(This is basically an expansion of a Tweet thread I sent out yesterday.)
On Friday June 29th, 1969, a Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson and a white butch lesbian (probably Marilyn Fowler) triggered the single most important act of LGBT resistance by igniting the Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall Bar on Christopher St in New York City was a shitty Mafia-run bar that lacked a liquor license, but it was one of the few bars that more effeminate gay men (termed ‘queens’ in the language of the period) and butch women could get into, although they rarely let in more than 2-3 males dressed in women’s clothing (termed ‘drags’ at the time) for fear of attracting police attention.
Later in the evening, police showed up to raid the bar on the pretense of looking for “cross-dressing men”, since cross-dressing was a crime, as was any form of gay sex. The police routinely harassed gay bars, raided them, beat up gay men and trans women, and if someone were convicted of a morals offense, it was guaranteed to be published in the newspapers in articles that identified the target by name, thereby outing them at a time when being gay or trans could easily get one fired.
When the cops showed up (led by Seymore Pine), they shut down the bar and forced those inside to leave, but detained 5 people they suspected might be cross-dressing, forcing them to undergo humiliating inspections at the hands of policewomen. The policewomen determined that 2 of the 5 were ‘real women’. The remaining three were Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known Black trans woman; ‘Maria’, a young drag on her first-ever night out in women’s clothing, and a third person who’s never been identified.
At some point during the process, Johnson got fed up and threw a shot-glass at the mirror behind the bar (not, as some people have said, a brick). About the same time, the police were dragging out a white butch lesbian wearing men’s clothes (which was as much of a crime as men wearing women’s clothes). Although sometimes identified as popular singer Stormé Darlarverie, this was almost certainly Marilyn Fowler, a much less well-known figure in the community whose name appears in the arrest records. Fowler struggled with police and called for the crowd to help her.
These two moments of resistance ignited the crowd of bar patrons milling around outside to start rioting. They began slowly, shouting and throwing pennies at the cops. As things escalated, Johnson and Maria were forced into a paddy wagon, but Maria was able to jump out and escape capture, while Johnson wound up handcuffed but also got away. The crowd escalated to throwing bricks from a nearby construction site and the police retreated inside the bar and barricaded the door. When the crowd retaliated by ripping up a parking meter to use as a makeshift battering ram, Pine ordered one of the police women to crawl through a back window and get to a phone to call for back-up.
When more cops showed up, the scene devolved into a running street battle between the street youth and the queens on the one side and the unprepared cops on the other. Furious queers brawled with the police on more than one occasion rescued people the cops were attempting to arrest. The street youth took advantage of the confusing street layout of Christopher Street; they would taunt the cops and when the cops charged them, they would run down the block, around the corner, and then re-appear at the opposite end of the street, mocking the inability of the police to stop them. They formed Rockettes-style kick-lines and taunt the police with an insulting song:
We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We don’t wear underwear
We show our pubic hairs
We wear our dungarees
Around our nelly knees
Central to the rioting was a strategy of ridicule. The NYPD were icons of masculine power, so the rioters turned the tables on them, making a dramatic show of their own effeminacy and their supposedly- predatory sexuality to invert the normal power dynamic. It was the effeminate ‘failed men’ who were defeating the hyper-masculine police and rendering them impotent.
Friday night was not actually the end of the rioting. Saturday night saw a much larger crowd form; the Friday night crowd was perhaps 500 people at most, but on Saturday night an estimated 2,000 people were involved in fighting the police. The crowd began making explicit declarations of “Gay Power” and some began to kiss each other in public, a truly radical gesture that horrified the more ‘straight-acting’ butches, who were able to pass for straight and therefore tended to advocate for staying in the closet. 150 riot police were able to force the crowd out of Christopher Street, but were not able to control the surrounding streets until the crowd finally began to disperse around 3:30am. At one point, Johnson climbed a lamp-post (in a dress) and dropped a handbag containing something very heavy onto a police car, smashing its window and prompting it to drive off immediately.
On Sunday, the Mattachine Society, a ‘homophile’ organization that advocated for respectability and assimilation, posted a sign at the Stonewall Bar calling for peace, and the police turned out in very large numbers, effectively thwarting attempts to orchestrate another riot. But the following Wednesday, when the Village Voice published an insulting article about the riot, a crowd of 500 anger gays formed in front of its offices (which were on the same block as the Stonewall) and debated burning down the building. The Black Panthers sent a contingent, eager to learn how a group of gay men had been able to thwart the police so easily. When the rioting erupted again, it was less festive than on Friday and Saturday. A number of business were vandalized and quite a few people were injured by the police. In the words of Dick Leitsch, then president of New York branch of the Mattachine Society:
“7th Avenue from Christopher to West 10th looked like Vietnam. Young people, many of them queens, were lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from the head, face, mouth, and even the eyes. Others were nursing bruised and often bleeding arms, legs, backs, and necks….The exploiters had moved in…blacks and students who want a revolution, any kind of revolution …swelled the crowd…but ‘graciously’ let the queens take all the bruises and suffer all the arrests.”
Wednesday night’s riot was brief and intense, lasting only about an hour before the police were able to disperse it, and proved to be the last. But within a few days, the New York LGBT community same an unprecedented explosion of organizing. A few days after the riots, a leaflet began to circulate titled “Are The Homosexuals Revolting? You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are”. Less than two weeks later, a meeting of the Mattachine Society swelled to more than 200 participants, many of whom loudly rejected its strategy of respectable protesting. The Gay Liberation Front began organizing dances, giving LGBT people a place to congregate that wasn’t controlled by the Mafia; when a bouncer at a Mafia-controlled bar punched a lesbian in the face, the GLF organized a dance-in at the bar and intimidated the Mafia into allowing them to dance there peacefully. The Gay Activists Alliance focused more on building LGBT consciousness and on getting the city to stop harassing LGBT people. Johnson and fellow trans woman Sylvia Rivera organized STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) and managed to set up a brief-lived halfway house for homeless trans people to live in.
A year later, activists led by Craig Rodwell organized the First Annual Christopher Street Liberation Day march, marching from the Stonewall Bar to Central Park. Rodwell cannily recognized that such an event would help further LGBT consciousness and identity-formation, and he was right. Two years later, that parade became the first “Gay Pride” Parade. At the time, ‘gay’ was frequently used as a catch-all term for people who today identify as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, non-binaries, and queer.
It’s important to remember that Gay Pride events commemorate the Stonewall Riots. The whole principle of Gay Pride is rooted in an act of resistance that ultimately sparked a world-wide movement of liberation. While LGBT people enjoy greater visibility, legal rights, and social acceptance than we did in 1969, I think it’s important to remember that we are not truly accepted. In many ways both large and small, mainstream society still sees us as being a problem. There’s still, for example, a desire to make gay and lesbian relationships conform to monogamous standards instead of acknowledging that our relationships tend to follow different rules. There is obviously a great deal of political pressure being applied to trans people by the GOP, stemming from a refusal to accept that trans people understand their gender identities better than anyone else. One recent study found that bisexual girls tend to have rates of teen pregnancy because they feel pressure to engage in unprotected heterosexual sex as a way to prove they are still women despite their attraction to other women. Pride is still an act of resistance because straight society forces it to be.
And never forget that Stonewall began with acts of resistance by a Black trans woman and a white lesbian, and it grew into a fight driven by effeminate gay men, many of whom were sex workers. These people got the ball rolling on the legal and social struggle for acceptance. White gay men are prone to forget that the rights and the freedom from the closet they currently enjoy are things they owe to some of the most marginalized members of our community. As gay men gain greater access to positions of power and influence, it’s vitally important that we help boost the less fortunate segments of our community up through political action, charitable donations and patronage, social support, and whatever other tools we have at our disposal.
None of us are free until we’re all free, because if we leave room for trans people to be ostracized, that room we leave will eventually be used to ostracize us. If we don’t fight for poor LGBTs to get better access to health care, why should they fight for our rights? If we allow cops to kill our Black brothers and sisters with impunity, there’s nothing to stop them from killing the rest of us. It took a concerted struggle 52 years ago to defend the repression of the NYPD, and it’s still going to take a concerted struggle to win our equality.