Remember The Stonewall Riots

Do you want to know why I am a proud gay man? It is because I know the things that queer people before me have done. How ferociously they fought to allow me to be myself safely and openly. And although I may not have been able to witness the progress through the decades, I am appreciative beyond words to those who fought before me. RuPaul said that as gay people we get to choose our family. So here I sit, with clenched fists, bared teeth, and tears in my eyes because I am so proud. So unbelievably proud of the men, women, and nonconforming family I stand with and would defend even if my life depended on it.

It is June, which only means one thing…my BIRTHDAY. If you forgot, don’t feel embarrassed I have PayPal and Venmo. But, more importantly, it is the month of GAY PRIDE. There is a beautiful irony that the two coincide because I think of the day that I came out as the day that I was born.

Let’s start at the beginning…no not my beginning, that’s a story for another day. We need to talk about the riots at The Stonewall Inn, the catalyst of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

New York 1969:

Almost no establishments in The States welcomed openly LGBT individuals; those that did were usually bars. One of them being the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Inn had a colorful assortment of patrons. Situated in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, the familiar faces were the most severely marginalized individuals in the gay community: drag queens, transgender men and women, effeminate men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. NOT HANDSOME CISGENDER WHITE MEN (I’m lookin’ at you Hollywood).

Gay Americans in the 1960s faced an anti-gay legal system. By this point, police raids on gay bars had become routine. At 1:20 am on Saturday, June 28, 1969, the police raided Stonewall

Things that were illegal in 1969:

  • Sodomy, (unless of course, it was a man penetrating a woman)
    • Twenty states had ‘sex psychopath’ laws that permitted the detaining of homosexuals for that reason alone.
  • Drag, men and women were required by law to be wearing at least three items of clothing “assigned to their gender”
  • Gays couldn’t buy alcohol
  • Gays couldn’t dance together
  • Homosexual “acts” in public
  • Sometimes, just by existing…
    • By 1966, more than 100 men each week were being arrested through “entrapment” efforts.
    • Police raids by undercover cops were used to identify and arrest gay citizens during the 1960s. Undercover officers would find men in bars or parks and begin conversations. If the conversation led toward the possibility of homosexuality, the man was arrested for solicitation.

But the raid on this night did not go as planned…

The standard procedure was:

  • Raid the bar, turn on all the lights.
  • Line up the patrons and check their identification.
  • Have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex.
    • If any of them had the “unassigned” genitalia they would be arrested.

But that night…those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification.

Usually, those who are not arrested quickly exit and leave the area, but instead more and more people began to amass outside of Stonewall. Within minutes, hundreds of people, some who were released from the bar and others who noticed the commotion congregated outside. Although the police forcefully pushed or kicked some patrons out of the bar, some customers released by the police performed for the crowd by posing and saluting the police in an exaggerated fashion. The crowd’s applause encouraged them further:

“Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic.”

This is one of the many reasons why I am proud to be queer. In some instances, there is nothing more satisfying than infuriating someone simply by being.  

Tensions were still rising though, a bystander quoted:

“Everyone’s restless, angry, and high-spirited. No one has a slogan, no one even has an attitude, but something’s brewing”

Michael Fader remembered:

We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration… Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back.

 

Violence Breaks:

Although accounts vary as to the identity of the woman, many (including herself) recounted Stormé DeLarverie as the woman who incited the riot. They hit her with a baton after she complained that the handcuffs were too tight and threw her into the paddy wagon. She yelled at the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” This was the call to action for the crowd and they began rioting.

Then things started being thrown. The queens, trans men and women, and gay “street kids”–the most outcast members of our community at the time–were the first to volley their projectiles. Garbage cans, garbage, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows.

Sylvia Rivera, a self-identified street queen who had been in the Stonewall during the raid, remembered:

You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

Rivera Was handed a Molotov cocktail

“I’m like, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ And this guy said, ‘Well, I’m going to light it, and you’re going to throw it.’ And I’m like, ‘Fine. You light it, I throw it, ’cause if it blows up, I don’t want it to blow up on me.’ It’s hard to explain, except that it had to happen one day…”

The mob openly mocked the police.

We are the Stonewall girls. We wear our hair in curls. We don’t wear underwear. We show our pubic hair.

The police were infuriated. They wanted to fight, they had the intent to harm. Faggots were not supposed to fight back…right?

When did you ever see a fag fight back?… Now, times were a-changin’. [That] night was the last night for bullshit… Predominantly, the theme was, “this shit has got to stop!”

—anonymous Stonewall riots participant 

“The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been because everybody else had rioted… but the fairies were not supposed to riot… no group had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill.” – Bob Kohler

Thirteen people had been arrested. Some in the crowd were hospitalized and four police officers were injured. Almost everything in the Stonewall Inn was broken.

It is difficult to imagine the shock of instant visibility. Queer folk were so used to being beaten down and forced into hiding, but that night at Stonewall, the transition from the dark rooms in The Stonewall Inn to the streets of Manhattan must have felt pure adrenaline, collectively showing their storming emotions because of their forced secrecy.

The riots at The Stonewall Inn became a literal and symbolic call to arms. Within two years after the riots there were gay rights groups in every major city in America, Canada, and Western Europe. The first domino hadn’t toppled, it death dropped. On June 28, 1970, one year since the beginning of the Stonewall Riots, there were the first Gay Pride marches in New York and Los Angeles.

So this year, if you are close to a city that holds an LGBTQ+ Pride parade, I implore you to go regardless of your orientation. And when you do, thank the people that fought before you.

 

Marsha P. Johnson:

A leader of the Stonewall Riots. According to several eyewitnesses, Marsha was the one who “really got people going”. Screaming, yelling, and throwing rocks, encouraging people to fight back.

  • Dedicated her life to activism
  • Co-Founded S.T.A.R to help shelter homeless gay and G.N.C youth

Marsha Johnson

Stormé DeLarverie:

The “butch lesbian” woman who shouted at the mob to do something, triggering the full-out riot.

  • Nicknamed “Guardian of the Lesbians” and patrolled the are with a baseball bat in hand

Storme Dela

Sylvia Rivera:

Latina trans woman and self-proclaimed “street queen”. She is believed to have been the one to throw the first brick during the riots.

  • Co-founded S.T.A.R with Marsha P. Johnson

Sylvia Rivera

 

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Assaulted and taken in by police officers during the riots.

  • Trans activist for over four decades

Miss Major

 

Along with thanking these beautiful individuals, I would also like to encourage you to not become stagnant. We may have marriage equality in the states, but the fight is far from over.

In my travels, I saw echoes of the past.

I saw photos of concentration camp members donning pink triangles on their uniform as a marker of their sexual deviance and inevitable death.

I spoke with a man from Iraq who was granted asylum in The States because he would have been killed simply because he was in love with a man, but because of the travel ban instated by president Trump he was forced to live in very harsh conditions in Malaysia.

I met a man from Morocco who missed his home but could never feel safe to live with his husband there.

I loved a man in Croatia who was trapped in a queer club because of a tear gas bomb a few weeks prior to meeting him.

I met a man in San Francisco, who introduced himself as a good friend of Harvey Milk. He told was beaten up every single day after school, and that there is still so much work left to be done.

I am angry, and you should be too. Even if LGBTQ+ isn’t your fight, use your voice to fight for the one that is.

Thank you to the LGBTQ+ individuals who paved the way. We are forever indebted to you, we’ll take over where you left off. But, amidst the resistance, let’s celebrate and be proud. Happy LGBTQ+ Pride.

 

Much love & many adventures,

Wolfe