Stonewall activist Martin Boyce’s message for Yellowknife

Martin Boyce, one of four remaining survivors of the Stonewall Riots
Martin Boyce, one of four remaining survivors of the Stonewall riots. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

There are only four remaining survivors of New York City’s Stonewall riots, a week of spontaneous protests for gay rights. This week, one of those survivors arrived in Yellowknife.

On the night of June 28, 1969, Martin Boyce took to the streets of Greenwich Village as a scare drag, what he described as a “looser style of gender-bending.”

What was intended to be a fun night out turned into a police raid, followed by a violent riot that lasted until morning.

Over the following six days, protests broke out in the village that eventually led to formation of the gay liberation movement in the United States.



Boyce is now working with Day of Pink, an organization that seeks to end homophobia and bullying against queer youth, touring the US and Canada to share his Stonewall story.

This week, Boyce shared his experience with students in Yellowknife and at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. With conflict rising in the US surrounding 2SLGBTQIA+ rights, Boyce says now is a more important time than ever to have these conversations.

“It doesn’t matter how big or small of a place you come from, as big as New York or as small as Yellowknife, the fight matters,” he told Cabin Radio.

“I can tell, with the time I’ve spent here in Yellowknife, the people here want to hear this story. They want to learn, they want to know what happened. And that says a lot, because even in a small town, big voices can make a loud noise.”



We sat down with Boyce to hear his story and his view of how Yellowknifers should continue the fight for 2SLGBTQIA+ rights.

This interview was recorded on April 27, 2023. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Megan Miskiman: What was life like in New York before the riot at Stonewall?

Martin Boyce: The early days were difficult, because New York City was a very great city. Everybody knew it. CEOs knew it, the cab drivers knew it, everybody knew it. But it was also one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and that was for normal people. Minorities that were not biological were singled out for special treatment, and the haters had their day, their pride day, they didn’t call it that though, it was St Patrick’s Day. It was like being a Jew in medieval Spain. During Easter week, the hoods came up and the torches came out and they searched for the unbelievers. Not just the queers, but anyone who didn’t believe.

One time, it was one in the morning and I was 16, and I wanted to cross Central Park because I couldn’t wait for the bus. I was impatient. As a native New Yorker, I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it, you weren’t supposed to cross the park at night. But I did it.

Right away, I realized why people didn’t do it. It was just quiet. It shocked me, eight million people around me and not a soul to be seen. As I was getting out, I heard a terrible scream, and it was a scream of capitulation. Someone really had given in to the horror they were in, they had just thrown up their hands and given in. You could hear it, it was so visceral and sharp. But in New York, you think of yourself first and then you think of the next guy. That’s the right thing to do, the safest thing to do. Coming out of the park, there were four police cars, and the police were having coffee, so I thought I’d tell them. I went up to what seemed like the main guy, and it was like running into a southern sheriff during the Jim Crow days. He just rubbed his chin, looked at me, questioned me. They all started questioning me, saying to the other ones, “Come over and listen to this queer’s story.” They started grilling me, asking for my ID, asking where my job was, to prove that I didn’t belong there, I was from a different spot. It was pretty awful. The guy had this strange look on his face and he told me, at the end of it all: “We’re going to meet again.” And in his eyes was this really negative prophecy, and it really shook me that these were the type of people I’d have to deal with.

As I was walking away, I remembered Shakespeare’s words between two assassins. My brain said what one said to the other: “It’s going to rain tonight.” But my heart said the response: “Let it come down.” I was getting louder. I was getting good at dealing with these things.

This was a time when the police wanted us in jail, psychiatrists wanted us in mental institutions, the clergy wanted us in hell and straight people interpreted the word “justice” as “just us.” Yet gay people were coming in through all of the terminals into the city. I used to go and watch them at the Greyhound bus station. One young man, who was most typical of them all, he had a Marlon Brando shirt on and was real good-looking. He had this kind of anticipatory vibe that we didn’t have yet. He didn’t think he was being watched, and he put down his bag and took his first breath of free air. He had enough of fresh air. It wasn’t doing him any good. We all wondered why they were coming, but it’s because if you flew a drone over the city, there was one spot that was five blocks long and well lit. That was Christopher Street. And on Christopher Street, we were all together. If you were anywhere else in the city, you couldn’t talk to your friends, you’d look away and you could never be together.



The first thing they taught you when you came out as gay was to look at a person’s shoes. The police were sending out the vice squad, they dressed up as gay people and would trap us. But on Christopher Street, they couldn’t do that, because they didn’t change their shoes. No matter how well dressed they were, it was always the same shoes. We could tell, so we felt safer. Also on that street was a new bar, called Stonewall. That was the place to be.

Can you tell me about the Stonewall bar?

It was not on the docks, it wasn’t in a warehouse, it was right in the middle of the city. It had two dance floors and a great big jukebox, which was the major machine that we had to listen to music. It had an excellent choice of records and was right at the centre of the bar. At the time, we didn’t like each other. None of the gay people liked each other. Every gay person blamed the other groups for the troubles we were having. Each group took a place in the bar, each group had their spot.

The mafia ran it, and it was a massive dump. You’d get a bottle of beer and have to wipe it before drinking it. But it was a dancing bar, and every gay person wanted to go see it. It was like a gay Noah’s Ark – had the flood come, we’d be safe for generations. It was amazing. My group, the scare drags, we were gender-benders. We were in the most dangerous positions, because the full drag queens caused wonder, and that wonder gave them enough time to run. But when the haters would recognize us, they would draw their swords immediately.

The jukebox was the centrepiece of the bar. And it was controlled by the black queens because they were bringing a new kind of culture in and trying us out. We were their trial audience, they wanted to see how they were doing. And it was wondrous. There were no hormones, they made their own clothes, and they looked great. They did a great performance. And you weren’t allowed to the jukebox if you weren’t hip, because they only wanted the songs that they wanted. I was allowed, always, to go to the jukebox, because I used to go to black queens’ houses every Saturday night and make a big pot of pasta while they would do their hair, and they realized they liked me, and they said: “We gotta hip this white queen up.”

When I got to the box and played music, the queens loved it. Except one day, my friend was leaving and I played Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary. Immediately, there was more ice around me than in Antarctica. I was duck-faced, I was chicken-necked and really expelled. They were the best at isolating and ignoring people. This was a crisis for me, because now the people who couldn’t get to the box – whom I was recognized to – were going to jump on me. Everybody was going to get me, they would really kick you when you were down. So I went to my dad, who was 40 years on the street as a cab driver and saw everything, and I told him: “The queens wouldn’t let me to the box.” He told me” They’re all the same, everybody’s the same. I’ll double your allowance, you’ll buy everybody drinks and they’re gonna let you back.” So I tried it, and the day came. One queen asked why I never fed the box any more, and another queen said, “Girl, you know, you got to show yourself. Miss Martin, you gotta show yourself.” I only had one quarter, and I went up and dropped it in and played Aretha Franklin’s Respect. And I was back.

These are the social and cultural aspects of Stonewall that generally are ignored when you hear stories, but this is why the bar was getting close to our heart.

What happened the night the riots began?



Come June 28, 1969, my friend Bertie and I said OK, we’re gonna go. And a scare drag came up to us and told us we weren’t getting in, because there was a quota system for how many people were allowed in based on skin colour – that was the way the mafia ran it. We were OK with it because it was a Friday night, there were other bars on the street. We were up about half a block away from Stonewall and there was some turmoil down there, with a police bubble moving around and actual paddy-wagons.

Now, we’d all been in raids before. It was pretty terrifying, even when it was mild. They could break a bar up, they could arrest you, but they usually let you go. If you weren’t in a raid, we had this kind of victimization that we had internalized because if you weren’t in it, you watched it because it could have been you. We thought this one would go the same, but they were actually filling up the paddy-wagons and it seemed something serious was happening. Someone was rushing around saying “Raid! Raid!” and I couldn’t believe hearing that word in the middle of the village. The bar was very discreet.

I went down to the paddy-wagons and a semi-circle had been formed around the bar of people watching – gay people watching, straight people being curious. It was a cop dragging a queen to the paddy-wagon which I was standing next to. She was fighting and it looked grotesque, you couldn’t even make her out, she was fighting so much and she was so angry and scared. He got her in the back of the paddy-wagon and he was sure that was it, because that was the way it was, and he looked to the side to see what was happening at the bar – and she kicked him, and he went flying. He landed on his backside and the queens all laughed. But our laughs, and his humiliation, would be her woe. He went in the back of that truck, and you heard bone and flesh against metal and this dripping sound that wasn’t water – it was ugly – and this moaning that was decreasing as she lost consciousness. He closed the doors, and he turned around to us, and he said: “Alright, get out of here. You saw what you came to see.”

They always did this, and we always listened. But not this time. We started marching towards him, and I saw the hairs on his neck go up. He turned around to say it again, and he saw us and he ran into the bar where all the other police were. There were speakeasy windows in the bar where you could look out through the bars, and they were laughing at us. But it was like being liberated, and there was nothing between us and our fellow torturers except three inches of wood.

The crowd started to stir and for the first time ever, the A-gays – the ones with lots of money – looked at us and communicated with us without speaking, telling us that they couldn’t do this really important job but we could, because we were street people and we had less to lose and less fear of the cops. And it worked. We just started rioting. Everybody in that time knew somebody that was either crippled, or in prison, or committed suicide, or was homeless, or something happened because of the situation with the police, and we all started remembering these people. The crowd was getting crazy. They were still laughing at us and then we went berserk. People started throwing pennies, copper, salt, everything in your pockets except for the money. They were bringing in huge bags of orange peels from a nearby juice shop, they brought in bottles, and everything would get thrown and the riot went up and down the street. The police were at two ends of the street but they couldn’t get near us, they couldn’t control us.

A riot is a very strange thing. When you’re in it, it’s a swirl, and you’re not seeing outside of the swirl, and you’re smelling burnt wood and cloth and sweat – and then all of a sudden, it stops, and suddenly you can see double 20-20. It becomes so clear.

There was a queen on the ledge of Stonewall named Miss New Orleans, and she wasn’t a happy queen, she was ugly with bad skin and she was poor. The gays didn’t like her, the police didn’t like her, but this was her moment. I looked at her face and her eyes had something in them I could only compare to the American abolitionist John Brown. She had that fire, that intention. She jumped down and broke a parking meter almost single-handedly out of the concrete. Some helped her, and then they started ramming the door of the bar, and then they set the door on fire. And then the laughter stopped, and the police were on their phones. You could tell they were doing something. It didn’t take long, they wanted to end this quickly. They pulled in the tactical police force, the same force they used for terrorists, and they were furious because they had been pulled in to fight a bunch of fags.

Suddenly, the loudest thing that could happen in a riot happened. There was complete silence. The entire street was silent. We were scared, we trembled, but what had to be done had to be done. We really had to get them to attack us, because that gave us a few moments, and moments are very important when you’re fleeing from the police. We had to have time to run. If they jumped us, we would have been unprepared and they would have trapped us. There they were with their shields, and their gas masks, and someone screamed out: “Oh my god, they’re in drag!” And that made them real mad. We had an advantage, though. We knew the village like the Iroquois knew the woods, and they did not. To get them to attack, we put a whole punch of queens that we thought were annoying, we wanted to slap and the police wanted to kill – we put them in the middle and we started a kick line, and we sang “We are the village girls,” and they struck. And it’s not like the charges in the movies. It was really frightening, and it was every queen for themselves. It was no longer a cohesive riot, because if you were caught, the best thing that could happen to us was the next morning you weren’t gonna look too good.



We knew where we were going, though. They followed us and we drove them around blocks. At one point, we got behind them and shouted at them: “Are you looking for us, girls?” And they charged us a second time.

We started rolling little pieces of paper, pretending our phone numbers were on them. Everybody picked one of the cops we thought were attractive and threw the paper at them, and said, “This is our number, call us later, we know you wanna.” They struck again.

But they couldn’t keep up. They couldn’t catch us. Our whole idea was if they were going to try and stop us, then we were going to keep going. Dawn started coming in and everybody was exhausted. There was a queen sitting on the bar stoop, and a cop right near her. He didn’t bother arresting her because it was over. I looked and every shop window was broken. The street was a mess. Our turf was gone. And I went home.

What happened after you went home?

I knew we would never really be in the paper, or on the radio or television. But everybody was interested in us because we were the underworld, the dark life, and that made good gossip. So my father got the call. When I got home, he put his paper down and he said. “It’s about time you guys did something. It’s about time.” But I couldn’t handle anything and I went to bed. I knew the backlash was coming and I was scared. I knew the drag queens were no longer the target, the scare drags were the real targets. And it was going to happen, we didn’t know when though.

One day, I was walking up 7th Street and there was a really big African-American man who was tossing huge garbage bags into the back of a truck, and I thought he was a little too butch and thought I should cross the street. But I didn’t. I saw him glare at me and instantly regretted not crossing. But then he raised his fist in the solidarity salute. And the block didn’t know what to do. People stopped walking, deliveries stopped being made, everyone was trying to figure out what he was doing. I knew what he was doing, except I didn’t want to embarrass him, and I ran away.

What was happening was that for the first time in 2,500 years, gays had collectively fought together and shown valour. And this was really important, because we – as the underdogs – were showing that we would fight. We would cry for our rights. For the first time, we had this collective ability to gain an image of ourselves. We were breaking down this wall of machismo, which has always been a threat to women, to gays and some men themselves. And we really needed this group of macho men, because our allies were allies and our liberals were liberals and you didn’t have to worry about them a lot in New York. But this group who broke beer cans with their hands when they were mad, they were an important truce to gain. That’s an aspect to Stonewall not often spoken about, but it’s very much a part of the story, because it did lead to liberation on all levels, not just higher levels.

On that first night of riots, why did you choose to stay and fight rather than run away in fear?



It’s real common sense to turn and run. That’s what we always do. But that queen kicking the cop was the first inkling that this night was not going to be like any other night, and I think everybody had it.

I’m not a fighter, but my friend Bernie was. I always calmed him down and stopped him from fighting, but Bernie wanted to fight that night, and I was more frightened of Bernie behind me. With the police in front of me, it was like being in Stalin’s army. But I did fight because of that, because he wanted to fight, and I stayed in the riot. My inclination really would have been to be like some of the people watching, to run away, but once the adrenaline started pumping it was no longer a common-sense decision. It was fate.

How does it feel being one of only four survivors left from Stonewall?

It’s a responsibility. By the 40th anniversary, I realized there were very few of us, and I was able somehow to tell a story. And I thought I should lend my voice to this.

I don’t want youth to go through what I went through. I knew they were better off for it, but I also know that they have to sustain this kind of freedom, you have to be watched and guarded, you can never really rest. The laws of freedom come with the responsibility of maintaining that freedom. And sure enough, we are entering a period in which people have to struggle again. Stonewall was a battle. We know now that it was not winning the war, because the war is still on in Canada and the United States.

Do you feel angry about what’s happening in specifically the United States, but also Canada with 2SLGBTQIA+ and trans rights?

No, I’m not angry. I’m disgusted. I’m disgusted with the United States and its failure, because she asked Germany, she asked Japan to apologize for their war crimes. But they’ve never done it themselves. And that’s hypocritical. That was what was wrong with Stonewall, everything was so hypocritical, everything depended on their win and you had to please them and get them to smile and become a buffoon or court jester, just to get away from their clutches. We humiliated ourselves but it was worth it, because freedom is worth it. The best thing to do was to placate them, and if they didn’t like you, they could do something about it because our essence was illegal. I’m disgusted to see they think they can do that to us again.

A lot of people are unsure what to do with this attack on 2SLGBTQIA+ and trans rights. What advice would you give to people in a small town like Yellowknife who want to fight back?



There was a French philosopher, Simone Weil, who during the Holocaust escaped the Nazis and got to London. Somebody asked her: “You escaped, what are you doing to fight fascism?” And she said: “I think, that’s how I fight.”

Sure enough, that’s true. That’s the first thing you can do, just think. It doesn’t matter how big or small of a place you come from, as big as New York or as small as Yellowknife, the fight matters. Your fight matters. It’s going to take more than thinking, but you have more behind you now than we had, because we had nothing. You now have organizations and people sticking together, and people caring for each other. There is a gay sensibility, and that sensibility includes a heartfelt healing for your fellow man, or woman or person.

So it’s a different kind of fight – but it isn’t. I wouldn’t tell young people to not fear, they should fear. But they shouldn’t despair. We’re going to win this battle. We’re on the right side of history and we’re on the right side of the heritage of individual liberty. Nobody wants this fight. I had to do it. I had to live in that corner, in that dirty part of society. But nobody wants to do it any more.

This is global. It’s not just a battle in North America. That’s important to realize. Like I said, it doesn’t matter how small Yellowknife is. You’re not doing it just for yourself or for the gay person who’s your neighbour or your fellow citizen. You’re doing it for those who are truly oppressed in Islamic countries. You’re doing it for trans youth in America. You’re doing it for gay adults who can’t live their truth. I can tell, with the time I’ve spent here in Yellowknife, the people here want to hear this story. They want to learn. They want to know what happened. And that says a lot because even in a small town, big voices can make a loud noise.

Why did you start touring and what’s it been like sharing your story with so many people?

I started this because I’m one of few who can still share the story, and I got an invite from Pink Days to come to Canada, and I was honoured that someone here would want to hear that story. It’s been interesting because sometimes the message is better-received wherever I’m talking than it is in New York, because New York is so liberal that this struggle hasn’t hit them yet. It’s hit the intellectuals, but it hasn’t hit the general gay population about how troubling this thing is.

In western Canada, there’s some very conservative areas like Edmonton and Alberta in general, and it’s dangerous. It’s scary. It’s amazing to have this example of a country that claims human rights as a priority, and it’s not being realized that it’s not being faithfully followed. That they’re betraying their own. I say a lot that the binary world betrayed a lot of their own people, it was a code that couldn’t be challenged. And now they’re challenging us, so we did win something. Now they want to win it back and deprive us of liberty. To some people, that hate is important, I don’t know why, it just is. And I wish it was just their problem, but it’s not, it’s ours as well.

Going around and telling my story has been amazing. I’ve learned so much, like how to deal with elementary kids, because you can’t tell them the same story I’m telling you. I have to make it about bullying, and not just when you’re in school but when you’re out and free. Because really, they are bullies, and they will bully us until the day we die if we don’t fight back. And that’s what I tell them.



Lots of people say we shouldn’t be talking about this stuff with young children. Why do you think it’s important we start these conversations young?

Because they have cellphones and they have the internet and they have texting and they’re communicating with the world. It’s important because we have drag queens doing shows in libraries. I’ve been to some of them, I’ve worked with some of them. They’re excellent. It couldn’t possibly harm anybody. They’re innocuous. It riles me up that this is what we’re up against. That the Republicans in the United States will give us the psychological civic rights, if we would throw the trans people and the drag queens under the bus. But no one is willing to do that. It’s going to be part of the battle. Positions are hardening and we should expect to fight.

Those conversations have to start young because young people are very willing to grab that torch of liberty and freedom. There’s so many young hands that will grab that torch. And they have to. They have to do their thing. They saw us do our thing that was important, and now it’s time for them to do their thing. Not just the trans kids that are directly affected by this or the kids listening to drag queens at libraries – every young person needs to be part of this fight, even the ones here in Yellowknife. Their time is valuable, my time is short. And that time must be used in the best way possible to increase your own individual happiness, and then to bring others along with you.

Freedom is a complex word because it involves so many things, but the essence of freedom is what gays are fighting for. And that’s every gay. As long as gay and trans people in the United States don’t have freedom, the gay and trans people here don’t have freedom.

What would you say to young, queer people in Yellowknife who might be struggling with their role in this fight?

It’s your battle. It’s your world. It’s your thing.

What do you want out of it? You gotta be proud of yourself – you should be proud of yourself – and you gotta believe in yourself. I’ve seen queens on the subway in New York and they’re loud and they’re proud, and that means something. Maybe they’re proud to be gay, but they’re proud because they’re proud of themselves. Not everyone gets to do that. In the places where we can do that, we need to do it. In a place like Yellowknife, where you can be proud, you need to do it.

If you’re going to fight this battle, it’s going to take time. They’re going to try and shoot us, they’ll try to kill us because we are so inquisitive, and we’re so blessed by the muses, and that’s the reason they always start with danger. But it’s also why we need to fight back. It is scary, but it’s less scary for youth here in Canada than it is for youth in some parts of the United States. So what I would say is that the youth here need to be allies, they need to join this fight, because whether or not they want to be a part of it, the haters will find a way to include them in it. So fight. Be loud. Be proud. And win this battle.



Is there anything else you want to share or mention?

Yes. I think it’s so important that we talk about the importance of women in this story. Women were part of the fabric of Stonewall. Women did a lot. It’s not so obvious, because they didn’t have the imminent and immediate complications, but I saw the police, and what they did to them was slower because they were women, and there was a sexier thing about them. The torture was real fun for them.

Gay women have a very big part of this. There just isn’t anyone left to step up and share that part. And I’m sorry their part has gotten lost in the story, but they were there, they fought with us and they continue to fight with us and we need them if we want to get to freedom.