The Stonewall Riots: “It’s About Time We Did Something to Assert Ourselves”

October 11, 2017 in inQueery

What do you think of when you think of gay bars? Chances are, you think of crowded, exuberant clubs packed with glitter-covered queens, Madonna and Lady Gaga pounding through the speakers, bright lights, happy queer couples tearing it up on the dance floor.  I’m willing to bet you don’t think of the NYPD shoving gender non-conforming people into dimly lit, poorly-ventilated bathrooms with faulty plumbing, to “check” that their physical sex matched the gender they were presenting as.  Or gay couples having to bribe the Mafia to keep their identities and relationships a secret. It’s hard to imagine that gay bars once implemented a Prohibition-era level of secrecy, that even places like our very own Pacific Center For Human Growth, had to disguise their names so as not to lose patronage or funding.  And this was happening in the United States fifty years ago; meanwhile, nowadays, there are still many countries around the world where being anything but straight and cisgendered, will get you jailed- or killed.

As recently as the late 90’s, being “out and proud” was still a very new concept, and being trans was still trashy talk show fodder, a punchline. The WPATH standards of care for transgender health did not exist the way they do today.  Being trans was literally considered a mental disorder, back when mental health was still rampant with stigma and stereotypes.  As progress is made and the world finally opens up to LGBTQ identities and gives us safe spaces to be ourselves, it’s that much more important that we learn about and honor our history.  After all, we’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, many of whom died for our freedom.

Andy’s personal photo. The Stonewall is the glowing red sign.

This summer, I visited New York City and spent a night wandering the labyrinthine streets of Greenwich Village. Towards the end of my night, I stopped at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street for a beer. Standing in that now notorious brick archway, I found myself wondering about the history of this rainbow-adorned little bar with the humble, glowing red neon sign in its window.  I had heard of the riots, which occurred on June 28th in 1969 and lasted a week, nearly 50 years ago. But I didn’t really know the details; like any story so often told, they had been changed over the years.

Back then, not only was the Mafia-owned Stonewall a haven for LGBTQ adults, but it was also a place for New York City’s homeless LGBTQ youth to come in from the cold and have a place to go when the streets were too much. On that historic night, plainclothes officers came to the bar and claimed that the bar was selling bootlegged alcohol and bringing in money from bribes
rather than liquor sales.  They asked the patrons of the bar to line up and show identification.  It was at this point that they began arresting drag queens and anyone who appeared not to match the gender on their ID. Just as they were seizing the bar’s alcohol supply and calling for backup, the people they had thrown out of the bar, began attracting a large crowd on the sidewalks.

It was then that things went off-script; rather than the crowd dispersing peacefully, someone began singing “We Shall Overcome,” mockingly saluting the police offers, and chanting, “Gay Power!” Things escalated as one police officer shoved a “crossdresser” who we now speculate may have been a trans woman.  She hit him over the head with her purse and the beer bottles started flying.   By the time the homeless youth in Christopher Park showed up and began fighting with the police, someone had uprooted a parking meter to use as a battering ram on the door of the inn, where the police were now taking shelter. As many people stated afterwards, it started because everyone had simply had enough…tensions had built up. One of the most notorious participants was gay rights icon Sylvia Rivera, who simply said, “It was one of the greatest moments of my life.” She went on a year later to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, which dedicated themselves to helping homeless LGBTQ youth and trans women of color.

As fires started and the NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force showed up to rescue the police officers trapped in the inn, the crowd outside started dancing and singing, continuing to mock the police.  A Village Voice article later described it as, “A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the form of a chorus line facing the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops.  Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay power[-]ites down Christopher to Seventh Avenue.” The riots went on until 4 in the morning and continued the next night, at which point Greenwich Village resident and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg walked past and remarked, “Gay power! Isn’t that great…it’s about time we did something to assert ourselves!”  Word got out and gay liberation leaflets and newsletters began spreading, inspiring the formation not only of Rivera’s STAR foundation, but of the Gay Liberation Front, which proclaimed, “Do You Think Homosexuals Are Revolting? You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are!” and of the Gay Activists Alliance, which promised a slightly more orderly approach to its efforts.

The Stonewall Riots were therefore an undisputed catalyst for LGBTQ rights. By 1970, New York City was calling for an end to the raids on gay bars, and on the 1-year anniversary of the riots, they held their first Gay Pride parade. Other major cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, followed with marches of their own.  And by 1972, our very own San Francisco was participating as well. It is important to note, as discussed in the Inn’s Wikiipedia page, that

“the original inn, located at 51–53 Christopher Street, closed in 1969.  In 1990 a bar called “Stonewall” opened in the western half of the original Manhattan location (53 Christopher Street).  It was renovated and returned to its original name, “The Stonewall Inn”, in 2007.  The buildings are both part of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Greenwich Village Historic District, designated in 1969. The Stonewall Inn was designated a national historic landmark in 2000.  On June 23, 2015, the Stonewall Inn was the first landmark in New York City to be recognized by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.  The following year, the Stonewall National Monument was named the first monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights.”

If there is anything we can perhaps take away from the Stonewall Riots nearly 50 years later, it’s the intersectionality which occurred on those nights: the combined forces of the homeless, the disadvantaged and those on the fringes; drag queens, lesbians, and gay men of all races, ages, and backgrounds. As we continue the fight for change, for visibility and equality, we must not lose sight of the melting pot from which our community came…and we must hold space for each other without white-washing or simplifying our narratives.

 

 

Andy Halo is a Visiting Writer at InQueery.  You can see more of Andy’s work in the music reviews of Short and Sweet NYC.