When the cops arrived to raid the Stonewall Inn on the night of June 27, 1969, David Velasco Bermudez headed for the exits, but he couldn’t make his way through the crowded bar before getting hit in the neck by a policewoman swinging a billy club.
But then Bermudez, who at 29 had learned to submit to routine beatings by New York City police, did something different: He fought back, and so did his friends.
“We never, ever hit back,” said Bermudez, now 73, a retired interior designer now living in Cape Cod, Mass. “But we had just had enough of it. . . . It’s like Rosa Parks sitting inside a bus. We just did it.”
Gays and lesbians have been fighting ever since.
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On Wednesday, just one day shy of the 44th anniversary of the raid that launched the gay rights movement, the battle hit a crescendo when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that marriage is no longer the sole domain of straight couples.
“Oh, my God, it’s a whole different world,” said Bermudez, who called the change “mindboggling.”
While the court also said gay marriages could resume in California, it did nothing to change the gay marriage bans still in effect in 30 states. But legal experts said that the court’s rulings mark an irreversible step toward making gay marriage the law of the land.
Jesse Choper, a professor of public law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, called it part of the “egalitarian revolution” that has been growing in the United States.
“There’s a great increase in liberal attitudes, and it’s not just California. And efforts to stop it are being rejected,” said Choper. “It’s just a public attitude: Equality is viewed with much greater sympathy, and not only in race.”
In the end, the call for “marriage equality” proved to be a powerful strategy for gays and lesbians, many of whom were no longer satisfied with state-sanctioned civil unions and domestic partnerships.
They found increased sympathy as they put a spotlight on the differences in their relationships: Even in states with gay marriage laws, they had no access to the 1,138 federal rights granted to straight couples, including big tax advantages.
When the high court heard arguments in March, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took note of the disparity, saying the U.S. had created two kinds of marriage: “the full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage.”
After the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, gay couples who are legally married in states that allow gay marriage will not be shut out of federal rights and benefits.
“They’ll now get federal benefits and it will add to the momentum of the cause around the country,” said Dale Carpenter, a professor of civil rights and civil liberties law at the University of Minnesota. “It will add to the sense that this is the direction we are moving and need to move.”
With the addition of California, 13 states and the District of Colombia now have gay marriage laws, and seven others recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Marianne DelPo Kulow, an associate professor of law at Bentley University in Massachusetts, predicted that gay marriage across the nation will quickly reach a tipping point, with the Supreme Court now acknowledging that states have a right to regulate gay marriages. She said the court soon will have to rule on the state gay marriage bans.
Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriages in 2004, only a year after the Supreme Court threw out a Texas sodomy law. Legal experts say it removed a huge obstacle toward legitimizing gay relationships, taking away the argument that gays were presumptive criminals.
“It’s pretty phenomenal: If you look at other civil rights movements, I’m not sure you could track that much change in one lifetime,” said Kulow.
Carpenter cited two reasons why gay marriage is no longer the political hot potato of 1996, when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act: overwhelming support from younger voters, especially post-baby boomers born after 1964, and an avalanche of gays and lesbians coming out of the closet, introducing Americans to gay teachers, gay soldiers, gay neighbors, gay kids, gay athletes, gay mayors and gay senators.
“They have put a very human face on what would otherwise be an abstract legal cause,” Carpenter said.
Bermudez can count on immediate payoffs: He married Bob Isadore, his partner of 40 years, in Massachusetts in 2004, on the 35th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Isadore, 70, is a disabled veteran, and Bermudez said he now will be able to be buried next to his husband and eligible to receive part of his pension and Social Security benefits.
“I’m so happy,” he said. “You could say I’m hysterical. We have loved each other all these years.”
On the night that Bermudez walked into history, he went to the bar in Greenwich Village to have one quick beer and to join friends who were mourning the death of gay icon Judy Garland, the singer and actress who died of a drug overdose in London five days earlier. He said Garland’s death produced a huge outpouring of grief and may have fueled the response when police arrived.
After he got hit by the billy club, Bermudez said he was grabbed by a police officer who tried to take him into custody: “I said baloney: Everybody was fighting, so I fought back.”
In the past, he said, he and his friends did nothing as police officers beat them up, threw them in paddy wagons and took them to police stations. And he said he saw too many friends lose their jobs or apartments after getting arrested and then finding their names, addresses and telephone numbers published in local newspapers.
The riot made gay rights a national cause.
Four years later, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. In 1977, San Francisco’s Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay city commissioner. In 1980, the Democratic Party endorsed gay rights at its New York convention. The push for gay marriage quickly followed.
Bermudez estimates that only 20 of the 200 people who resisted police at Stonewall are alive. He and Isadore lived in the San Jose area in the 1980s, watching as AIDS took most of their friends.
Back then, he said, he thought he would die and that “the gay world is over.”
Next year, he plans to march down Fifth Avenue in New York City to mark Stonewall’s 45th anniversary. The other day, he said, a friend told him he’s lucky he can watch the big changes and share his story with younger Americans who have a hard time understanding the brutality of Stonewall.
“You know, he’s right: I’m so happy to be alive,” Bermudez said. “And while I’m alive, I’m going to let them know.”