Did the death of Judy Garland trigger the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the gay liberation movement? The truth is, it depends who you ask.
To this day, the legendary singer’s death less than a week before the 1969 riots continues to be recognized as a considerable factor in the gay uprising that led to 13 arrests and many injuries at the gay bar Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Garland’s adoration in the gay community was of mythical proportions decades before her death from an accidental overdose of barbiturates on June 22, 1969. “She is an Elvis for homosexuals,” Barry Walters wrote in a 1998 article in The Advocate. He, like many, many others, believes her tragic end “may have” helped to ignite the five-night Stonewall rebellion.
Fifty-plus years and one deadly pandemic that forced its doors closed later, the hotspot may never open again because of mounting debt. But back in the ’50s and ’60s, not many businesses welcomed openly gay people in. The Stonewall Inn was one of the few that did. Police raids on gay bars were not uncommon at the time, but the 1 a.m. raid at the inn on June 28 took a turn, and police lost control of the situation. Things got violent.
In his book “The Gay Metropolis,” journalist Charles Kaiser also raised the possibility that Garland’s funeral service on New York’s Upper East Side on June 27, 1969 moved her grieving gay fans to stand up to bullying police during a raid on the bar very early the following morning.
RuPaul agrees. During a Feb. 1 tribute to Garland on “RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars,” he said, “Now it has been 50 years since Judy passed and on the night of her funeral, in June 1969, the Stonewall Riots occurred. Fed up with police harassment, the patrons of the Stonewall used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight; and the gay liberation movement was born.”
The 2015 film “Stonewall” also insinuates that there is a definitive link between Garland’s death and the Stonewall uprising, as does the song “’69: Judy Garland,” written by Stephin Merritt and appearing on 50 Song Memoir by The Magnetic Fields.
“The first brick the drag king threw / To draw blood from the boys in blue / Said ‘Here lies Judy Garland’ on it / it flew through historic air,” the lyrics go. “Judy Garland set us free.”
Trans activist Sylvia Rivera told historian Martin Duberman in his book “Stonewall” that she became “completely hysterical” when she learned of Garland’s death. The night of the singer’s memorial service, Rivera planned to stay at home and light some candles as a vigil to her, but her friend Tammy Novak begged her to join her at the Stonewall Inn.
Some eyewitnesses told Duberman that the gathering may have turned violent when a trans person hit an officer who was trying to force her into a police van. That person was Novak.
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt — who was also at the scene — does not agree with the theory that Garland had anything to do with the outbreak. He told the Washington Post in a 2016 interview that many of those rioting were gay or transgender street youth, and that they were more likely to listen to rock and R&B than to Judy Garland.
“There are people who connect [Garland’s funeral] to the narrative of Stonewall, and you’re not going to tell them it doesn’t connect, so let them have it,” he said. “It didn’t start the riot off, believe me.”
In David Carter’s book “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” he notes, “No eyewitness account of the riots written at the time by an identifiably gay person mentions Judy Garland. [The] only account written in 1969 that suggests that Garland’s death contributed to the riots is by a heterosexual who sarcastically proposes the idea to ridicule gay people and the riots.”
But what was it about Garland that elevated her to gay icon status? There are many theories as to the answer.
Following Garland’s 1967 concert at the Palace Theatre in New York, Time magazine consulted with psychiatrists to explain her appeal to gays. Keeping in mind that the ’60s was a very different time, one psychiatrist suggested that “the attraction [to Garland] might be made considerably stronger by the fact that she has survived so many problems; homosexuals identify with that kind of hysteria.”
William Goldman came to a similar conclusion in his January 1969 article “Judy Floats” in Esquire.
“Homosexuals tend to identify with suffering,” Goldman wrote. “They are a persecuted group and they understand suffering. And so does Garland. She’s been through the fire and lived — all the drinking and divorcing, all the pills and all the men, all the poundage come and gone — brothers and sisters, she knows.”