Left: Kady Vandeurs and Marsha P. Johnson at gay rights rally at City Hall, 1973. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.
Right: A photograph of the Stonewall Inn, famed and widely recognized after the events of June 28, 1969, which would change the public conception of LGBTQ peoples in the United States; Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” — Stormé DeLarverie
The Stonewall uprising is one of the most seminal events associated with early LGBTQ rights advancement. It is often credited with being the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, though there was a growing organizing body emerging for years before. But the fact remains that Stonewall is the most famous event surrounding the ever-evolving LGBTQ rights movement. But what happened at the Stonewall Inn? And why does it still resonate? Fifty-one years after the uprising, there is still mystique around the events and the night and weeks that follow still resonate and are celebrated throughout Pride Month.
In the 1960s, being gay was a crime in 49 states. Being gender non-conforming was also illegal and authorities used old labor laws to arrest those who dressed or acted in a way they considered non-traditional. Effectively, the LGBTQ community had nowhere to convene, and thus, no social place to call home. Organized crime saw an opportunity for profit and paid off the police to keep bars like the Stonewall Inn open. The Stonewall was a beloved bar, the bar itself was barebones. There was no running water (and so no way to clean glasses), unreliable plumbing, and no fire exits. But it was a place that many saw as a home away from home.
Raids were common at the Stonewall Inn and happened about once a month. The management was usually given a heads-up as to when they would occur and patrons were used to the harassment and knew what to do – show identification and/or be searched and then be released or, sometimes, arrested. On June 28, 1969, however, that was not the case. On this night, supporting patrol wagons were late in arriving causing the crowd outside Stonewall to grow until about 150 people watched friends and fellow patrons be handcuffed, beaten, and arrested.
The violence began in earnest when someone, often described as a “butch lesbian” resisted arrest and attempted escape until being beaten with a baton. She punched the officer and shouted to bystanders, “Why don’t you guys do something?” This first punch is often credited to Stormé DeLarverie, though no one can definitively say. The mob then turned much more angry and violent – throwing change, bottles, and bricks at officers. No one knows who actually “threw the first brick,” but homeless gay youth and transgendered men were essential to inspiring and keeping the fight going. The riots lasted six days and 21 people were eventually arrested.
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. (1973). Gay rights activists at City Hall rally for gay rights: L-to-R: Sylvia Ray Rivera, Marsha Johnson, Barbara Deming, Kady. Retrieved here.
Many people have been credited with leading the uprising, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two people who have come to be associated with the early LGBTQ rights movement. Though it is claimed that they were among those who began the riots, the historical accuracy of that is unknown to this day.
Though the extent of their participation will always be subject to human memory, what is not in question is the legacy Johnson and Rivera left behind. Together, they founded STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: a gay, gender non-conforming street activist organization that provided housing to homeless queer youth and sex workers – some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community. The two were also notable people of color in what would now be considered the transgender movement, something that was rare at the time. They organized protests and led fundraisers; Johnson became a visible member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) activist group. However, they were sometimes divisive figures in the movement, as gender non-conforming individuals were not always welcomed by some of their peers at that time. Johnson died in 1992 under suspicious circumstances; her death, originally classified as a drowning, has now been reopened. Rivera died of liver cancer in 2002 and, until the very end of her life, urged LGBTQ leaders to become more inclusive in their work.
What has become known as the Stonewall uprising is a cultural touchstone in LGBTQ and American culture. There are many undisputed facts about the event and some popular legends. It is important not to mythologize one or two individuals involved, but rather to recognize it as a collective community uprising. Despite the myths surrounding it, George Chauncey, author of Gay New York, says, “The important thing about Stonewall, and I think the useful thing about Stonewall, is that a lot of people point to it and say, ‘We can’t stay quiet. We can’t acquiesce. We have to fight back against anti-queer policing and the dominant society. And as long as that’s what Stonewall means to people, and it inspires people to fight, then Stonewall is serving a useful political purpose.’”
To learn more about the Stonewall uprising, read Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. The Stonewall uprising, protests, and the coalition that resulted from the uprising are the reason we now celebrate Pride Month each June. As the LGBTQ community across the country gathers in fellowship this month, we also celebrate and promote love, equality, and inclusivity for all communities with our Summer of Color Collection.