Here’s a belated piece for you: some history about the Stonewall Riots.
There’s no queer history unit in the typical U.S. history class. Yet each June cities across the U.S. celebrate Pride and, perhaps unbeknownst to them, the anniversary of nearly a week’s worth of rioting in downtown Manhattan.
Without our history to provide context for our movement, we have no way to understand how far we’ve come, how far we’ve yet to go, or why we’re wearing a rainbow cape and tiara in public. With that in mind, let’s explore the symbolic beginning of the struggle for queer rights in the United States.
- -The Stonewall uprising (or Stonewall riots) is considered the birth of the LGBT rights movement, but it wasn’t the first or only queer uprising in American history. Three years earlier in August 1966 queers in San Francisco rose up, fighting against police in an incident called the Compton’s Cafeteria riots. Susan Stryker has since made a film about the uprising, 2005’s “Screaming Queens.”
- - The Stonewall Inn is a bar and club in New York City’s Greenwich village. In June of 1969 same-sex activity was still illegal in New York state, and the Stonewall was a notorious hangout for homeless queer youth, drag kings and queens, trans folks, gays, lesbians and queers of all stripes.
- - Police entered the bar on the night of June 27, trying to shut it down for serving alcohol without a license. Several other gay bars in the neighborhood were recently closed for similar reasons — liquor licenses could be suspended for any illegal (read: queer) activity happening inside the bar.
- - Authorities rounded up those without IDs, bar employees, and anyone whose gender marker on their ID didn’t match their gender presentation. A crowd of hundreds gathered outside the bar to heckle police as they loaded people into police vans. The Stonewall patrons resisted. Punching, kicking — some people escaped from the police van into the crowd. The crowd began joining in, throwing coins, bottles and trash at officers.
- -Violence broke out. The police retreated inside Stonewall. The crowd began full-on rioting in the streets. A trashcan went through the front window of the Stonewall, shattering it. It was followed by lighter fluid and lit matches. One of the fires caught. A loose parking meter was torn from the ground as some rioters began using it as a battering ram against the now-barricaded door of the Stoneall Inn, trying to get to police.
- -Police called in a riot squad. Authorities chased the crowd; the crowd chased back. A Rockette-style kick-line was formed by drag queens, singing and mocking the oncoming formation of riot police. This wasn’t an easily-scared group of queers succumbing to police brutality —that night and for the next five days, queers fought back.
- -Storme DeLarverie, who passed away this May, is the lesbian/drag king credited with throwing the first punch, and whose subsequent assault by police might’ve sparked the counter-violence from the crowd gathered outside the bar.
- -Trans activist and co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) Marsha P. Johnson is credited with throwing the first bottle at the raiding police officers. STAR was founded shortly after the Stonewall uprising, and Johnson and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera advocated for and provided shelter to homeless queer and gender non-conforming youth. The momentum groups like this created following Stonewall are what kept the LGBT rights movement thriving.
- -The first Pride parade was held in New York City the following year in June of 1970, not as a pride parade but as an anniversary celebration of the Stonewall uprising. June has remained Pride month ever since.
As both a citation for this piece and recommendation for further reading, see Martin Duberman’s “Stonewall.”