Pride Month is celebrated in June, bringing visibility to LGBTQ+ people and recognize their contributions. The month and its celebrations have evolved over the years, but they all date back to the Stonewall riots in 1969. On June 28, 1969, patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village for the LGBTQ community, resisted a police raid. That event is often considered the beginning of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, not just in New York City but in the United States.
What do you mean by “modern” LGBTQ rights movement? There surely was an LGBTQ+ rights movement before Stonewall, right?
Yes, there was. But Stonewall marked a dramatic shift in approach. For the beginning of 2019’s Pride Month, Newsweek spoke with Michael Bronski, Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University, and author of “A Queen History of the United States.” Bronski explained what pre-Stonewall LGBTQ+ activism was like:
The first stirring of an LGBTQ uprising—a modest one, not a riot—in the U.S. was the formation of two groups in the 1950s that lobbied for equality, as well as acceptance for gay men and lesbians. The Mattachine Society, formed in Los Angeles, was for gay men who were arrested for their sexual activity. The group provided legal support as well as giving men a sense of group identity.
Daughters of Bilitis was formed in 1955 in San Francisco and provided lesbians with a social life outside of bars, as well as emotional and legal support. Many women at the time who had been married, had children and then came out, would lose their children because lesbians were seen as bad mothers. Both of these groups did public education as well, to their members as well as heterosexuals.
While both groups seem very mild by today’s standards, they were very radical for their time. You have to understand that in the 1950s all U.S. states had laws criminalizing same-sex sexual behavior. You could be arrested and even imprisoned for even proposition someone for sex in public. Lesbians and gay men were routinely fired from their jobs if their boss or coworkers discovered their sexual orientation.
So how did Stonewall usher in a different approach to LGBTQ+ activism?
The Stonewall Riots (there were three instances of fighting with police over three nights) happened in June of 1969. This was a more militant approach—in a more militant era—in which gay people demanded respect and equality, rather than asking for it, or trying to educate the heterosexual population.
Stonewall, helped from social change movement Gay Liberation, addressed many aspects of inequality in American society. The movement did not call for “equality” per se, but rather argued for wide-scale social change that would eliminate many of the factors that caused inequality, such as heterosexism, misogyny, racism, and poverty.
When we are discussing Stonewall, it is also vital to place it squarely in the historical context of the political and street activism of the 1960s. This includes the Black Power movement, Radical Feminism, the anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam and the counter-culture (hippies, drugs, sex and rock and roll.)
There had been many bar raids in New York for decades, and I am sure some patrons resisted at times. But it is at the height of a national wave of political protests—of public demonstrations, vocal political demands, grassroots organizing—that set the climate so that the riots would happen (as they were happening across the country) and set into motion organizing.
Police raids were common?
Yes, they were. From a 1994 New York Times article by George Chauncey:
In the 30’s, the New York City police, using a 1923 state law that made it a criminal act for one man to invite another to have sex, began sending good-looking plainclothes officers into gay bars to strike up conversations with men, lead them on and arrest them if the victims suggested going home. (Between 1923 and 1967, when gay activists persuaded Mayor John V. Lindsay to end most entrapment, more than 50,000 men had been arrested on this charge.)
Anti-gay policing around the country intensified in the 40’s and especially the 50’s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that homosexuals in the State Department threatened national security. Thousands of gay Federal employees were dismissed. Equally without substance, police departments and newspapers around the country began to demonize homosexuals as child molesters; arrest rates increased dramatically.
In June of 2019, New York City police commissioner James P. O’Neill apologized for how the police behaved at Stonewall in 1969, saying, “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong — plain and simple.”
OK, so what happened at Stonewall?
That’s been a subject of debate in the last 50 years. But a 2019 New York Times article by Michael Gold and Derek M. Norman outlined the basic starting points:
The Stonewall uprising began shortly after midnight on June 28, 1969, when officers with the now-defunct Public Morals Squad raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.
The police said they had arrived to disperse the bar’s patrons because the Stonewall Inn had violated liquor laws. Eight officers and an inspector arrived at the club and ordered about 200 people to line up and show their identification. Some were asked to submit to anatomical inspections…
…“They came in the bar. They slammed people against the wall. They shoved people, and they hurled insults that you can probably imagine,” said Mark Segal, 68, who participated in the protests that night.
Stonewall patrons, fed up with longstanding harassment at the hands of law enforcement, pushed back.
What has been up for debate in the last 50 years?
People have debated whether what happened at Stonewall was a “riot,” a “rebellion,” or an “uprising.” Whatever term one applies to it, people have debated who led the uprising, who participated, and what caused it. There’s even arguments over what the patrons did or did not throw at police, and who threw what. Shane O’Neill produced a video for The New York Times in which he talked with people who participated in the Stonewall uprising, LGBTQ+ historians and contemporary LGBTQ+ writers. O’Neill’s conclusion was “apparently no one can agree on almost anything about Stonewall.”
People have argued over what they threw and who threw it?
Yes. The Stonewall Inn and the night that made it iconic were featured in the 2015 movie “Stonewall,” though it was criticized for focusing on a fictional cisgender white male character rather than black and transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, who was considered instrumental in the riots, according to The Washington Post. In the movie, this fictional protagonist was credited with throwing the first brick. But many have said it was either Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson who incited the protest.
So who did throw the first brick?
O’Neill’s video showed that both Rivera and Johnson were on the record saying that they did not throw the first brick. The historians and witnesses agreed that people did throw objects at the police, but there were doubts as to whether the event began when anyone threw a brick or whether any bricks were thrown. There are also theories that the uprising began not with a brick being thrown, but a punch. But who threw that punch is also up for debate.
Why is there so much speculation and disagreement?
In a 2018 article for them., Chrysanthemum Tran explained that it’s hard to pin down parts of queer history because much of it was not recorded in traditional ways:
The series of events that occurred during the Stonewall uprising is difficult to establish with certainty because so much of LGBTQ+ history isn’t well-documented. Our collective understanding of the riots comes largely from oral histories, which present conflicting and contradictory accounts as to what exactly took place.
So if there were better records of the time, we might know who threw the first punch or the first brick?
Perhaps, but that’s not necessarily the take-away from Tran’s article. Tran explained that trying to attribute Stonewall to one person is misguided:
We should acknowledge DeLarverie, Johnson, Rivera, and Griffin-Gracy not just for their involvement in the Stonewall uprising, but for their lifelong work of organizing and activism. These women’s legacies did not begin or end with Stonewall. Even in retirement, [Miss Major Griffin-Gracy] continues to fight for and protect the transgender community. By mythologizing such historic activists, we paint them as superhuman figures who could not possibly be or have been flawed or complicated people. But more importantly, we fail to recognize that Stonewall and the movement it sparked was, at heart, a collective uprising — one that cannot be attributed to a single person or small group of people. To do so erases the efforts of many other people who fought for the cause of queer liberation…
…The uprising wasn’t a random event, but the culmination of an entire community’s frustration at discriminatory policing and economic exploitation. When we seek to remember history in convenient, overgeneralized narratives — such as ‘we celebrate Pride because Marsha P. Johnson threw a brick at police to fight for our rights’ — we actively erase the work of many LGBTQ+ people who risked their lives for our collective future, and further distance ourselves from both historical accuracy and the legacies of queer activists who came before us.
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