Photo by Warren Allen Smith
Sylvia Rivera, left, and Stephen van Cline
Figuring out the real riots veterans has been a battle
By Warren Allen Smith
I “outed” a straight. Not a gay. A straight! Listen up.
After what some of us considered “just a happening” in June 1969 at the Stonewall, not what one day would be credited with being a turning point of the contemporary gay rights movement, several of us participants formed Veterans of Stonewall (V.O.S.) in the mid-1990s.
Stephen van Cline volunteered to head the group, Sylvia Rivera volunteered to help raise funds and threw a party complete with entertainment, and I volunteered to be treasurer, after finding that money from Sylvia’s party was spent without any record of where it went.
With the less than $50 profits from the party that I was given, I started a Veterans of Stonewall checking account at Amalgamated Bank, insisting that both the president and the treasurer had to sign all checks. Except for meeting annually and marching at the front of at least five of the annual gay parades, however, V.O.S. transacted no further business.
Meanwhile, the bank charged monthly fees for such a small account, and when the fees represented more than the interest received, I suggested to van Cline that we close the account.
As treasurer I started by interviewing all prospective members, separating them into (a) were definitely there that week; (b) were not there but had been to the bar a little or a lot; and (c) were simply friends of our group.
Van Cline’s written statement to me indicated that he clearly was in the first group:
“The first night was probably the most dramatic and the most meaningful to me, because that was the night I was directly involved. My lover and I were stunned and thrilled to see our own kind talking back, berating the cops, and throwing pennies. After seeing the gratuitous bloody beatings in front of us and being called names, we began throwing bricks and cobblestones at the bar, which suddenly became the symbol of our oppression. The second night, Saturday, which we observed from the relative safety of the Rivera Cafe, was more violent and chaotic with more people, including outsider agitators. The third night was reported to be less violent. I got up early Monday morning (June 30th) in my apartment, a few blocks away on 15th Street, to the sound of heavy rain. I returned to my other art gallery in the country and the rain continued through Tuesday (July 1st). Many say the rain kept people from returning to riot. It is my opinion that we were going about getting the week rolling and involved in endless discussions of the meaning of what had happened. We did not get angry again until word got around, and the newspaper reports about the riots had widely circulated. Quite a few people returned on Wednesday (July 2nd). My only direct experience with activities that night was seeing bloodied people lying on the 7th Ave. sidewalk and against the buildings around the corner from the bar. There was action on Thursday night (July 3rd).”
Van Cline, however, was nowhere to be found. I could not get through to him by telephone or e-mail to sign the check. When I snail-mailed him to the addresses of van Cline & Davenport, Ltd., 1581 Route 202, Suite 179, Pomona, NY 10970; and to 3257, Route 10, Ashland, NY 12407 (518) 734-4357, asking him to phone or write, the letter to Ashland was returned, “Not Known.”
Thus ended V.O.S.
My 1969 Stonewall friend Danny Garvin had always been skeptical — he is one of the few who really were there on the first night, although hundreds claim they were. So was another veteran, Jim Fouratt, who believes that not even Sylvia Rivera was there the first night.
Part of the mystery was solved on April 15, 2006, when van Cline called me from (201) 337-4446 and said, “Yes, I am a big fake. I was trying to write a novel. I am not gay, but in order to obtain information about what it was like to have been gay in the 1960s, I joined the veterans groups. Only Sylvia Rivera saw through me, and I don’t know why she didn’t expose me to the others of you. Not only am I not gay, I have two children who now are in their 30s. My name is not Stephen van Cline but, no, I will not tell you what it really is. My business, van Cline & Davenport, Ltd., is called that, but Davenport also does not exist. I did have an art gallery fairly near the Stonewall, so technically I was near the riots when they occurred. But I was not involved and the information I wrote for you and which you put up onto the Web should be removed, for it is not true. William[son] Henderson, I think, is an even bigger fake. He could have been a character in my novel. … Yes, you have every reason to be angry with me, and I regret that the Amalgamated Bank account was depleted because you could not find me and checks required both our signatures. At least we meant well to make sure that funds would be honestly accounted for. Yes, I have a terminal liver illness and the prognosis is that I will live only a few more years — that is why I wrote you, in order to clear my conscience. Am I religious? Well, I’m a Christian Scientist. No, I gave up on writing the novel. I did learn how difficult life was for homosexuals, but I am truly sorry to have posed as one and deceived all of you.”
If you Google van Cline and his appraisal company, you’ll find that he’s apparently still in business. Was he threatened with death by someone who, like Sylvia, doubted he was involved except for the prospect of making money? Does he really have two children, and was he really a novelist? Journalists in the Pomona and Ashland areas might well do an investigative column about all this.
So what are my thoughts on the 40th anniversary? First, although I’m a gay journalist who has outed a few gays in my British column starting back in 1996, I never imagined I’d ever out a straight, if indeed that’s what van Cline is.
Second, I am honored at being called a veteran of the event that transformed the gay civil rights movement into one that caught the world’s attention. It’s as important as my also having been a veteran who led his company in 1944 onto Omaha Beach in Normandy.
Third, the building that houses the present Stonewall had two sections, and the original bar with the two jukeboxes was in the building just to the east of where the present bar is. It was here that many of us called home — a place where you could slow dance with old or new friends, where we couldn’t care less that it was grimy and Mafia-connected, for it was home base. Before the building’s two sections are sold to a Starbucks or other chain, it is imperative that the site be purchased and remade into a historical museum, one that is redesigned into a replica of what the Stonewall originally looked like, a place worthy of representing the gay civil rights movement, not only now, but for decades to come.