Sunday, June 27, 2021

Fifty-Two Years Ago Today

Originally posted June 27, 2009

It was fifty-two years ago, a lifetime to some of us, a minute to others, but it marked a turning point for what would become the LGBTQ+ community. It wasn’t the first time our community fought back—there was the Cooper Do-nuts Riot in 1959,  the Dewey's Restaurant protest in 1965,  the Compton's Cafeteria riot in 1966, the Black Cat Tavern and New Faces, The Patch in 1968, among other—but Stonewall marked one of the loudest, times that gay men and trans women stood up en masse and said, ‘No. We will not be treated like this any longer!’

The weekend of June 27-29,1969 began what is the modern day gay movement. To be sure, there were gay and lesbian activists before that weekend, but the confrontation between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn in New York City lit a fire in the hearts of the LGBT community like it had never been done before.

And like any good story, there is controversy surrounding the Stonewall Riots; there are arguments and differences over what happened, how it started and how it ended. But the fact that we all need to remember is that it did happen, and it should continue to be a rallying cry for the LGBTQ+ community today, as we continue the march toward equality in the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of America.

Friday, June 27, 1969: the world was mourning the death of Judy Garland. Could it be that the death of one of the most famous gay icons was what sparked the fire of the modern-day Gay Rights Movement? Many people have speculated that Garland's death did indeed push the gay community into the streets of New York that night, but it was also hot in New York that night, and some say it was the heat that fueled the crowd into action, into reaction. I think maybe it was both, Garland's death and the hot summer night; or maybe it was just that the gay community had finally had enough of being told what to do, what not to do, and how we should live our lives. Whatever the reason, it was enough. Finally, enough.

In the early morning hours of June 28, police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a small bar located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as they had done on other occasions. Although mafia-run, the Stonewall, like other predominantly gay bars in the city, got raided by the police periodically.

Typically, the more "deviant" patrons—the queens and butch lesbians, especially if they were black—were arrested and taken away, while white, male customers looked on or quietly disappeared. The bar owners would be levied an insubstantial fine—a sign of police corruption and collusion between bar owners and police—allowing them to reopen for business the following day.

On this night, the charge at the Stonewall was the illegal sale of alcohol. The raid began as they always did: plainclothes and uniformed police officers entered the bar, arrested the employees, and began ejecting the customers one by one onto the street. For some reason, however, the crowd that had gathered outside the Stonewall, a somewhat campy and festive crowd, began to cheer as the patrons were pushed out of the bar. But soon the mood changed; it was Judy Garland's death, or the summer heat, or the fact that the summer of 1969 was a particularly busy one for police raids on gay bars. Or maybe it was watching drag queens and lesbians being pushed and shoved and kicked into paddy wagons.  Whatever it was, the on-lookers lost their patience. No one really knows who threw the first punch; some say it was a drag queen, some say it was a rather butch-looking lesbian. But someone defied the police that night; someone had finally had enough.

The crowd, now numbering several hundred, exploded. People began hurling coins at police officers, then they moved on to rocks and bottles, whatever they could grab. The police, at first stunned that the normally docile and shamed homosexuals would react in such a fashion, soon began beating the crowds with nightsticks. This group, however, was too angry, and was not going to be pushed around, or down, any longer; the police officers were forced to take refuge inside the Stonewall.

As news spread throughout Greenwich Village the crowd grew ever larger; many residents, some gay, some not, ran down to the Stonewall Inn to join the fight. Lighter fluid was squirted inside the bar and someone tried to light it; others grabbed a downed parking meter and used it as a battering ram against the front of the Stonewall. Someone began chanting "Gay Power!"

The riot-control police unit arrived to rescue the trapped officers and break up the demonstration, though it took over an hour before the crowd dispersed. To taunt their attackers a group of drag queens began to sing at the top of their lungs:

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!

That first Stonewall Riot ended the morning of Saturday, June 28, but the fight was far from over. That night a second riot broke out and the crowd now numbered in the thousands, filling the streets in the name of Gay Pride. They marched to the Stonewall Inn and waited for the police to arrive; and they did, in the early morning of Sunday, June 29.

For over a week, though in smaller numbers, protests and demonstrations continued in Greenwich Village. There was finally a sense of what could be accomplished by banding together, by being out, by being seen, by being heard. By being angry. It was a new day.

A month after the riots, the Gay Liberation Front [GLF] was formed. Radical and leftist, the GLF was one of many politically focused lesbian and gay organizations formed in the days following the riots. The number of lesbian and gay publications skyrocketed as well, which led to an even greater sense of community. The LGBT community was no longer strictly marginalized in United States society. Now, out and proud lesbians and gay men were developing their own communities in cities across the country.

Since 1970, marches have taken place in New York City—and all over the world—every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In June 1994, hundreds of thousands of people converged on New York to celebrate Stonewall's 25th anniversary. In 1999 the United States government proclaimed the Stonewall Inn a national historic site. The following year, the status of the Stonewall was improved to "historic landmark," a designation held by only a small percentage of historical sites.

Stonewall, while not the first protest, is our Plymouth Rock. It's where the gay community landed and came together and began the march toward equality. Stonewall was our first glimpse of a new world where we weren't alone, we weren't all that different, where we belonged.

It makes no difference how it started. The death of an icon; the summer heat; a sense of frustration. It makes no difference who started it; drag queens or lesbians; coin tossers or rock throwers. The difference is that it happened.

As I said, no one really knows who started the riot, or how it all started, but we do know that a great deal of the credit goes to Marsha P. Johnson, a drag queen who frequented the Stonewall Inn, and fought back and fought for our community before some of us were even born.

Fifty-two  years ago today.

14 comments:

uptonking said...

Amazing! Thank you for sharing this. Well Done! This should be re-posted on all our blogs! Perfect.

Dave R said...

Change always begins somewhere, though not always as loud as Stonewall.

Raybeard said...

A most instructive article, and there's never too many of those on this subject.
I've written before of how when Stonewall 'happened' [surely the key most critical turning point event of them all]. I was 22, had accepted my being since a few years before though still hadn't the guts to 'come out' - mainly for fear of upsetting both my devoutly religious parents [R.C.]. Yet I wasn't aware of this event at all until well into the 70s after I'd come out properly and turned 'militant'. Stonewall certainly hadn't featured in any of our news programmes of the time, otherwise I'd surely have have remembered. But this was still when anything to do with homosexuality was too 'controversial', even 'disgusting', to be talked about openly, and definitely not when there were children around.
Now if only all those who were in Stonewall on that fateful night could be here and witness how far significant parts of the world have moved FAR forward they'd be aghast - though also seeing how other parts have moved little if at all, while still others are trying to turn time back. Nonetheless, they left a legacy of which to be defiantly PROUD.

the dogs' mother said...

Good history post, Bob!!
xoxo :-)

Moving with Mitchell said...

Excellent post (as usual). 52 years! My god. And to think I’m old enough to remember it. My gratitude to all those fighters and to those who continue to fight even now.

Steve Reed said...

This was a great post, and well-researched! When I came out in the mid '80s, Stonewall already seemed so long ago -- and to think it was only 16 years at that time. It was many years after that when I first heard about the Judy Garland connection -- I don't think that element of the story was given much attention in earlier years. Charles Kaiser gives an excellent history of Stonewall in his book "The Gay Metropolis," as I recall.

Ramón said...

In my mind I can still smell the smoke from the aftermath of that night.
I was pals with both Sylvia and Marsha; the former being the most outspoken and intense of the two. Together they were "Fierce" - a word that Marsha used a lot!
We later went on to stage a sit-in in Weinstein Hall - NYU and it was there that Sylvia came up with the idea of creating S.T.A.R.
I was a member of GLF, and despite this article labeling it "leftist", almost as a pejorative; it was the least submissive of various groups that were popping up and vying for attention. Unfortunately, the conservative queers and their access to the printed page took the spotlight.....and ownership of the events and the movement.

One thing that's etched in my memory is the one night that Sylvia in a prescient moment muttered: "Trans people will be abandoned by the people we fought for."

Debra She Who Seeks said...

The start of all we have today! Love your opening graphic!

Mistress Maddie said...

Nice to re-read this every year and remember why we are having Prides to begin with. When I went to the 50th Stonewall Anniversary Pride it was nice to see so much support and remembrance for Marsha and Sylvia

Mistress Maddie said...

I might add we don't forget the even early riots with the girls at Gene Compton's Cafeteria.

Janie Junebug said...

Although I've read about Stonewall before and watched a documentary about it, your information and writing here are superb.

Love,
Janie

Ur-spo said...

May we not give up the fight or the hope.

Bob said...

@upton
Thank you. I just think we all need to be remined that, while we’ve made strides, the march goes on.


@Dave
What’s that thing they say about the “squeaky wheel.” Stonewall was a very squeaky wheel.


@Raybeard
It certainly marked a turning point, and I like to think that those who were there, and have left us, know that what they did that night, and after, made a huge difference in all our lives.


@TDM
Thanks. We need to remember history so it doesn’t happen again.


@Mitchell
Thanks. Yes, we do owe quite a debt to all those that came before.


@Steve
I like to think it was a cocktail of a gay icon dying, oppressive heat, and anger at being pushed down for so long.
I haven’t read Charles Kaiser’s "The Gay Metropolis," so I’m going to look for it.


@Ramon
Thanks for sharing your personal remembrances, and Sylvia’s statement needs to be remembered by us all, because there is a T in LGBTQ+ and we need to stand with our trans brothers and sisters.



@Debra
Not quite the start, but the loudest so it gets the most notice as it started a lot of protests and demands for equality.


@Maddie
Thanks. It’s one of my favorite posts. And we cannot forget all the earlier protests that happened, that may have also been the spark at Stonewall.


@Janie
Thanks. There’s so much to the story that we tend to forget because we focus on the big stuff and the outcomes, but this was just a group of people who had had enough and banded together to say “Enough.”

@Ur-spo
The march does go on …

brewella deville said...

I've lived half an hour from LA for most of my life, and was a little kid at the time of the Compton Cafeteria riot. I'd learned(outside of school)about Stonewall in my teens but it wasn't until last year that I'd heard anything about the Cafeteria Riot. Thankfully some things have changed since then, but the one thing that hasn't changed is that when a group of people rise up and ask for the most basic of rights, the right to be treated as human beings, the powers that be will always call it a riot.