Last week, the New York Times announced that it had unearthed some lost photographs of the Stonewall Inn uprising—just in time for the 40th anniversary of the event that birthed the modern gay-rights movement. Surprisingly few pictures exist of the protest, which began in the wee hours of June 28, 1969, with a police raid on a Mafia-run dive bar on Sheridan Square and lasted six nights.
And like most transformative moments in history, it’s become something of a party people wish they could have attended—albeit one in which bricks, bottles, and campy jeers met police nightsticks. In a way, it’s gay Woodstock (also celebrating its 40th). Every year at the Gay Pride parade, a troupe of grizzled geezers who make up the Stonewall Veterans’ Association ride in a 1969 blue Cadillac that was legendarily parked outside the bar that night. we were there, it says on their rainbow-hued website. The question is whether, decades later, it matters if they actually were there that night—or not, as some have suggested over the years.
Heading up the group is Williamson Henderson V, a onetime model who appears on the site in pictures with the likes of Mayor Bloomberg. He says he was a regular at the Stonewall and owned the Cadillac in question: “If anyone was gonna get caught up in that invasion, the odds were that it would be me.” On the site he then narrates his arrest on the first night of the riots, and how cops impounded his car.
It’s a compelling story, yet it won’t be found in David Carter’s book Stonewall. The author says, “I’ve found no evidence that leads me to conclude that Henderson was arrested on the first night of the riots,” or that his car was taken by police. Henderson says his Cadillac was driven off by a plainclothes cop. Seymour Pine, 89, who led the police raid, says he doesn’t remember a Cadillac, “but hey, this is over 40 years ago.”
In 2000, Duncan Osborne, an editor at Gay City News, wrote a story for the paper, then called LGNY, questioning Henderson’s veracity. (Henderson sued for libel, but the case was dismissed). There’s no record of Henderson’s arrest, but he says his lawyer later got the records sealed. “People ought to give credit instead of trying to besmirch other people’s reputations,” says Henderson. “I know more about Stonewall than anyone, dead or alive.”
Then again, hundreds of gay people—many of them runaways too gender-nonconforming to pass for straight—fought back against the cops. Must we verify that the quirky, lovable Stonewall Veterans were actually among them that first evening? Mostly they just seem to want to be in a parade. “It is a concern” that the Vets may not be authentic, says David Schneider, co-chair of Heritage of Pride, organizer of the parade, but pretty much anyone can march. (Yes, probably even the North American Man/Boy Love Association, he says, though, thankfully, “they haven’t tried to register for many years.”)
The Vets will have a float this year right behind the grand marshals, who include Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter of Milk. Henderson will be in the Cadillac, which won’t be up front this time but at the end of the parade. That’s because of logistics, not credibility, says Schneider: “They’re so honored and people want to talk to them, so they end up stopping a lot and backing up the rest of the march.” The new arrangement seems fine with Henderson—though “let’s call it the finale,” he says.
Charles Kaiser, who wrote The Gay Metropolis, thinks the Vets’ verity is inconsequential. “It’s more important that we’ve reached a point where this is something that everyone would want to make the world believe they were a part of, rather than being terrified that their life would be over,” he says. Of course, Kaiser’s book suggests that another Stonewall Vet, Stormé DeLarverie, may have been the legendary lesbian, unidentified to this day, who set off the crowd by resisting arrest, whereas Carter says she wasn’t. DeLarverie, now 79, says she was there but would reminisce no more: “Honey, I don’t live in the past. It was done, taken care of. And people got their rights.”