Stonewall veterans reflect and celebrate at NYC Pride March

Stonewall veterans Rev. Magora Kennedy and Joseph Negrelli wave to the crowd during the NYC Pride March.
Stonewall veterans Rev. Magora Kennedy and Joseph Negrelli wave to the crowd during the NYC Pride March. Photo Credit: Liam Quigley

“We started it, now you finish it!” 

When Stonewall veterans Joel Snyder and Rev. Magora Kennedy shouted the joyous rallying cry from the roof of a double-decker bus making its way down Fifth Avenue, the rainbow-clad crowd packing the street for the NYC Pride March screamed and cheered. Some shouted “I love you!” and made heart signs with their hands, while others belted out their thanks. 

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the legendary riots that kick-started a new era of collective action for gay civil rights, and veterans who were present or involved in subsequent organizing received a hero’s welcome at Sunday’s parade. One of the freedom fighters said she’s loved every minute.

“From 1969 until now, it’s been fantastic,” beamed Kennedy, 80, who said she was right alongside drag queen and celebrated activist Sylvia Rivera the night the riots began. 

Those who were members of the LGBTQ community in 1969 have seen a lot of change. Stonewall veteran Joseph Negrelli, 67, remembered seeing the paddy wagons roll up to the Stonewall Inn and realizing a raid was taking place. He had been drinking in the bar that night but had stepped out for a breath of fresh air and remembered feeling terrified.

“It was a little daunting to say the least — it was actually unnerving,” he recalled. “And I knew what was going to happen, I knew we were going to be raided, but I was outside the bar, thank God, so I wasn’t going to get my family in trouble. … If you were gay, you were discriminated against and your family was discriminated against.”

Police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 and began making arrests — but bargoers fought back, hurling objects at police. Negrelli remembered the first bottle being thrown, and then a second, and then a garbage can — and he remembers a police officer threatening to shoot his head off. Half a century later, he said, it’s surreal to see the same Christopher Street decked out with rainbow flags.

“50 years later, look at what happened,” he said. “I’m a little amazed — I’m actually a lot amazed, to be honest with you.”

Negrelli joined some of his fellow surviving Stonewall veterans outside the historic inn on Thursday, for an event marking the anniversary, and then joined them at the march on Sunday atop the bus. The reunion was organized by SAGE, an organization advocating for LGBTQ elders, which partnered with Airbnb to fly in and host attendees who live out of state. 

Stonewall veteran Joseph Caldiero, 66, now lives in Utah and flew in for the anniversary and the march. He was only 16 when the riots broke out and had been drinking and dancing in the bar when the lights went on and the cops came in. “I was so scared of everything else, but what I was really scared of was the bar going away,” he said. “It was the only place we could go.”

Rather than dispersing, he recalled that more and more protesters gathered around the inn until they far outnumbered the police officers. When objects went flying, he joined in. “I didn’t have anything to throw, so I threw a shoe,” he said.

When the riots died down, the momentum kept going. LGBTQ organizations quickly began forming, including the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. Caldiero would later help organize with the Gay Alliance of Brooklyn, which kicked off in 1971.

On Sunday, seeing the adoration from the largely younger crowd from the top of the SAGE bus, Caldiero was overwhelmed. 

“It doesn’t feel real at all, but I love seeing these young gay people and lesbians — they’re beautiful,” he said.

“I see these little guys waving and yelling, ‘Thank you.’ It feels so good. That’s what it’s all about.”