OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS. I AM SOOOOOO EXCITED TO WRITE THIS POST. I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FORWARD TO IT FOR LIKE THE WHOLE ENTIRE MONTH AND NOW I FINALLY GET TO PUBLISH IT.
…sorry, I get a little overenthusiastic about history. Today I’m going to talk about Stonewall! If you only ever learn about one event from LGBTQ+ history, let it be Stonewall. I mean, hopefully you’d learn more than that, but if your mind is absolutely CRAMMED full of information and you can only fit one more thing in there or else your brain will dribble out your ears? Then just remember Stonewall.
The Stonewall riots took place on June 28, 1969 – forty-six years ago today. They occurred in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The Stonewall was a bar and, at that time, the largest queer establishment in the United States.
Police raids on the Inn were frequent – for context, the American Psychiatric Association did not declassify homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973, and in some states it was illegal to have sex with someone of the same gender up until 2003. Additionally, the late 1960s were already filled with tension in the form of the African-American civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.
To put it simply, people were already frustrated – and their patience ran out on June 28th.
The police raid occurred in the early morning hours, much later than usual. Raids were common (on both the Stonewall and on other queer bars), but usually there was some advance warning – someone would find out that the police were on their way, and would let everyone else know so they could hightail it out of the bar.
Except the warning never came that night. When the police arrived, there were more than two hundred people there… and they refused to cooperate. During raids, police would arrest anyone who was not wearing at least three articles of clothing associated with the gender they were assigned at birth.
But that night, people refused to hand over their IDs, or go with the police. Eventually the officers decided to take everyone present to the police station, but by that point a large crowd had gathered outside the bar. The police began pushing and shoving people, and the crowd-turned-mob responded by throwing things, slashing tires, et cetera. The riots continued, sporadically, until July second.
Pride has never been peaceful. We fought on that day, and we’ve fought for the right to march in Pride parades in countries all over the world. And the fight hasn’t ended yet – TODAY, police in Istanbul used tear gas, rubber bullets, and fire hoses in order to stop that city’s Pride festival. Pride has never been about quietly blending in with everyone else and following orders.
There’s something else I want to point out, and you may have already noticed it – Stonewall was primarily about GENDER IDENTITY and GENDER EXPRESSION. People were arrested for wearing the “wrong” clothes.
Some of these people were transgender. Some of these people were gay, lesbian, or bisexual and used crossdressing as a means of indicating their orientation.
If you go to a modern-day Pride parade, you’d think the Stonewall riots were started by a bunch of white cisgender gay guys, because the celebrations focus overwhelmingly on that group of people. BUT THEY WEREN’T.
Stonewall was partially about sexual orientation, but it had far more to do with gender.
I think we’ve sort of lost sight of that.
Additionally, the first Pride parade – held on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots – was mostly organized by a bisexual woman named Brenda Howard, often called the “mother of Pride.” It was her idea to turn Pride into a week-long series of events.
Two bisexual trans women, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – who were black and Latina, respectively – also played important roles in the first Pride parade. (Both of these women took part in the Stonewall riots, as well.) The two became close friends and worked together on a number of projects including STAR House, a shelter for young homeless trans women.
Rivera, especially, was furious about the marginalization of trans folk. They were the hardest workers, yet were often ignored by gay men (and some lesbians) who wanted to assimilate into heterosexual society, who wanted to make the movement more “mainstream”… more palatable for straight people.
At one point, she worked on an LGBTQ+ rights bill for New York City, only to discover that all the trans and drag rights had been removed from the proposed legislation so that the bill would appeal to straight people. She also criticized the Human Rights Campaign – the largest LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group in America – for standing in the way of transgender rights.
One obituary I found stated that,
“In the early days of the gay civil rights movement Rivera was repeatedly used to front possibly dangerous demonstrations, and then shunted aside by assimilationist ‘leaders’ when the press appeared.”
Transgender and gender-nonconforming people played important roles in both the Stonewall riots and in the first Pride parade, and we must not let ourselves forget that.
If you have five minutes to spare, watch this video from last year’s NYC Pride Rally. In it, Laverne Cox – one of the parade’s grand marshals as well as my biggest LGBTQ+ role model – talks about Rivera, Johnson, and how the “mainstream” LGBTQ+ rights movement has left trans people behind.
Towards the beginning of this post, I mentioned some major milestones for gay men and lesbians – the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness, and the legalization of same-gender sex. After those things were achieved, what did we do for trans people? Not much. In many parts of the country, trans people are more likely to be fired, be homeless, and be murdered.
And I just… gah. We need to stop doing what we’re doing right now, and start doing something different. The LGBTQ+ community won a major battle with SCOTUS’s recent ruling on marriage equality, and now we must move on to the next fight. Already, I’ve seen many blog posts and articles calling for transgender rights.
The LGBTQ+ community isn’t always as inclusive as we like to think. We need to stop ignoring some of the letters on our acronym – we need to stop discussing some groups only because it makes us look good, and then promptly abandoning them. The Stonewall riots are often referred to as the beginning of the “gay rights movement,” as well as the single most important event in “modern gay history.”
Don’t believe that. Yes, Stonewall was important – and yes, it was the beginning of our modern movement. But was it gay? Um. Only a little bit. Mainstream LG rights groups have more or less co-opted the ideas, momentum, and credit that should go to bisexual women and trans women.
Stonewall was important, but so were the people who fought in it and organized the first Pride parade. If we’re going to remember the Stonewall riots, let’s remember them as they really were.