizers of the World Outgames 2009 were planning on bringing two SVA members to Copenhagen, the site of the games, to participate in a tribute to the Stonewall riots. When Gay City News forwarded a copy of the 2000 LGNY article on Henderson to the organizers, a spokesperson wrote in an email, “We do not wish to alienate any in the LGBT community or take sides in any personal disagreements, and hope that our work with the SVA, as with Amnesty International, ILGA and many other organizations will be viewed and accepted as it is meant to be, a part of our effort here in Denmark to acknowledge and celebrate the importance of Stonewall to our movement.”
Gay City News has regularly sent the 2000 article to politicians and others who appear at SVA meetings and organizers of events that featured Henderson as a speaker. The newspaper wrote to the public editor at the Times after the June 7 profile appeared.
In SVA’s early years, Henderson used his claim of being a Stonewall veteran to raise money that is ostensibly for the group. It is not clear that the money is used for the group. SVA and the now defunct Imperial Queens and Kings of New York (IQKNY), another group he founded, raised money while claiming to be tax-exempt, a legal status neither group had. SVA was the subject of a 1997 inquiry by then-New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco. While SVA obtained tax-exempt status in 1999, its filings with the state attorney general, which are prepared by Henderson, report under $25,000 in revenues annually so SVA is not required to report in any detail.
Among its known revenues, SVA has collected $10,975 from city political campaigns since 2001, in amounts ranging from $35 to $2,500, according to Campaign Finance Board records. Some of the cash was listed as paying for print ads though SVA has not published a newsletter in years. Other amounts were for online ads, sponsorships, and donations. State Board of Elections records show that SVA has collected $27,675 since 2000 from various candidates in donations, sponsorships, and for ads.
Henderson’s personal history does not inspire confidence in the integrity of SVA’s finances.
In 1992, Henderson was the secretary of the Imperial Court and sold a $1,000 table for the Night of a Thousand Gowns, the Court’s annual fundraiser. That check was deposited in one of his business accounts by an employee of his, Henderson said in 2000. He was removed from the Court for “the appearance of financial impropriety,” Philip Stoehr, then the board president, told LGNY in 2000.
In 1990 in Nassau County, Henderson was sued by Emigrant Savings Bank and Colonial National Bank. In 1985, he borrowed $176,000 from Emigrant to buy a Long Island home and he borrowed an additional $24,000 from Emigrant in 1988. His mortgage barred him from using the equity in the home on any other loan, but he took out another mortgage with Colonial in 1988 for $55,300. He stopped paying all the loans in 1989 and Colonial sued, which prompted the suit by Emigrant. The house was sold at auction in 1995 for $160,000.
In 1987, he borrowed just over $34,000 from Chase Manhattan Bank to buy a car and soon stopped paying on that loan. Chase sued and court records indicate $16,400 on the loan remains unpaid.
Nassau County records indicate that Henderson left behind a financial wreck when he moved to New York City. Between the IRS and Chemical Bank, he had personal liens and one against his business, a proofreading company, of just under $375,000 that were unpaid when Gay City News last reviewed them.
Henderson’s continued success at selling his Stonewall story is made possible by the sloppy reporting of the sort that appeared in the Times, by politicians who want an LGBT endorsement and are willing to look the other way when a questionable organization offers it, and by a low bar for proof that Henderson actually participated in the LGBT community’s seminal event. For the historians who doubt Henderson’s claim, it is a matter of the evidence.
“I think students need to be taught about evidence,” Katz told Gay City News. “I’ve always been empirically oriented in terms of evidence. Where is this evidence coming from and what does it tell me?”