A Stonewall Veteran Remembers: Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt on the Fight For Equality

by Matilda Young

For artist Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, a “gay street kid” in New York City in 1969, the Stonewall Inn was an escape -- a place where he and his friends could be fully themselves.

For artist Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, a “gay street kid” in New York City in 1969, the Stonewall Inn was an escape -- a place where he and his friends could be fully themselves.

Even though Stonewall wasn’t much to look at back then, Lanigan-Schmidt and his friends couldn’t afford to sit at the bar. So, to look like customers, they’d scrounge empty beer cans and fill them  with water so they could listen to Motown and dance.

Lanigan-Schmidt who was at the Stonewall Inn during the riots, explained in a recent interview with HRC that, while there were many elements to what caused them, the desire to listen to music together and dance was at the heart of it.

“Generally, me and my friends -- the other street kids -- we would go there just to dance with each other because it was the only place we could really feel free dancing with each other and not have to worry about getting harassed or anything. And we could dance slow with each other,” he said.

Lanigan-Schmidt said that dancing slow “added a ritual to our lives that straight people had that we didn’t have. Dancing slow is when you feel affectionately, fully human -- and that was denied to us.”

This connection with others, this chance to fully be yourself, were “what the police were trying to annihilate … and that really outraged everyone because in there,” he said, “we felt like we were safe, we were untouchable by the usual things.”

As Lanigan-Schmidt recounted in “Mother Stonewall and the Golden Rats,” his handwritten account of the events leading up to and on the night the riots started, it was a night that “Betty Badge got carried away.” The police, he wrote, came in with nightsticks raised, the juke boxes were broken, and “the dancing stopped.”

But that night and those that followed, LGBTQ people came together to resist police violence and oppression.

For Lanigan-Schmidt, the riots represented not just one moment of resistance, but rather a coalescing of a resistance that was happening all across the U.S., including on the street outside Stonewall.

“All the different stoops on Christopher Street were full of people socializing, young people exchanging ideas very much in the spirit of the 60s, within the civil rights movement way of thinking -- all about hope for our rights,” he said.

“I was 21, but there were people there as young as 14,” he said. “They were full of hope for better lives -- but no hope of going back to their families.”

Lanigan-Schmidt, fellow Stonewall veterans and other early activists were part of an LGBTQ rights movement being built with daily acts of resistance across the country, in the connections and conversations happening in spaces like Stonewall and along Christopher Street “cementing together a movement that was organic, but not called a movement yet,” he said.

Fueled by the energy and focus of the riots, the LGBTQ movement got going very quickly after Stonewall, Lanigan-Schmidt said. It was a movement that “always had a diversity -- there were all different kinds of people coming together.”

Fifty years later, Lanigan-Schmidt wants to make sure that the equality movement is doing all it can -- all we can -- to support LGBTQ young people, including strong messages of love and affirmation from parents.

Lanigan-Schmidt has his own message of resistance, resilience and celebration for activists carrying the fight for LGBTQ equality forward: “Things are fought very hard for, and certain things are gained, but they have to keep being fought for because they can easily be lost.”

“Keep at it and, most of all, keep on dancing.” 

Images of courtesy of the artist and Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, N.Y.