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Bobby Soletto, a witness to the Stonewall rebellion and a respected figure in the Savannah, Ga., LGBTQ+ community, has died after a brief battle with COVID-19. Soletto was 74 and leaves behind a husband he was with for over 50 years.
Soletto, once an employee of the Stonewall Inn, was dancing in a birdcage at the iconic New York City bar when it was raided by police on June 28, 1969. Speaking to StoryCorps last year, Soletto described how a Black drag queen took action as police charged through the bar, attempting to arrest patrons and staff simply for being inside a gay establishment.
"She was the first one to break the chair and use it as a nightstick against the police," Soletto said of the queen, though he couldn't recall her name. "I always admired her."
Soletto was trapped in the birdcage as chairs and bottles flew below him. The queers inside the bar "picked up anything and everything they could find and began throwing it at the cops."
Soletto managed to open the birdcage door from inside, cutting up his arm in the process. He was eventually hauled out by police, who had temporarily barricaded themselves inside to avoid the furious crowd on the sidewalk. Wearing nothing but a "flesh-colored bikini," Soletto was brought to St. Vincent's Hospital because his feet were so badly cut from broken glass. After his feet were bandaged, he was taken to jail, where he spent the night in his bikini and wasn't even offered a blanket.
"I consider myself lucky because I came out basically unscathed compared to my friends and some of the people I know, with the police batons," Soletto said.
Soletto said raids happened two to three times a week at bars in the New York City area. Soletto, who met his partner (and eventual husband) the same year as the Stonewall rebellion, described being kicked out of his apartment in Elizabeth, N.J., because of a homophobic landlord.
"You could be kicked out of his apartment, you could love your housing, you could lose your job, you could lose your family," Soletto recalled.
Soletto lamented how HIV and presidents like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush slowed progress for LGBTQ+ equality, Still, he acknowledged that the lived experience for queer people improved immensely since his youth -- but that only happened because of his generation's persistence in marching, protesting, and lobbying.
"I don't think the kids today realize what we had to fight for and what we had to do to give them the rights that they have today," Soletto said.
His dream for future generations? That LGBTQ+ people are no longer treated as second-class citizens, he said.
Listen to Soletto's interview below.