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A Stonewall Survivor Spills All

Jessica Montez June 1969

Pictured: Titus Montalvo as Jessica Montez in June, 1969 | Photo courtesy of Titus Montalvo

Stonewall is practically causing riots all over again. Online protests recently erupted when a trailer surfaced for Stonewall — the upcoming Roland Emmerich-directed film about the legendary West Village uprising of 1969 that defined the modern gay movement — and it wasn’t exactly heavy on people of color, to name just one complaint about what was deemed a serious lack of inclusion.

Angry LGBTs cried that this fictionalized personal drama built around the real situation is obviously a whitewash and should roundly be boycotted by anyone who cares about truth in storytelling. Well, Stonewall’s creators started responding to the uprising. Emmerich stated the film does honor actual Stonewall legends Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Ray Castro.

The lead actor, Jeremy Irvine, said “a fictional black transvestite” throws the first brick, Marsha P. Johnson “is a major part of the movie,” and “Jonny Beauchamp gives an extraordinary performance as a Puerto Rican transvestite struggling to survive on the streets.” And screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz posted on Facebook that he has great respect for filmmaker Emmerich “AND I also have tremendous empathy for those who think they are being…made once more invisible. I really do not think that's what this movie is…But such an erasure would be heartbreaking to me, as a man of principle....The movie is about one young man's awakening to the reality of what it means to be 'the other'. It is not the definitive story of a revolution; that film has yet to be made — but it’s a humanist's dramatization of how the disenfranchised are empowered by rage...” Baitz quoted Jesse Jackson’s words when reflecting on some of his mistakes (“…I am not a perfect servant….”) and concluded, “I stand before people who are angered by a film they have yet to see, and ask that their open hearts allow that the film be judged on its own merits and not by the demands of a marketing department…”

To get to some real details (not Hollywood-style ones), I rang Titus Montalvo, a Puerto Rican-American hairdresser who was at Stonewall the night of the fateful incident that forever changed how our community is looked at by others, and by ourselves. Here’s our fascinating conversation.

Musto: I can’t believe I’m talking to someone who was at Stonewall that night. Please tell me all about your experience there.

Titus Montalvo: I was barely 16. I lived on the Lower East Side, and I hung out at Stonewall every night. That was the place to go. We slept during the day and then went to Stonewall. This was our way of socializing. Even if there were just two or three of us, we’d still be there. Everyone brought whatever boyfriends we had and danced slow and would not be harassed. Before that place opened, we went to the Bon Soir, which had the same owner.

What was the crowd like at Stonewall?

Spanish drag queens, black, some Anglo. There was International Chrysis, Bobby and Kim, who were twins, and Monique Taylor, a transsexual. She had herself done up like Elizabeth Taylor. She was really, really beautiful. A lot of drag queens and a lot of gay men and a lot of Hispanic and black. There was a lot of what they called semi drag. At that time, you needed three articles of men’s clothing not to be busted. If you looked very femme, the cops busted you. So you might have a blouse with a men’s T-shirt underneath, for example. A lot of times, the cops harassed you a little bit, but as long as you had that, you were pretty, and you did favors, you went about your business.

What kind of favors?

You gave a cop a blow job. You went to the waterfront and did it.

Did the club get busted a lot?

When you were in the club and the lights flickered, it meant the police were coming. You calmed yourself down, and they’d come in, get their envelope in the kitchen area and leave. Even at the Bon Soir, it was a natural that the lights would flicker, everyone would calm down…that was it. This night, for some reason, I remember twice the lights flickered. The cops came twice. The first time, everything was fine, as usual. The second time…Well, normally, the cops never mingled with us. You’d sit your ass down and let them leave. They usually never approached us, never asked us for ID. That night, they approached the crowd. I was in the inner part of the bar and it started there with some harassment and it got out of hand. They started pushing and shoving. During that time, the drug of choice was barbiturates. They make you pretty aggressive and make you stand up for yourself. “I’m not backing down.” Someone didn’t back down, and they decided to take us. They took us in paddy wagons. Gay onlookers started screaming: “Leave them alone. Leave them alone.” Somebody got wind of what was going on there and the photos were taken. I had a medium-sized number of barbs with me, and I handed them out in the paddy wagon. It was either that or you get busted for drug possession.

So everyone downed them very fast?

Very fast.

Who else was with you?

There was a drag queen named Cuca. The cops were fascinated by her. But the drag queens were beginning to take female hormones: estrogen. In those times, we didn’t have transsexuals. We had sex changes, drag queens, or semi queens. Semi-queens meant you were femme looking, maybe hair in a little bubble, put a little makeup on, but stuff that could be taken off easily. I had been busted for female impersonation. I did it in order to avoid being beaten up — you have to remember the Lower East Side was very rough. So once I started passing, I was fine. I lived that way till I was 18. Till today, I’m a very androgynous looking person.

Titus

Titus Montalvo today

So do you identify as a woman?

No, I’ve always identified myself as androgynous. When I was a female impersonator, it was for safety reasons more than anything else, and because I could pass. “You’re a fucking guy? No shit.”

It’s ironic that by oppressing you, society forced you into full drag.

I worked as a female. My hair was down to my waist. And I had no facial hair yet. I worked at a restaurant and I worked at AETNA insurance company on Wall Street in their cafeteria. I totally passed. I dressed as a woman. I wore a slip with a cod piece. I called myself Jessica Montez and I even got ID and a social security card as Jessica. I said I was a Vietnam widow. There was less doubt of people questioning me. Who would question a widow with a child?

You had a fake child?

My niece looked like me. She passed as my daughter. I was young. It wasn’t to disrespect our men in the armed forces. [Laughs.]

Did you ever turn tricks?

Yes, as a young semi drag. There were seven of us. We used to call ourselves the Baby Beauties. One of them was murdered and another disappeared. Some girls didn’t tell their tricks they were men and they got killed. I had seen friends get killed or stabbed, all over their face. Out of my whole little group, I’m the only one alive. This was pre-AIDS. The deaths were from a lot of drugs — heroin — and from getting killed.

So your johns always knew in advance that you had male genitals?
Yes.

Back to Stonewall: Who threw the first bottle that night?

When the fight started in that corner of the club—at the end of the bar—one very tall Spanish queen named Joey and a couple of black drag queens were at the corner at the time.

What percentage of the crowd was Hispanic or black?

At least 70%. The Spanish group was the Delightful Ladies. The black group was the Blackwell. There were no leather queens there. There were leather bars for leather people. The majority of people at Stonewall were either drag queens or gay men of color. You could never go to Julius [a nearby bar] unless you were extremely conservative and well dressed. We were never allowed there.

What did the cops do to you once you were busted?

In those days, if you were busted, the first thing they did was shave your head. They’d crop your hair right off. It was to humiliate you.

Like in women’s prison movies.

That night, I went to the precinct, I got rid of all my Tuinals, I got out in the morning, and went back to the club that same night. That didn’t deter people.

And what was the mood at that point? Full of rage?

For us, it was business as usual. The third night, people had already gathered outside. The cops weren’t coming in. The lights weren’t switching on and off anymore. They were just harassing people in front. It got ugly, with the pushing and shoving. Even if you were standing by, you went into the paddy wagon. I went three times that week. But I didn’t get finger printed. In those days, they didn’t do all that crap. They put down something about “inducing a riot.”

And how did the movement develop after that historic week?

I marched in the first parade, in 1970, which was a result of Stonewall. There was a big to do. The lesbians didn’t want the drag queens. The big butch queens didn’t want the drag queens up front because were weren’t representative of the movement. Whatever. Eventually, it was straight looking gay men, lesbians, and drag queens.

Looking back, what was the importance of that experience?

I never thought that action there would start a revolution. It took years. The fact that we were just marching, even if we were just drag queens at the back of the line, it’s OK, we were present, we were part of it. It’s almost like you settle for bread crumbs. We were included!

IT TAKES A VILLAGE PERSON

Gay superheroes of the post-Stonewall era were celebrated with the Village People-themed party thrown by singer/rich person Sir Ivan at his Hamptons mansion, where buses took throngs of wackos on Saturday for salmon, vodka, and mayhem. Inside Sir Ivan's castle, people were cramming into a large, glitzy bathroom for God know’s what, which prompted a cop to bang on the door and yell: “Bust it up, people!” Fortunately for them, it turned out to just be someone in Village People attire, not a new variation on the Stonewall raid. And all over the grounds were faux construction workers, leather studs, and military men, all of whom were as virile and masculine as the original group, lol.

At one point, Sir Ivan grabbed me to exclaim, “I’ve given $200,000 to LGBT causes—and there’s more!” to which I opened my pockets and stuck my tongue out as a very subtle hint. The original VP cowboy, Randy Jones, was there, and I joked to him that the original Indian was waiting outside with a weapon. And a lovely young lady approached me to say: “Remember me? I was the club kid Julius Teaser. Now I’m Julie!”

Maybe the night’s most memorable moment was opening a door in the castle and fascinatingly finding a closet full of dildos and one large fake vagina. Omar Sharif, Jr. — the late actor’s gay grandson — gamely posed by the female part, upon which I quipped: “Lawrence of a labia.” 

Rita Rudner

RITA RUDNER’S TALES FROM THE BROADWAY CHORUS LINE

And the ‘70s kept coming back like a possessed glitter ball! In her 54 Below debut last week, Vegas moneymaker Rita Rudner told the crowd about her days as a Broadway performer in the disco decade. Rudner was an ensemble player in the classic Follies and remembers Yvonne DeCarlo sitting in her dressing room and missing her cue, the band vamping endlessly to the intro of “I’m Still Here” as DeCarlo was dragged down to the stage while yelping, “I’m coming!” Rudner also recalled an even more unsavory mishap when she was in the original run of Annie. “We were really sick of that ‘Tomorrow’ song,” the funny lady admitted. “You hear it so many times—it gets sung five times in the show. Well, we were listening to the loud speaker and heard really strange noises when Annie was singing ‘The sun’ll come out…’ The next thing we heard was, ‘Quick, get in the wings! The dog’s throwing up!’ ” I guess he was sick of it, too, lol.

Rudner’s other yucks included dishing about current food trends (“Am I the only one here who’s starting to feel a little bit sorry for glutens?”), her experiences in Vegas (“We have a fine arts museum there. It’s a drive-through”), and the propensity for surgery amongst her friends. (“At lunch, I said to one of them, ‘Wait, something’s different. Didn’t you used to be a man?’ ”) Apparently the sun will come out tomorrow.

ELEVEN CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF A TONY

The winner for Best Column is…this one, but even more importantly, the next Tony race for Best Actress in a Play will be the tightest one in years, as my neurotically predicting self has bothered to notice way prematurely. In the running will be no fewer than six Tony winners: Cicely Tyson for The Gin Game, Annaleigh Ashford for Sylvia, Nina Arianda for Fool For Love, Sophie Okonedo for The Crucible, Linda Lavin for Our Mother’s Brief Affair, and double Tony winner Andrea Martin for Noises Off. On top of that, add double Oscar winner Jessica Lange for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, triple Emmy winner/double Tony nominee Laurie Metcalf for Misery, double Oscar nominee Keira Knightley for Therese Raquin, double Tony nominee Eve Best for Old Times, and Olivier winner Nicola Walker for A View From The Bridge. Has there ever been such a richly awarded group of people vying for another award? And am I the only theater queen who cares this early in the game?

As long as we’re in an awards-listy mood, let me inform you that the big trend in upcoming Oscar contenders is biopics! Even more so than last year! Get ready to learn more than you ever dreamed of about real-life historical figures played by big stars. Coming soon are Miles Ahead (with Don Cheadle as jazz musician Miles Davis), The Walk (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as high-wire artist Philippe Petit), Spotlight (a trio of newspaper columnists), Suffragette (British women’s movement pioneers), Bridge of Spies (Cold War personalities), I Saw the Light (Tom Hiddleston as country singer Hank Williams), Truth (Robert Redford as news anchor Dan Rather), Black Mass (Johnny Depp as mobster Whitey Bulger), Freeheld (LGBT rights figures), Snowden (Gordon-Levitt again, as controversial leaker Edward Snowden), Steve Jobs (starring Michael Fassbender), and Trumbo (Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo). Oh, and, of course there’s Stonewall, though it remains to be seen if that’s some sort of biopic or glorified fiction. Here’s hoping for the best.

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