(This is the latest installment of our Long Reads series. For more entries, please click here.)
TRIGGER WARNING: The following article has detailed descriptions of police violence and abuse, particularly towards LGBTQ+ and Black communities.
Picture this. It’s a breezy Friday night in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Summer has just arrived but it’s not enough to be unpleasant. On Christopher Street, the faint sounds of music and laughter can be heard. Inside, Diana Ross sings “No Matter What Sign You Are” over the speakers as people sip their drinks and groove to the voice of an icon. People are bathed in psychedelic, multi-colour lights, dancing, talking, and holding hands. Teenagers way too young to be out at this hour. Queens in wigs and heels. Gay men and lesbians kissing their partners in a brief moment of safety and joy. A sign by the front door displays the cost of entry: $3.00. A small price to pay for warmth and the promise of good company. It’s past 1am. Suddenly, five cops walk into the bar and demand to see ID. Everyone freezes.
It’s early on June 28, 1969, the beginning of what would become the famous Stonewall uprising.
Over half a century later, the Stonewall Inn (or Club as it was called back then) has become a symbol of resistance and liberation. As Lainey wrote earlier this week, “Pride began at Stonewall, not as a parade but as a protest.” June is deemed Pride month to honour the pioneers and heroes at Stonewall who decided that enough was enough. In fact, NYC’s first Pride parade took place exactly a year later to commemorate the event.
For those who aren’t familiar with what went down at Stonewall, it goes something like this. On June 27, 1969, patrons visited Stonewall on a Friday night. Given the limited safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people at the time, Stonewall was one of the few that accepted everyone, even those who were barred from other queer establishments. This included homeless LGBTQ youth, people of colour, transgender individuals, sex workers, drag queens, and everyone in between. Here’s a quote from David Leitsch, the then executive director of the gay organization, The Mattachine Society of New York. (Source)
“This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.”
At this point in time, revealing your sexuality could get you fired, evicted, bashed, arrested, and even killed. However, in New York, things were starting to relax just a little. Activists in 1967 and 1968 had even managed to limit the use of entrapment by police. At least until January of 1969, when Richard Nixon was sworn into office. This political change, combined with the defeat of liberal mayor John Lindsay on June 17, resulted in a new wave of anti-gay practices including raids, harassment, and entrapment. Regularly, police raided gay establishments and bars where they would arrest a few individuals and continue with their day. It was so commonplace that patrons were often tipped off beforehand. In fact, a raid had taken place at Stonewall just a few days prior to the riots.
For some reason, this raid was different. When the police showed up to raid Stonewall, people fought back. What exactly transpired is unclear given that queer history has suffered from systematic suppression, minimal reporting and coverage, and the extinction of oral testimony due to the devastating effects of the AIDs crisis. But while specific accounts differ, many agree that what should have been “business as usual” turned into a standoff between police and Stonewall patrons. The arrests drew a crowd that began yelling and throwing bottles, coins, and bricks at the officers. A drag queen even hit a cop with her purse. Some of the gay men formed a kick line in front of the police line. The police were forced to barricade themselves within Stonewall until reinforcements came and dispersed the crowd.
The next day, news spread fast and thousands returned to protest the systemic mistreatment of LGBTQ people. The protests continued until July 3rd and resulted in the creation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the first queer activist organization to use the word “gay” in its name. Although queer activism existed well before Stonewall, these events invigorated the movement in the US and in other countries like the UK and Canada.
What’s often omitted from the accounts of Stonewall, just like most history, is the contributions of Black and POC allies and members who took part in the protests. Many people wonder why Friday, June 27 was different from all the other raids that had gone. A joke theory attributes the change to the fact that June 27, 1969 was also Judy Garland’s funeral. But few have a convincing answer. What is clear is that LGBTQ+ activists at the time were inspired by other movements going on in the country, especially Black rights protests and sit-ins. Martin Duberman, author of the 1994 book Stonewall, writes,
“I think you need to know the whole context of the 1960s, and just how much rebellion was going on throughout the culture. The birth of the feminist movement, the Black struggle for Civil Rights, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — it was an extremely volatile decade. We began to think, well, Black people have been long defined as inferior. But now they’re saying Black is beautiful. We, gay people, have long been defined as inferior. Maybe it’s time we started to say, ‘Gay is beautiful.'”
In fact, many of the slogans shouted that night and used throughout the protests, like “Gay Power” and “Pink Panthers” were taken directly from Black civil rights movements.
That night at Stonewall, trans people, and particularly trans women of colour, are credited with starting the first altercations with police. While there are debates about who threw the first “brick”, there is no doubt that people like Sylvia Rivera (who was Puerto Rican and trans), Marsha P. Johnson (who was Black and trans), and Stormé DeLarverie (who was Black, lesbian, and trans) were among the first protestors to fight back. (The “P” in Marsha’s name stood for “pay it no mind” which is how she responded to questions of her gender). However, the contributions of these individuals and their identities are often erased in the retelling of Stonewall. Stonewall, a film by Roland Emmerich focuses on the fictional story of Danny Winters, an all-American, white gay man who moves to New York from Indiana after being thrown out of his house. In The New York Times review, Stephen Holden criticizes the movie saying, “its invention of a generic white knight who prompted the riots by hurling the first brick into a window is tantamount to stealing history from the people who made it.”
It’s important too to remember what Stonewall was about. In broad strokes, the riot was caused by the pent up frustration against the mistreatment, persecution, and dehumanization of gay people around the world. But in that moment, Stonewall was about police brutality and abuse.
Take for instance the very reason that police could raid bars. Police would enter under the pretense that bars like Stonewall did not have a legal licence to sell alcohol. This was true, but it was also because gay establishments couldn’t get legal liquor licenses, effectively providing cops with a continuous excuse for raids and abuse.
Even before the events at Stonewall, police targeted and persecuted LGBTQ individuals. Entrapment was a common way of doing this. Undercover police officers would entice gay men into sexual activity and then arrest them for sex crimes. According to one specific case reported by the Mattachine Society, this type of entrapment resulted in the death of a gay man in Berkeley when he was shot trying to escape. Another reports the horrific beating of a gay man by two police officers in Los Angeles. The account, found in The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History by Marc Stein reads as follows:
“The cops then proceeded to handcuff the bloody boy and drag him along the hall, down the steps, and outside to an alley. They tried to throw him into a police car, but he gathered the last reserves of his strength and resisted entering the car. According to a number of witnesses, the cops then began picking up and dropping their victim on the sidewalk. That halted his resistance, and another cop car pulled up and helped get the limp man into the other car. The victim died minutes after getting to the hospital.”
Given that these are the recorded descriptions of white gay men, there are likely many more similar but undocumented instances where this occurred to queer people of colour.
In David Carter’s Stonewall, The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, firsthand accounts are provided of the raid. Police rounded up individuals and separated them by gender. Officers would verify that individuals were wearing at least three pieces of clothing that were appropriate for their gender, and people dressed as women were escorted to bathrooms to check their gender. One patron, Philip Eagles, describes how the cops were “feeling some of [the lesbians] up inappropriately or frisking them.”
Once the riots broke out, police resorted to beating protesters with batons and turning the hose on
them. On the following Monday, The New York Times reported on the second night of riots:
“Tactical Patrol Force units assigned to the East Village poured into the area about 2:15 A.M. after units from the Charles Street station house were unable to control a crowd of about 400 youths, some of whom were throwing bottles and lighting small fires. Their arms linked, a row of helmeted policemen stretching across the width of the street made several sweeps up and down Christopher Street…A number of people who did not retreat fast enough were pushed and shoved along, and at least two men were clubbed to the ground.”
In 2020, this reads familiar.
While a lot has improved for a lot of the LGBTQ+ community since 1969, including America’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, the same can’t be said of our trans and Black members and allies. For them, police brutality continues to be a reality in their lives, and trans people, particularly trans people of colour, are murdered and abused at alarming rates. Two days after George Floyd was murdered, Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was shot by police in Tallahassee.
Usually, Pride is a time to celebrate the diversity and vibrancy of our community. To visibly display who we are and revel in the joy of having the freedom to do so. It’s also a reminder of the tireless work and struggle that our LGBTQ+ elders had to go through to get here. But often, our community doesn’t do a good enough job of supporting everyone at Pride. Three years ago, debates raged in Canada and the US about whether police should march in Pride parades against the wishes of local BLM organizations.
Pride 2020 needs to be different. Members of our community are grieving and are fighting for their voices to be heard, not dissimilar from what took place 51 years ago. Black lives mattered then, and they matter now. Black lives will always matter. Let’s never forget the people who fought for our rights and continue to fight for theirs.
Sources and Further Reading:
A firsthand account of the Stonewall Inn from David Leitsch via The Atlantic.
Time Magazine’s article on Stonewall from last year.
Firsthand account of the riot by Lucian K. Truscott via The New York Times.
Videos and references about trans women of colour at Stonewall via the Equality Archive.
Partial text of The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History via Google Books.