Note: Throughout this piece I use “gay” as a blanket term for LGBTQ folks because the language surrounding the Stonewall Riots was nowhere near as nuanced as it is today — and when there was differentiation, the terms that were used are no longer terms that are acceptably used today.
Many of my generation use “queer” as a blanket term, but because so many of our LGBTQ elders refuse to use that term, I am defaulting to the historical use of “gay” for this piece and this piece only.– Caz. June 13, 2020.
I like to say that I’m a child of Stonewall, because I was born on June 27th, on the eve of the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. They rioted in 1969, 12 years before I was born. Having been a night creature myself for so many years, I know that anything that happens in the early morning hours really starts the night before.
At the time, being gay was still a crime everywhere in the USA except Illinois. Every religion condemned being gay and being gay could get you institutionalized — and lobotomized. Being out in any capacity was a dangerous act of social defiance that could result in death. There were no legal gay establishments, meaning that the most popular gay bar in the USA, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, NYC, was an illegal bar.
In order to operate, the owners of Stonewall, the Mafia, would bribe police to “look the other way” — a common practice at the time. (Make no mistake, the Mafia were no gay-loving saints; they used their knowledge of who went to gay venues to threaten outing the wealthiest gay patrons, resulting in blackmail. The upstairs of the Inn was used as headquarters for the blackmailing operation.) Raids on gay venues were still common, but the Mafia was generally able to tip off the targeted bars and clubs before the raids.
What happened in June of 1969 at Stonewall was different.
On the night of Tuesday, June 24, police raided Stonewall and arrested employees, confiscated the bar’s liquor, and planned to return that Friday night (the 27th) to raid the bar again. As any barfly worth their margarita salt knows, Friday nights are generally the busiest nights at most bars. It was the hope of the police that by raiding the bar again so soon, and on such a busy night, that the bar would close down for good.
They underestimated the fury of the patrons.
It was just past midnight on a steaming hot Friday night/ Saturday morning when eight plainclothes police officers from New York City’s Public Morals Division undertook yet another raid on the Stonewall Inn.
Fed up from being harassed, abused, and arrested by the cops, when 13 people inside Stonewall (including employees and bar patrons who were dressed in drag or were visibly transgender) were rounded up and put in a paddywagon, the onlooking crowd (consisting of other folks who had been expelled from the bar but released by the cops, as well as people from other nearby bars) fought back.
Details on the timeline of that night remain lost in a cloud of cigarette smoke, alcohol induced-haze, and foggy NY-summer steam.
When a white lesbian wearing masculine attire (who may or may not have been Stormé DeLarverie) called out against the violent treatment of the cops while they were arresting her, a fire was sparked. The gathering crowd reacted by yelling at the police, calling them “Copper” and throwing pennies at them. Bottles followed the pennies, and then someone slashed the tires on a cop car. It was a free-for-all after that. No one knows who threw the first brick that night, or if a brick was even thrown at all.
Some say it was Tammy Novak, a white transgender woman, who first resisted arrest. Some say Stormé DeLarverie threw the first punch. Some say Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman of color, threw the first bottle at the cops. Some say it was Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman, who threw the first bottle, though she denied doing so in a 1987 interview. Some say it was homeless gay “youth” who fought back en masse against the police first, followed by radical folks like John O’Brian, who founded the Gay Liberation Front as a result of the Stonewall Uprising. According to gay rights activist Craig Rodwell, “A number of incidents were happening simultaneously. There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group, of mass anger.”
News of the action spread like wildfire across the town, causing gay folks to descend upon Christopher Street. The police, some of those arrested, and a writer from the Village Voice barricaded themselves in the bar, which the protesters attempted to set on fire. Between the fire department and a riot squad (the Tactical Patrol Force), the fire was extinguished and those inside Stonewall were removed. As dawn drew near, the protestors dispersed — until Saturday night.
The Stonewall Inn defiantly reopened, sans alcohol, and quickly became home to shouts of “gay power” and “we shall overcome.” The Tactical Patrol Force descended in greater numbers than the previous night and proceeded to release tear gas and beat the crowd until the wee hours of the morning, when the protesters began to give up and leave — for the night.
From July 29th-July 1st, the protests were smaller in number and skirmishes with police were fewer. But on July 2nd, the Village Voice printed two front page articles about what had happened at Stonewall. The author of one of the articles, Lucian Truscott IV, referred to the Uprising as “the forces of faggotry,” and further used the slur to refer to the protesting crowd. Gay New Yorkers, enraged by the article, descended upon the office of the Village Voice with calls to burn the office down. Police were dispatched and the protesters were cleared from the area before midnight. That was the last night of the riots but the Gay Liberation Front was birthed over those five nights and six days.
The gay liberation movement believed in the reconstruction of American society. They learned tactics from antiwar protestors and the Black Panthers; and they aligned themselves with the causes of the New Left. Unable to agree on operating procedures (like so many progressive groups that would follow), the Gay Liberation Front disbanded and the Gay Activists Alliance was created to focus solely on “gay issues” (not realizing that all issues are “gay issues” as the world is intersectional, not one-dimensional).
The GLF/GAA held a march on the one-year anniversary of the riots on June 28, 1970. Thousands of people marched through Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in what was then called “Christopher Street Liberation Day.” And thus began gay liberation history… and the beginning of Gay Pride.
Within two years, gay rights organizations had formed around the world. In the 1980s, gay liberation rallies turned into pride parades, which turned into pride weeks and then months, which became rainbow capitalism and hashtag activism.
One of the most popular of the hashtags has been #LoveIsLove. #LoveIsLove began in 2013 at Mount Saint Vincent University “as a way to bring people of all orientations together to celebrate, understand, and respect one thing that affects us all: Love.” The hashtag went viral in June of 2013 when the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the US Supreme Court. This gave rise to #LoveWins in June of 2015 when the US Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage to be legal throughout the USA. #LoveIsLove became a Canadian nonprofit in 2015. The hashtag experienced a viral resurgence in June of 2016 as a result of the mass shooting at the gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando, Florida.
The relevance of #LoveIsLove continued to be debated into June 2017, which witnessed the beginning of #NoJusticeNoPride at the DC Capital Pride Parade (and justifiably so, as explained by Isaac A. Sanders). In June of 2018, Anthony Oliveira, guest columnist at the Washington Post, declared #LoveIsLove and Pride month to be over; “Welcome to LGBTQ Wrath Month,” he proclaimed. In 2019, 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, the Washington Post ran a five part series called “Pride for sale: How brands and corporations are remaking LGBTQ celebrations, in which Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote about the rise of the Rainbow Police.
And now it’s June of 2020. It’s taken 51 years to come full circle. Pride celebrations everywhere are canceled due to the COVID19 pandemic and global demonstrations against police brutality of people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous folks. We’re demanding that police and military be defunded; we’re calling for institutions such as prisons, detention centers, and non-voluntary state-run psychiatric hospitals to be abolished; we’re insisting on an end to the unjust systemic systems that oppress most of us to varying degrees. It might might feel like this happened overnight, but that’s far from the truth.
It’s true that what happens in the early morning hours tends to start the night prior. But what happens in those hours is almost always precluded by what takes lived history to build, to become. This year, as rainbow capitalism is preempted by the struggle for actual civil rights, we are focusing more on the protest than the parade and the parties. And that’s how it should be — because until we are all free, no one is free.
Every pride should be a riot until no one is oppressed.