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So, the things I understand about Stormwell's, who did Stormwell. It wasn't the kids who were privileged. It wasn't adults, you know, who had jobs. It was people who could risk everything because they had nothing. It was the people had nothing to worry about being arrested or being, uh, anyway involved. The people who were worried about their future, their professions, their lives, uh, their family, et cetera, they were not involved in the Stormwell Rebellion. It was the lolliest of the low. People like me, working class kids who had nothing to lose. And, and, and, and that's why we fought the police. They were our enemy. Um, so why, why wouldn't it take you and your gang to, to, to do the dirty work? Because we were
lucky to be at the right place at the right moment when there was enough of us willing to do it. There always was some people who were willing to say no to the police, but here was a good group of people, 50 or more people who were willing to add in it, right then say no and fight back against the police at it and encouraged and excited. So many others, they also joined us, you know, but it wasn't huge numbers. The Stormwell rights was not large, huge numbers of people. Okay, there's a lot of people looking and watching, but those who are actually active was much smaller than numbers. You know, we're talking about 50 or 100 people who are actually doing something. When you think about the, the cops clubbing people in the blood and then would you have been willing to be dragged and pedded, you know, gone and conscious or, yes, yeah, I did it in a civil rights
mode. I have scars on my body from the dogs down south. I did it for other people and I certainly was ready now to do it for my people. That was the whole point. Stormwell got me involved in the gay movement and I committed my life to our community and I'm still involved in it. So, not using my words, what would you have been willing to do? What would you feel like? I would try to do whatever I could get away with without trying not to get personally hurt, but willing to risk being personally hurt if I could help others. Did you see people get going to Paddy Wagon or the drugway? No, not the first night. Did you ever leave? Yes. Can you tell me about that? Well, basically, I don't know about Paddy Wagon's, they were
grabbing people. I think I saw being put in cars, not Paddy Wagon's, but basically the police were brutal and as they were and they were getting clobbing people and trying to break up the resistance. Basically, people were saying, this is our street and the police's whole purpose was saying, no, it's not. We have control of the streets. You need to not be here. These are our streets. You need to move on. And the irony is, they were saying it to people actually who were residents eventually over the nights who actually lived in the neighborhood too. So it went from the street kids to being just a lot of residents who were just upset with the way the police were acting and who were just asking the police, you know, challenging the what they were doing, and the police turning on them too. Because the police assumption at that point was everybody was queer. I mean, they were, because they did not know how to identify who wasn't, who wasn't. They just were shocked that the people they thought originally who were, they knew that these
Nellie kids, they were gay. But they had no idea about these other people and they learned a lesson that there was a lot more gay people around than they had assumed at that night. Well, Queens, you know, there was these very effeminate young men who would put on some makeup and they'd prance around and that was offensive to the police and they didn't want to play the role of being macho male, which was not my role. I was very much male identified and so I didn't relate to that. But I came to respect those kids after years of being afraid of being those kids. And I think it was a stone wall that brought us together. You know, it was the rough crowd in the park, which is more what I related to, with the prancy kids joining together and realizing
we all had the same thing in common that was bringing together that common alley. Stonewall created a community much more identified than it had ever previously been. We always know we were around, but not uniting together and working together to make change. Stonewall led to us working and building a movement. Going back to you were saying earlier that you'd hang out, it's jumping a little bit back in time, but that you'd hang out in bathrooms and sort of find people in public places. What were you afraid of in terms of like entrapment or the police behavior? What did you have to watch for when you walked around before? Playing close police in the bathrooms. I was fearful as a young person of being discovered, of being gay, not being discovered by gay people, but by being discovered by a police officer who could harm me. I didn't know exactly what the police
were going to do to me, but I knew it was not good, and I knew I didn't want to get arrested, so I had to be very careful in the parks and in the public bathrooms I went into looking for other gay men. It was so limited and so restricted, except for the few mob-owned bars that allowed some socializing, okay? It was basically for Bowdoin, and so we had to create these spaces, and so men's bathrooms was a logical place to go for us. Dirty as they were in the subways, they were locked and kind of off the beaten path and kind of private, and they were filled with gay men. Well, many of them married husbands, people who were not out, people who were never going to come out, and that's who I mainly met, and in the parks it was people who, they were not either associated with the gay community, they were just looking for sex, anonymous sex. Did you feel like you were open for the show?
That was our lovers' lines. You know, heterosexuals have legally had lots of sexual outlets, they call them hotels, motels, lovers' lanes, drive-in movie theaters, etc. Gay people were told we didn't have any of that, and we had no right to such. So all we had was gay people had no social outlets like heterosexuals for dating. We didn't have drive-in movie theaters where we could make out with each other in public. We didn't have motels, we could just sign up and go into our hotels. We didn't have lovers' lanes. There was no legal place for us to meet with each other. So any place we did meet was under the law illegal.
Did you have to, when you were meeting, were you watching the way that you had terrifying to think that you might be encountering an undercover cop? What a scary thing. Could be a great lover, could be your enemy. What does that feel like? Well, basically, I learned I had a sense of who was and who wasn't. I could tell if I went into a public bathroom, if that person was gay or not, and if they weren't gay, I avoided them and got out of there as soon as I could, because the guy's hanging out in those public bathrooms, if they weren't gay, or police officers. Who else would stay in a dirty bathroom in a subway? Who else would hang out in such a smelly, crummy, dirty place? The only place we had. The trucks were filled with dead
grease of animals. They smelled awful. We were outside the trucks also, not just in the trucks, but on the sides of the trucks and where they parked them and stuff. But where else could we go? We had no place. If you go out in public someplace, they're going to see you and they're going to hurt you. We had a hide where we could go and have sex without being seen by the public. The public did not go down to the meat district at night time. Under the overhead freeway was then there. These trucks lined up along the water. Only people who joined us was the police who went into raid. Many of us had to jump into the river because the trucks were right along the river to get away from the police. Street kids were talking about, and you were one of them. We talked a lot about running from the law in the police. What about your home life?
My parents had no idea what I was doing, and I was certainly not sharing it with them. My father knew I was gay, and my mother knew I was gay when I told them. I told them when I was 13 that I was gay. My mother cried and cried and cried. My father said, stay away from the public bathrooms. You're going to get into trouble and get arrested there. That's why I went to the public bathrooms. From there I learned that there were homosexuals hanging out in Times Square in the movie theaters. That's why I went there. When I was told, stay away from the village because there's queers there. That's why I went there. Other kids you knew, you know, that you're hanging out. Any of them escaped, you know, home abusive situations? No, I think most, in my neighborhood, most young people didn't live beyond to adult ages. A lot of them died their drugs somewhere in the military. I lived in a very poor working-class neighborhood.
I actually met the kids when you described the gang of you that hung out in the parking of Sheridan Square and all that. I mean the gay youth, you know. Those kids came from everywhere. They were not from New York. I met gay people. They came in from Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Just for the weekend, there was nothing in Pittsburgh. There was nothing in Cleveland for them. They drove all the way in to hang out on Christopher Street and these are the more privileged kids. But the street kids, they came from all over the country who had been thrown out of their homes by their parents to survive and wound up on the streets because there was especially a feminine kid's, you know, that were obvious. Nobody wanted to hire those kids and they had no education. You know, they didn't go to college. These were tossaways. These were kids who lived on being prostitutes on the streets. You know, lived on whatever way they can get some money together
and lived in tough situations. What about it, you know, I'm trying to feel like I'm putting a puzzle together about the forces that led up to that, why June 27, 1969. What, and it's not going to be a need puzzle. I remember work that way, but wait. When there were murders taking place that year, you want to talk about what caused the rage at that time. There was a series of events. Of course, the most important was an ongoing harassment by the police. But they had done a series of raids of other gay bars and gay hangouts. They were on a roll to show that they were in charge because they wanted to clean up the streets. There was a big campaign by Mira Lindsay to clean up the streets to get rid of all the moral deprivation that was out there. That was me they were talking
about. And so they raided the checkerboard, which was a very popular gay bar a week before the stone wall and shut it down and it angered a lot of people because there's only three bars along that street. And that was one of the three. And so it was very unpopular for the police to do that and it was outraged. But the police had done other things. They had increased their raids in the trucks. They had been they killed two kids not long before that shot them in the back. These two drag queens who were living basically off of their trade over down near the river. And they were running away. These kids and the police shot them and killed them. And people knew them. I mean the kids in the park knew these kids. You know they could have been them just as easily because that's how they made their living. They hung out at the port authority meeting men for sex and they hung out down in Sheridan Square meeting men for sex to make money to survive. I was fortunate. I had I was fortunate because my parents allowed me to live with them. And they
didn't throw me out because I was gay. So that made them quite different and unique. And I knew that I could do that. That's why I came out to them when I did. So the police again, yes. It's always the cops fracking these things up. I don't know how appropriate you actually step on and say how to sports. But I think I actually think that you spoke earlier about your parents. Yeah. Yeah. I feel pretty good about that. Okay. Certainly back I got a quick description of the TPS. You know what else to give us? I think John that was about the TPS. Who were the TPS? The tactical patrol force was a special unit inside of the police department which was used specifically for quelling demonstrations and riots that was
set up by the police department. There were specially trained units separate from the local police stations where the police normally had district precinct setups. Police assigned. This group was especially trained. They were basically a quasi military operation. And they knew how to work together. They were the four runners of what became the SWAT units later period. What was their role in the line? Did they have a role? Their role was to stop it. They were brought in when they local police department realized they couldn't stop it. And they asked for assistance. And so there was this riding going on. So it was natural to call them. And they came in. But they were also shocked because they had to deal with the same angry homosexuals and street people that the local police department couldn't handle. And they only feared a little better because they had more experience in knowledge and were more vicious with their attacks because they used their clubs. They
used their weapons. And they knew how to do that more because they had the the precinct police had no knowledge of how to deal with street tactics or street demonstrations except holding their ground. And the T.P.F ran after us. They were active. When did they put point of the rise? Do you remember when they came in? No, no. I just know I recognize them because they wore on their shirts T.P.F rather than the number because most of the police stations just had the number 10 for the 10 precinct or something. These had T.P.F. And so and I also recognize some of my friends from previous events. I mean they're they're especially trained police. I hadn't met them in the peace movement in the civil rights demonstrations. They had they had helmets and they had clubs which is different which that was the other
difference. Now the problem has been 40 years ago. So I mean over the years the police have now added helmets to their to the how they dress for these things. I don't think they had helmets but they definitely worked as a group as as a as a unit and they didn't have shields at that time but they had clubs and longer clubs. The the the things they just worked dealers as a unit. They were much more organized. They weren't single police standing there. Not at all just the opposite. I was invigorated. I'd seen something I've been waiting for my whole life. I've been by 1969. I already had been seven years in protest movements. I had lots of experience. I was I've been played major roles in many movement organizations and this was a dream come true. I was waiting and I didn't know I was waiting for for that weekend. It was we had
talked about forming a gay militant organization but I was not particularly excited by the thought of it ever happening and Stonewall convinced me it was possible. So just just to be clear as my voice won't leave me. Can you say something like you know I fought for this many nights but I was never exhausted. Each night was was thrilling. It was a place to be for me. I was young. I was 20 years old. I you know for for most young people 20 years old you're looking for action whether it's you know beach parties or movies or or concerts whatever. For me as a political person fighting the police was accepting thing at the time and for me having gay people fighting the police was the most exciting thing possible. I could never have envisioned in my life earlier there would be other gay people willing to join me in physically fighting the police and that's what we did and it was there's
it was it didn't get rid of my energy every night I was just enthused by because new I'd meet new gay people there was new people who would join us every night and that was just so exciting there that have gay people willing to work with me to fight against injustice and discrimination the fight back against police abuse was there's not enough words to describe it it was just it's it has remained exciting to me ever since. Tell me about you know you're the marches that follow and were you a part of it and did you did you feel like it was important. Craig Robwell approached me and wanted to do some kind of anniversary march for Stonewall and I thought that was a great idea and so I joined as part of GLF the Pride Committee and I advertised it. I went to Cleveland, Ohio and announced it to an anti-war conference. I was very much involved with the 4000 got them to
vote to support it at that at that conference when advertising it. I was very much involved so I was able to use that and I was openly gay so I went out and I spoke before radical groups and non gay groups and among them were gay people to come to New York and take part in that march. And what is the march mean to you? Well the march was was a continuation of Stonewall it was basically that we were proud of our resisting the police and that we were willing to stand up and stand our ground and want our rights and and the police of course tried to prevent that march. They blocked the march they wouldn't let us march we what we did is we we assembled on on Christopher Street at 6th Avenue to March they put up barriers refused to let us march they said we had no right to march because of course it was against the law to be homosexual to congregate
and so we went around the other way down the side street think down 10th and ran out onto 6th Avenue and started running up 6th Avenue to get past the police who were trying to block us and there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people probably a thousand people and we got the street and more and more joined us and there was many walking along the sidewalk who were lying to join us but we were still afraid and and we were just delighted because we had no idea we were going to finish the march we had no permit we had no speakers planned for the rally in Central Park where we had hoped to get to we didn't expect we'd ever get to Central Park we were delighted we pushed the police back at 23rd Street 34th Street they put the barriers and cars right across to the 42nd Street we pushed through them they we were willing to fight there the police which we had to fight we had to fight the police again on the first march to get up 6th Avenue and then after 42nd Street they left us alone and we we marched into Central Park
into the sheet meadow and we just joyously looked at how many were behind us we could not believe there were thousands thousands joined us I mean we knew our time had come you know because we had no idea that we would make it to the to the to the rally site and they have so many people join us because we we thought it would be a small number of people and there were thousands who came out clearly they were inspired it was the time of course yes yes hugging and crying and and and there was not enough words to describe it was just joy it was absolute pure joy we were just jumping up and down and excited with each other to be on top of that hill and to look down in that park and to see large crowds of gay people they are together I mean it was it's it's undescribable in words I mean you know here I'm a I'm a young person who spent years trying to find other gay
people and try to find other gay people who would be struggling and fighting for social change and here on that day I saw thousands willing to do that and I mean that was after a year of you know Stonewall we had formed the gay liberation front prior to that we marched as a group up up to the central park but none of us knew there would be that many I mean we just we're small groups of people gay liberation front meetings were not large numbers of people you know we had 30 people you know the meeting 50 people tops the biggest and we were just delighted that there was so many people well since then we've had a movement that is merged that has marches in every city in the United States and in many countries overseas marches that are in hundreds of thousands Australia's had a million people marching at one night you've had huge marches I take part in the ones in Los Angeles in New York there are hundreds of thousands of
people I usually just march in the march I don't stand out you know but people there are joining I know me personally what it means to me to have all those people out there who who've joined a movement and it means so much to me that they don't know it when I'm marching to see the fruits of my labor and work they know something they don't know a great deal they don't know that there was a lot of violence they also think it was just drag queens who were basically who did the violence and there were some drag people who did violence but it was mostly just street kids who did most of the violence and and there's a not knowing of that history that's continuing which is to not even identify or recognize me it's ironic you know because every five years I come to New York and they put me on top of a float and I go down the street leading the march
but in my own city of Los Angeles they never asked me to be to do in the parade which is ironic because I'm too militant do you think people do what would you like you know generations to come I would like the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp for the Stonewall Rebellion and hopefully we'll have one by the 50th anniversary I'd like to be living long enough to see the U.S. Postal Service issue a Stonewall stamp I would like to see the United States government make sure that there's no more discrimination against people for whatever the reason is I'd like to live long enough to see that and I'd like to see it beyond the United States I also would like the United States government to stop funding nations that commit violence and oppression against gay and lesbian people because right now as we sit and speak right now the United States government gives millions of dollars to countries and nations that murder gay and lesbian people legally whether it's Iraq or Nigeria we're sporting those governments
which are murdering gays and I think that that has to change the last question I had in my mind um you said you're a rebel why can't why couldn't they dissolve things peacefully in 1969 like the Madison was trying to do a bit more you know to assimilate a little bit more why why all the fighting well it's a very good question why the fighting if if we had not done the fighting if we had not done the struggle we would not have made the changes we've had made Frederick Douglass once said that the real change only comes to struggle and I believe that's really true that um you know for many years there were gay people who tried to be respectful and tried to live this great life and show by their own example how wonderful they were but most people didn't know they were gay or care because for most people homosexuals were dirt the lowest possible thing on earth it was better to be a murderer than be a homosexual
it's because gay people got together and struggled and fought for change is why we've made change and we would make more change if more gay and lesbian people and non gay people would join us and stand up and speak out most people when they hear anti gay comments saying nothing most people when they see anti gay activities in their own homes and neighborhoods do nothing so it's the complicity is why things haven't changed more so it's only when you struggle and speak out and everybody can do this it doesn't have to be a gay person but the problem is that most non gay people feel the reason they can't join a gay march and the reason they can't speak out is because then they would be identified as being gay and that is a horror that they don't wish to have which explains why they need to do it well isn't it in the end a human thing we're talking about homosexuals are human beings well I believe Stonewall is another step since the enlightenment
that has happened it's part of the civil rights movement it's part of the labor movement it's part of the women's rights movement and it's it's a logical flow and other movements have also benefited from it so whether it's the civil rights or whatever group of people who are discriminated against whether whether it be gypsies or whoever no one should be denied rights as a person everybody should be recognized for the humanity and should be treated as such equally and not be discriminated against and Stonewall helped move that forward oh sure yeah but you know that's what's important actually okay well there was leaflet's put
out by madashine to protest the police raids and we had to march so they were distributing those in in central park in the rambles which I went to and in another areas in public bathrooms like at the 42nd Street Public Library and and that's where I saw those leaflets that's different from Craig was Craig could have possibly been giving out flyers I think you know we some archives may have those but I didn't see them okay never I just could Gilligan cop was the cop who shot the young boy in the back that started the Harlem riots okay and I used to go over and pick it Gilligan's house in
American Experience
Stonewall Uprising
Raw Footage
Interview with John O'Brien, 3 of 4
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WGBH Educational Foundation
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Episode Description
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. Such raids were not unusual in the late 1960s, an era when homosexual sex was illegal in every state but Illinois. That night, however, the street erupted into violent protests and street demonstrations that lasted for the next six days. The Stonewall riots, as they came to be known, marked a major turning point in the modern gay civil rights movement in the United States and around the world.
Raw Footage Description
In this interview, John O'Brien talks about growing up gay in the 1950's, cultural oppression, the civil rights movement, Greenwich Village, the meat trucks, Stonewall, and the raids.
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Interviewee: O'Brien, John
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Chicago: “American Experience; Stonewall Uprising; Interview with John O'Brien, 3 of 4,” 2011-00-00, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; Stonewall Uprising; Interview with John O'Brien, 3 of 4.” 2011-00-00. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; Stonewall Uprising; Interview with John O'Brien, 3 of 4. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from