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Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt: Stonewall Was "Romantic," "Revolutionary"

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Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt.
Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt.

Artist Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt was a street kid who arrived in New York in May 1966 and participated in the Stonewall Rebellion. But he was also someone who frequented the bar itself, which opened in 1967. And while he concedes it was a dive bar, he loved it because it was unique among gay bars of the time in allowing “slow dancing where you could have a nice, full embrace — the unity of one person with another person.”

Lanigan-Schmidt, now 67, believes the slow dancing in a public place was in itself a “revolution­ary” thing and accounted in part for the violent reaction to the police raid in June 1969 that we now know as the Stonewall Rebellion. “You could connect with someone,” he said. “That started the revolution.

“We were in our teens and hadn’t gone through the same things that older people — over 25 — had gone through. We were runaways. I remember a kid who had boiling water thrown on him by his mother for being gay. Outside we could be murdered. Inside we were safe.”

He said that when you went into a bar like the Tenth of Always at the time, “if you touched, they would throw you out.”

He recalled a bouncer “on a power trip” who decided who could get into the Stonewall. “It was a combination speakeasy, juke joint, lawless and below the radar — it was all those things combined,” he said. “It was a deeply romantic place.”

The first night of the Rebellion, Lanigan-Schmidt couldn’t get in and came back when the raid was in progress. “More and more people kept showing up,” he said, “and suddenly everyone was together” — which allowed people to act up in ways they had never considered before.

“That night we were angry, an anger that was not being reflected upon, an impulsive anger at not being able to dance — a total body thing,” he said. “It was a visceral feeling.”

Lanigan-Schmidt, who has taught in the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts for almost 25 years and been exhibited at MoMA’s PS1, said that he hopes that the Stonewall, which occupied 51 and 53 Christopher Street (now Stonewall Place) in 1969, would get bought by someone “who would turn it into a gay museum. It should be like the Tenement Museum” at 97 Orchard on the Lower East Side, where tenement life circa the 1870s is preserved. He suggested using “gay acting students” to play the 1969 patrons and protesters.

“If they wanted to recreate the Stonewall,” he explained, it was all pretty bare bones. “It was a Mafia bar with plywood painted black on the walls and two juke boxes,” he recalled. “The best way to inform people is to give it that flavor so that people can get into how down and out it was — not a nice, middle-class bar.”

The interview my “Gay USA” co-host Ann Northrop and I recently conducted with Lanigan-Schmidt follows:

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

michael says:
There were two jukeboxes, one outside in the main room and the other inside a room on the left side behind a door where you actually went in to dance but only if someone put a quarter in. The room was lit up with christmas lights, not fairy lights but the large outdoor kind.
June 12, 2015, 11:16 am
lanzillotto says:
thank you Tommy. Keep telling your life story! Annie
June 12, 2015, 12:24 pm
Maurice says:
I was 17 at the time (1969), coming out from a confused state of mind, as gay. An uncle and his family (wife, 2 kids) lived in the west Village, and I would often visit. Once, a guy "picked me up" and treated me to a soda and an enlighting chat. He, at a later date, got me into the Stonewall Inn, regardless of my being underage. I couldn't believe I was seeing men dancing; that I could close-dance with a man!!! Mind-opening experience and I never looked back. The nights of the riots I was at my uncle's, did not participate physically, but, thank God, I was never the same. I found out who I was, and have lived consequently ever since.
June 18, 2015, 2:14 pm
Peter Melillo says:
I guess he calls it a dive bar because of the flat black paint over raw plywood. Okay it wasn't piss elegant but it sure felt like home to a lot of us, where we could be ourselves, and were allowed to be queer. It was a sanctuary for many of us, then again I never went to the Stonewall without bringing home a sexually compatible man for the night. What I never understood was all the guys leaning against the wall facing the first bar, in the first half of the almost too dark to see bar, all the good fun was in the second storefront where we could dance to break the ice. You entered at the front of the right hand storefront, then had to go all the way to the back to go into the second half where the dancing was. Stonewall and the riot in the context of those angry hateful times was a safe refuge for me. It is interesting so many modern accounts of the bar have very little resemblance to my found memories of the place.
June 19, 2015, 11:42 am

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