In the summer of 1969, as a rebellious counter-culture movement rippled across America, a flashpoint for gay rights erupted at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. On June 27, cops raided the popular gay bar, which wasn’t that unusual in 1969 when city-sanctioned police harrassment of gay people was the norm. But on that night patrons decided to fight back. What followed was an outbreak of violence between gay demonstrators and police that led to several nights of protest in the streets of New York City.
The uprising became known as the Stonewall riots, and it marked the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States.
The Stonewall riots occurred after years of a gay subculture became more and more public in many prominent U.S. port cities. One of those was Charleston. Why port cities? Because of the presence of military men who got kicked out of the service, says Charlie Smith, a gay West Ashley real estate broker and former S.C. House candidate.
“It really kind of happened after World War II. Those were the places where people who were put out of the Army when they were caught in the relationships, that’s where they went,” he says. “There really wasn’t much of an option to go anywhere else. We had a large active duty presence here, and it was always a big part of the gay community here in the ’60s.”
So, what if Stonewall hadn’t happened in New York City in 1969, but rather right here in the Holy City?
For Warren Redman-Gress, director of the Charleston-based Alliance for Full Acceptance, that’s just really hard to imagine.
“We don’t have militant gay men,” he laughs. “It would have been hard to find people who would fight back. It would have happened in a lesbian bar, not a gay bar.”
The thing is, Charleston was just so different from New York City back in the days of Woodstock. The Big Apple was home to entire gay neighborhoods, and they were largly populated by gay men who had moved from places like Charleston.
Not that Charleston didn’t have a gay subculture in the hippie-dippy days, or even before that. It was just underground.
Being gay was much more closeted here than in the Empire State, according to Harlan Green, a College of Charleston archivist. The LGBT community in the Holy City largely kept their sexuality to themselves in public, and in turn they weren’t harassed. “There was always an issue of manners,” he says. In a way, Green puts it in a similar perspective as racism. While racism was rampant in Charleston during the Jim Crow era and it was a city that was also economically unfair to blacks, Charleston County never had a lynching, he says. But that certainly doesn’t mean that blacks had an ideal existence here.
Charleston had its gay bars during the time period of the Stonewall riots, but as far as Green knows, none of them were ever raided by police.
Even in the 1950s there were many bars in town that were what Green calls “mixy.” Those bars had back rooms where gay patrons would hang out. “Charleston had many cruising areas at the time, and police would periodically bust people for public indecency,” he says. “But again, there always was that live-and-let-live kind of thing — unless the neighbors complain or unless you’re doing it openly out in the street.”
That idea of being discreet also came with knowing one’s place back then, Green says. There’s a saying in Charleston that you could basically fuck an elephant on King Street as long as you did it in a dinner jacket. In other words, as long as you maintained the social norms.
“People still had their place here, and the police weren’t going to monkey with you if you stayed in your place. And that was the thing about the obstreperous gay people in New York,” Green says. “They didn’t stay in their place.”
Things have obviously changed. In 2004, Smith came close to being the first openly gay lawmaker in South Carolina when he took 48 percent of the vote against then-Republican Rep. John Graham Altman.
Years ago, Smith catalogued all of former Mayor Gailliard’s correspondence from 1957 to 1975 when the city first opened its division of archives and records.
“Charleston was scared to death of race issues in the ’60s. The gay people weren’t on the radar,” he says. “I know what was on the mind of the mayor at the time, and it had nothing to do with us.”