Adam in the Morning
At one in the morning, 28 June 1969, the New York policemen from the 6th Precinct, led by Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, on Christopher Street in the West Village in New York. This was normal. The cops had raided the same bar earlier that week, and they had raided three other bars in the weeks before. What was unusual that night was that, when the customers were herded out of the bar, instead of going submissively, they rioted. Before the night was over, there were several thousand on the street, and the next night there were twice that many. The cops lost control of the streets both nights. Then, four nights later, when the Village Voice misrepresented the riots, reporting that it was merely “fag follies,” they rioted again.
Many of the following facts about the riots are drawn from David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots and Sparked the Gay Revolution. I used his book as the framework for my treatment of the riots in Adam in the Morning. It is a fine book. Other sources are listed in the text.
The first questions these facts raise are: Why did LGBTQ people get so pissed, when they hadn’t gotten pissed before? It is possible that LGBTQ people had seen African-Americans demonstrating in the street for years—at least ten whole years—and it didn’t seem to matter how effective their demonstrations in the street were or weren’t, they got to express their anger at the cops in the street, and now here the cops were dragging gay people off to jail who had done nothing but buy a drink. I think it suddenly swept the crowd that gay people were going to fight back like black people.
Inspector Pine and the Sixth Precinct cops had driven LGBTQ people to the point where they no longer cared who they offended or what they would do in return, or how much it hurt. They had turned the LGBTQ people into rioters. Someone yelled something to the crowd when a woman was being beaten by the cops. Help her! is thought to be the first rebellious shout from the crowd, and then, since the abuse went on, the responses got bigger and louder and harder. Someone, frustrated at his or her inability to respond effectively, picked up a rock and threw it, and everybody saw that and looked around for rocks for themselves. Then the air was full of flying rocks and cans, all heading toward the cops around the door of the Stonewall Inn. That was when the riots were full on.
Something like this happened nationally. LGBTQ people had watched and participated in the civil rights movement while being abused themselves. Their anger at their own abuse was submerged beneath all the powers of the culture which were arrayed against them—the military, the State Department, the “helping” professions, the education establishment, which, at that time was being encouraged by the CIA to limit the participation of gay people in the culture, in sports, both collegiate and professional, and everywhere else in the culture. It gradually came on some of them—LGBTQ persons—that they were an abused, discriminated-against minority just like blacks and women, and that the best response was to fight back.
Just as the Stonewall Riots started when someone shouted “Help her!” it was the Stonewall Riots themselves that seem to have set off the national gay liberation movement. The LGBTQ community, having watched and in many cases participated in the Civil Rights riots and demonstrations, was ready. It was also true that reaching the boiling point happened differently in different parts of the country, so that at the moment the LGBTQ community burst forth into riots in New York, there were other places that were on their own time schedule. In parts of the South it didn’t happen for years.
It happened in New York on the early morning of June 28,1969, and the feeling, afterward, was that everything had changed. It certainly changed my life. I was living in the Midwest at the time. I realized that there was another option for a gay man, aside from marriage to a woman or a life in the shadows. Out and proud. And the question for me became How long am I going to stay in my marriage to a woman?
Years later, when I was thinking about all this, I wondered what had happened to all of us. We lived in a world where the people had been divided between men and women, and between those who desired to have sex with their own gender and those who desired to have sex with the opposite gender. By and large, these boundaries were rigidly enforced; and therefore in many places, it was as difficult to be gay after Stonewall as it had been before Stonewall. Even as the social norms loosened up, that is, even as LGBTQ achieved more freedoms, we still held to the rigid demarcation between men and women and between gay and straight. You needed to be a women or a man—they wanted us to make up our mind—among most gay people and most straight people. It was a matter of pride among most people that one was able to say, I’ve always fucked the opposite sex, or I have never fucked the opposite sex. For most of my life, it has never been OK to say, I don’t know why it matters.
Since it has been my experience people do usually want the rest of us to choose, I wondered what happened to the liberation that Stonewall was supposed to bring. It was out of this quandary that the seed grew into Adam in the Morning. During the three nights of rioting, everybody supposedly had the sense that everything had changed. But if you look at the issue of gender, it was still clear after the riots that there were two genders, as there were before. It took another forty years to get beyond that, and we’re still struggling. And most people in the gay community still speak of gay and straight and even think that way while they have in their group of friends men and women who have been married and who have children and have had available to them Martin Duberman’s Stonewall, and Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male and its statistics, and who could know, if they wanted to, that there is not any clear division between gay and straight.
30% of all males have at least incidental homosexual experience or reactions (i.e. rate 1 to 6 [on Kinsey’s seven-point scale]) over at least a three-years period between the ages of 16 and 55. This accounts for one male out of every three in the population who is past the early years of adolescence (Table 150, Figure 168). Kinsey, p. 650.
What happened at Stonewall that allowed it to go so far—but not far enough? I was sitting in the swing on my daughter’s front porch on one night in 2007 and thought of people. I had already written Ceremonies, Winter Rain, and Race Point Light, and I thought I now wanted to write about men who had already, even in June 28, 1969, moved beyond the coming out issue. They were out and waiting for the next big thing. I knew there were such men among the rioters at Stonewall from having read David Carter’s book, Stonewall (Chapters Three, “On the Street,” passim and Chapter Four,“The Stonewall Inn,” passim, Stonewall, David Carter), and other books about New York gay men. I thought it would be important to explore how they responded to the riots. Since I knew that the dominant image of the rioters was of street people—that is, mostly homeless teenagers—I knew that I needed source material for my guys. The rioters had not all been Puerto Rican drag queens.
There were some lesbians, hustlers, married people, single people, some transvestites, but not too many. It was the heart and soul of the Village because it had every kind of person there. Carter, p. 67.
In writing the book, I felt an obligation to base a description of a character on some person who had been described in one of the histories of the Stonewall Riots. For example, height. There seems to be an agreement that the fiercest fighters were the street people, which implies shorter people. Four of my characters, on the other hand, are grown men, six feet two inches tall. They are all based on a man named David Van Ronk, who was six feet five inches one of the first persons to be arrested in the riots. Von Ronk was straight and had come from a restaurant nearby to check out the scene. Having seen as much as he wanted to see, he turned to leave just as Deputy Inspector Pine and two other policemen pulled him off his feet and attempted to handcuff him (Adam in the Morning, p. 155-157). While many of the younger men or boys might have slender boyish body-types, at least some of the older ones had fully-grown and developed bodies.
The question of what a homosexual looks like occupies many more people than merely writers. John O’Brien was a college-aged member of the Young Socialist Alliance in New York. But he had been called in by the board of the YSA who were
reluctant to believe that he was homosexual: not only was he a hard-working party member, but his very masculine demeanor—including a very muscular physique—did not fit the gay stereotype. He also knew he could deny the accusation and they would believe him and the matter would be forgotten. But for O’Brien this was the moment of truth. He decided not to compromise his integrity and was summarily thrown out. Carter, p. 120.
There were all body types at Stonewall, and, as a writer, I could choose among them any physical appearance that answered the needs I had while I was writing Adam in the Morning.
But it seemed to me that what I could not, as a writer about Stonewall, choose a style for a gay character or a body type and write as if that were the only style and body type on Christopher Street that night. As long as I acknowledged that there were many styles and body types participating in the riots, then I would be free to choose a limited number for my characters. I was limited only by my inability to give a body-type to a character who performed one of the significant acts of the riots. We don’t know who threw the first brick or if there was a first brick, and the details of the riots remain hazy. As we saw from the release of the movie Stonewall by Roland Emmerich, people get attached to the idea of, for example, that there was a person who threw the first brick in the riots and to the identity of the person who threw the first brick. They want, I think, to give due attention to the race of the person among the fighters at the riots. In Adam in the Morning I stayed away from designating a person to throw the first rock or the first brick. This was not the story I was telling.
Another issue was Would they fight? Were these people politicized enough to actually take up arms against a sea of troubles that beset them. One of the first arrested was the musician Dave Van Ronk, the one who was straight and six feet five inches tall. I note that it took three cops to handcuff Van Ronk. Much of the popular conception of the rioters had to do with gender expression—they were at the extremes of masculinity or of femininity. The issue of gender has always run through the Stonewall Riots.
Only men were thought to be fighters. The police felt they could treat LGBTQ people anyway they wanted because gay people weren’t ever male enough to fight back. Cops could raid gay bars as often as they wanted because it was just easier to beat up gay people than “real” men.
The LGBTQ guys felt that this was at the root of the thousands-of-years-long oppression of LGBTQ people. And what was so shocking about the Stonewall Riots was that the rioters turned all that around. Fighting against the toughest cops in New York—the Tactical Police Force—they won. Drag Queens some of whom were slender effeminate guys, wearing dresses and makeup along with many more conventional males—tall men like 6’5” Dave Van Ronk, and “muscular physique” John O’Brien—all together won the riots.
Everyone understood that the goal was to take away the street from the cops, and if they could do that, they would win. They managed that for three nights, fighting against New York’s finest riot troops, who never brought out their guns. They had brought out their guns against black citizens all across America, but they weren’t going to bring out their biggest guns against American citizens who were largely white. I didn’t know whether this was so, but it seemed so. We never were told whether they were given orders not to fire on us.
Bo Ravich is the narrator of Adam in the Morning and the guy that the rest of the characters gather around. He is about 30, he has a good relationship with both of his parents, and always has had. He loves them. He came out to them when he was 16. Bo is white, and his first boyfriend was African-American. His parents knew and were welcoming. He went to public schools in Houston, then to Oberlin and finally, for an MA, to the University of Chicago. He studied history and politics, and wrote his MA thesis on a nineteenth century anarchist named Alexander Beekman. Bo has a magnetic personality and attracts people. Since college he has done community organizing. He picked up carpentering along the way and became good at it in Alabama, when he was doing voter registration. Bo is a stage carpenter in a repertory company production of The Tempest. A nameless man after the second riot says to him, “Everybody knows who Bo Ravich is.” One of Bo’s closest friends is the 15 years-old girl taken in by Bo and his partner, Andrew. She is named Mitzi, and she is said to be tough and pretty when she gets her act together. When she doesn’t, she’s just tough. At the beginning she tries to steal Bo’s wallet, now she comes and sleeps on the sofa every now and then. She tells Bo and the others to leave their wallets—except for one piece of ID—at home before they go to the second day’s riot. Bo thinks ahead, making plans about their lives, and it’s his apartment that they come back to every morning after the fighting.
It was important to me, in the course of writing my novel, that the novel be a realistic one, that it answer the question How is it for you there? in a real way to the reader and be convincing to that reader, convincing him or her that this set of riots in these days in the New York we know really could have been this way. I wrote the book as a novel, rather than as a history, because I didn’t want to say, this is the way it was for gay people there at that moment. I am not sure that absolute truth can be expressed about human behavior, beyond a listing of certain facts. I wanted freedom to explore ideas and feelings behind the riots rather than the facts of the riots themselves. This required that I propose characteristics for each of my characters—give them a context—which were grounded in the historic facts of the riots and which didn’t distort the meaning of the riots, but which explored the meaning of those facts, in the way of all novels. My character, Bo, came from a background which exists in America and which was described for me by a person I have known for almost fifty years. This person is white and during her childhood and young adulthood, her parents, who were also white, were on the faculty of an historically black college in the South. She told me of going to Oberlin and of knowing about a “Men’s Co-op,” which was composed of half straight men and half gay men. I thought the presentation of the Stonewall Riots in Adam in the Morning would be better grounded if the reader knew that some of its characters had come from accommodations with Jim Crow made over decades by American citizens. America is not composed of two kinds of people—progressive and conservative—it is a kaleidoscope of people, and the shift from conservative to something else may happen as one crosses the street onto the campus of the local university or into a diner. The shift may also happen as one moves from one part of one’s brain to another—one may be conflicted. These are more telling, more interesting facts about Bo than if I were to write, “Bo’s parents are progressive.” One is always, to some extent, at war, not merely with the Tactical Police Force but with parts of oneself, but it is very interesting that this war is with the culture and, like all wars, causes pain.
Andrew is Bo’s boyfriend. He is separated from his parents because, when he was in college, his parents didn’t want a gay son around anymore. They offered to send him to Europe for a year if he would give up “this thing you are so addicted to,” but he refused. He was already at Columbia, and was a member of the first gay student organization in America, The Student Homophile League, and with loans and scholarships. With the the support of his dean, he remained a student at Columbia until graduation. His parents didn’t have anything to do with him. He’s a waiter, and he writes for the RAT, the SDS paper, the East Village Other, the Guardian, the Queen’s Quarterly, Gay Power, and Screw and other counter-culture rags in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast. Bo says he is brilliant. Like Bo, Andrew’s life is a history of accommodation to an abusive life. He largely got an education before his parents decided to crack the whip, and then he learned to support himself and finish his education by waiting tables, all the while plotting revolution. His first response to the riots was to start a newspaper. As Bo says, it is his anger at his parents that drives him. The conflict between Andrew and his parents, is a relationship which many novels have been written about, Tom Jones, for an early example, proving that a novel can be driven by a conflict over political points of view between characters tied together by blood. It almost is in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Bo says that Andrew is “the most dispossessed of the four of us,” and “When Andrew wades into the battle on Christopher Street, he carries all these things on his back, this anger and hurt.” When I was writing this book, I wanted to show how, exactly how, a political conflict can lead to intensely personal hurt. There you have it.
Another person in that repertory company is Joseph, an actor, who shows up in Part 1 of the novel at the first riot and goes home with the others after the fighting is over for eggs and bacon and talk and sex. Bo and Andrew like him and he becomes part of the gang. He’s had experience in voter registration in Mississippi—Bo was also there—and he had experience in urban riots in Watts. He has a single mother, who raised him, and with whom he has a good, warm relationship. She understood why he needed to go to Mississippi for Freedom Summer and didn’t guilt-trip him. She’s proud of him. He and Mitzi know more about street fighting than anybody else, and Mitzi trusts him more than the others, although she doesn’t understand acting. How do you make a living pretending to be somebody else?
Joseph comes from a line of black people who are Caribbean-Americans—the French West Indies. When writing about him, I wanted to know more about the way black people came to America and found that the black families from the French West Indies came to Miami and then to New Orleans. They didn’t get to Los Angeles until about 1941. Joseph was two or three years old.
Joseph is the most politically sophisticated of the group. He’s up on black political theory. He points out that a good case can be made that black people should adopt a policy of separatism. Black leaders like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X had been saying just prior to June 28, 1968, that black people should separate themselves from white people for their better development. This point is discussed, seriously, and what is also discussed is its effect on the growing relationship between Joseph, who is black, and Bo and Andrew, who are white, and, of course, its implications for the relationship between LGBTQ persons and the straight people in America.
What was interesting to me about these discussions was the fact that you don’t often read gay novels which address this kind of issue, where a political situation causes a character deep pain. The “political situation” arising out of communal or societal determinations as well as state or federal legal determinations cause problems for the character. Novels have, more generally, arisen out of a more personal conflict. Joseph says he is falling in love with Bo and Andrew and they discuss moving in together, and then, on Tuesday night, he says We need to discuss this more thoroughly. Then he says, I am black, and you are white, and we have not discussed enough what that means. Now this is the kind of conflict that I am addressing here, which LGBTQ literature, in particular, has not addressed. This is not caused by some moral failing by any of the characters, nor, for that matter, by many gay authors. Nor is it caused by personal quirks conveyed by any of them. I don’t choose men very well. It is caused by a political and societal requirement placed on humans—I speak here of regulations like those that prevent marriage among or adoption—that humans, by nature, don’t submit to comfortably and do submit to differently. Some people adjust to these requirements better than others, some people don’t notice them, some make interesting accommodations, and some commit suicide.
The root cause of the way these people live their lives is that they live in a culture that makes requirements of them that they are not naturally responsive to. It is not a case, when you are growing up, that you learn you must work hard to succeed in life. It is not even a case that you learn you must control to some degree your sex drive. Our culture has developed marriage or living together or casual sex in response to that need. But if my culture attempts to control my sex, it is attempting to control something that arises ultimately out of my genes and in its development passes through deep parts of my brain. The culture is attempting to control parts of a human that simply cannot be controlled and are beyond choice. I think this is the reason so many countries have imposed capital punishment—execution—on homosexuals. They can’t control homosexuality in other way than by cutting off their heads or burning them alive or, lately, throwing them off the roofs of buildings. They can’t make them stop. When I was growing up in the South, I learned that my culture was racist, and, later, homophobic, and but instead of stopping my actions, which were offensive to them, I moved, then I moved again, and finally I left my profession, divorced my wife, and moved again. There aren’t many novels about men in that situation. But there are many hundreds of thousands of men in that situation.
Mitzi is a fifteen-year-old street kid, homeless, and no education. She doesn’t have the advantages the three men in the group have, the principal one being education. Whatever crimes Mitzi commits, and she commits some crime about every twenty minutes when she’s on the street, they are overwhelmed by the crimes her society commits against her. She was thrown out on the street when she was thirteen, and she was provided with no support from the city, state, or federal governments thereafter. When Bo and Andrew offer to buy her a hamburger after she tries to steal Bo’s wallet, she is deeply suspicious, thinking they were plainclothes cops. Every time they did anything for her, she wanted to know what they wanted for it. Her most significant quality is her bravery, which shaded over into bravado at times. She was heard saying, “I don’t take shit from nobody.”
My character Bo said of her, in Adam in the Morning:
“I think,” Mitzi says, “every time I go on the street I’m giving the finger to everybody in power, and I know that, and I think they know that too.” Adam in the Morning, p. 93.
Sometimes the political conflict at the heart of a novel is not so much a struggle as it is a refusal to bend, and that was Mitzi’s way.
The truth is, at fifteen, she has to take shit from a lot of people, because that’s the way things are set up. It’s the system, is what people say. It’s illegal for her to be on the street the way she is, and the cops can sweep her up and charge her with any number of crimes—with loitering, with panhandling, with creating a public nuisance, with prostitution, with vagrancy, with having homosexual sex, with wearing clothes that the arresting officer can say are not appropriate to her gender—and throw her into juvenile detention where she’ll be held until the criminal justice system is ready to send her to serious incarceration, and to do this so often that she will accumulate a long list of convictions so that each new sentencing will be of a repeat offender. She will end up spending the rest of her life trapped in the criminal justice system. It’s a trap she’s in and can almost not get out of, and all of this over gender violations so innocuous that, left alone, they would not damage a fly. It is important to remember that the folks charged with her care—her parents—threw her out on the street when she was thirteen. While murders go unsolved and public funds are embezzled and public officers are bribed—and the Constitution deeply violated by the highest officials in the nation—Mitzi and her brothers and sisters are tracked down in the public street by all the armed might of the city. Our culture never gave Mitzi much to begin with, and then it took away what it gave, and then it hounds her for not having what it’s taken away. And in the end, the newspapers call her and Violet and all their brothers and sisters the “dregs of the city.” Adam in the Morning, p. 204.
Saturday night, the four of them are walking up Christopher Street toward 7th Avenue, looking for the riots. They had been talking about the street kids, and their bravery on the street.
It seems, at the end of the novel, that she changes less than anybody else. It may be at her age and in her condition, that she had to be more rigid than the others just to survive. The others were stronger and more able to fight. It may be that her last chance to change—her Stonewall—was on her thirteenth birthday, so she had already made the changes she needed to make. She had learned what the world was like and what she had to do to live in it.
Sometimes I think that Adam in the Morning comes closer to my concept of a political novel than anything else I have written. The obstacles were clear, the goal was clear, and the difficulties the various people had with doing what they had to do were also clear. The Stonewall Riots are the iconic event in the history of gay liberation, even if there are other events that should be in that place. And so far as I know there has never been a novel about it. Our writers could focus on these great moments—not necessarily the best known, for I include here the narratives of Ceremonies and of Race Point Light—and write about how they affected our people and how our people affected them. The people in these novels, when they define their opponents, don’t go far enough beyond the phrase “the system.” Ruminating before he leaves the theatre to stumble into the riot the middle of the night Friday, Bo thinks this:
There’s a reason Negroes in America are poor and badly educated and have been for hundreds of years. There’s a reason that even Negroes in the North all live in ghettos. A class of people—that is, white men—benefits from keeping Negroes off the voter rolls and poor and down trodden. It is not merely that white men get rich off the backs of poor Negroes, although that’s true of some of them. It is that keeping Negroes down and keeping poor people down enable rich white men to decide how our cities are going to look and what countries we are going to attack and what ones are going to be our allies and to set up the tax laws and the welfare laws the way they find most beneficial to them, and enable white men to decide what books are going to be published on what subjects and enable white men to write the history books with the great narrative of the last 350 years in America and to apportion responsibility and blame in a way that is beneficial to them. One of the things the system accomplishes is that it enables those in power to escape responsibility and to blame others for their crimes and failures. Adam in the Morning, p. 4-5.
Bo gets it. It’s a “system” that’s screwing everything up, and the guys, including Mitzi, seem to understand that, but they drop back and don’t go far enough. In Adam in the Morning, I went as far as the historical record allowed me to go. I wanted this novel to be about the real details of this real event, and I didn’t want to give the characters information that was not generally available until later. It is only now, in 2018, that the youngest generation among us are demanding changes to “the system, ” and our society is finally realizing and becoming comfortable with the fact that our society has many more genders than two and many more problems than whether to give LGB persons their rights—and who else to give their right to. Our society will come to see problems we didn’t see before, writers will write about those problems when they didn’t before, publishers will publish, booksellers will sell, and booksellers will sell those books, and readers will buy and read them, opening up another vast world of subjects that require the close attention of the whole publishing industry, including the attention of publishers’ to ebooks and to POD books. A vast world of serious problems in the culture is going to need solving to bring them in line with the reality of our lives. This is the movement that will bring us all closer to the success that I mentioned at the beginning. It will immeasurably enrich our literature, and consequently leave behind us a more complete record of our lives.
This is the ninth in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.
David Carter. Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2004
Martin Duberman. Stonewall. New York: A Dutton Book, 1993
Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1940