While the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village is widely remembered as the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement in America, another victory nearby on New York’s Fire Island also delivered an important legal victory for gay men exactly 50 years ago Saturday.
It took place one year before the Stonewall riots — and it also began with a police raid.
Just after midnight on August 25, 1968, officers from the Suffolk County Police Department pointed their boat south and motored across Long Island’s Great South Bay.
They disembarked at a Fire Island community known as The Pines, which, along with Cherry Grove, is one of two neighboring villages still popular with the LGBTQ community. The plainclothes officers then headed west, toward the sandy dune paths, known to the locals as "The Meat Rack," that connect the two communities.
There, plainclothes officers roamed through the pitch pines and shadblow trees and found what they were looking for: gay men having sex outside in the darkness of night.
The police arrested 27 men and ferried them back over the bay. That same morning 50 years ago, all of the men were charged them with misdemeanor counts of “consentual [sic] sodomy,” according to a New York Times report at the time.
Soon after, Karl Grossman, then a police and courts reporter for a now defunct Long Island newspaper, got a call from the Suffolk county police department, informing him of the arrests. Grossman, now a journalism professor at SUNY Old Westbrook, said this was standard procedure — giving names and ages of the arrested — but this time, the cop went further.
“And the next thing they’re saying is ‘this guy works at the Queensboro library,’ they give me all these details on these guys,” Grossman said.
“Clearly, they were trying to screw them,” he added. “Really trying to hurt them — not just arrest them, but to really ruin them publicly.”
“Clearly, they were trying to screw them ... not just arrest them, but to really ruin them publicly.”
Raids were somewhat routine back then. According to Grossman, an aggressive judge had sentenced some of the men to prison after they were arrested in raids that took place before 1968. As a result, Dick Leitsch, president of the New York Mattachine Society, one of the first LGBT rights groups, had retained the services of a lawyer to defend the other men detained in raids. The 1968 police operation snapped the Mattachine Society into action.
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“[Leitsch] told me at first, Mattachine had considered hiring New York City lawyers who would be specialists in civil liberties issues, but then they figured that the courts in Suffolk might view these lawyers from the city as ‘outside agitators,’” Grossman said.
Instead, the person they chose was a straight, cigar-chomping local named Benny Vuturo, a defense attorney who had once been president of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association.
When Vuturo got involved, things changed: He told all 27 men to plead not guilty.
Before 1968, men caught in the annual raids on Fire Island would quickly plead guilty, pay a fine, and hope that nobody back home in the big city would catch their name in the police blotter of a small-town Long Island newspaper.
“He was such a flamboyant, colorful, terrific character,” Grossman said of Vuturo, who died in 1991. “What he began doing is not copping pleas or anything like that — he hit the issue straight on.”
“He went to each of these arraignments, he announced, ‘not guilty, judge,’ and then he prepared to try the case.”
This time, under Mattachine and Vuturo’s plan, all 27 cases went to full jury trials. Grossman was there for some of the trials and remembers Vuturo’s courtroom strategy. He recalls the questioning going like this:
“He’d put the cop on the stand and he would say, ‘officer, what did you do?’”
“And the cop would say, ‘well, I was in the area of The Pines known as the Meat Rack and I saw the defendant.’
The cop would identify the defendant and then Vuturo would lead him into a trap.
“‘So I took my flashlight out and I shone it on the defendant.’
‘And where did you point the flashlight?’
‘I pointed it at his body and moved down the flashlight and illuminated his penis.’”
Then Vuturo would keep needling the officer: “his penis, huh?”
“And suddenly the cop is so red faced,” Grossman recalled. “And this went on at every trial.”
Vuturo would add that nobody would have found these men — obscured as they were by trees and total darkness — unless they went looking for them. And the maritime operation made clear that the cops went looking.
In closing statements, Vuturo would talk about criminality, murders, and other crime in Suffolk County, and point out that “here they are wasting all these resources on raids in Fire Island,” Grossman said.
Juries agreed with him: One by one, they acquitted all 27 men.
Consensual gay sex was not decriminalized in New York state until 1981, and it remained illegal in some states until the landmark 2003 Supreme Court ruling Lawrence v. Texas, which established that the constitutional right to privacy provided protections for sex between same-sex couples.
Grossman said that Vuturo thought a high court decision against state sodomy laws was within his grasp. “He actually wanted to lose once, because he felt if he lost once, he could then appeal and he could get the laws under which these guys were charged thrown out as a product of another time,” he said.
In a blog post, Grossman wrote Vuturo “was key to ending a Long Island witch hunt.”
The raid that began 50 years ago on August 25, 1968, set off a chain of events that helped pave the way for LGBTQ rights in New York state. Police tactics that had long cowed gay men into fearful submission were beaten back by a skilled defense attorney.
Like their peers at the Stonewall Inn, where a historic uprising took place less than one year later, these men fought back and won. Unlike Stonewall, this battle didn't take place in the streets, it took place in courtrooms.