LGBT History Month: The Stonewall Rebellion

Below is the text of a presentation made by my school’s GSA leaders at school meeting in honor of October being LGBT History month.

stonewall_inn_2012_with_gay-pride_flags_and_banner

By Daniel Case [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

This is the Stonewall Inn, one of the most recognizable landmarks of the LGBT community. It’s located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In June 1969, the Stonewall was a gay bar and was raided by police, touching off 3 days of rebellion and the start of the modern queer rights movement.

The Stonewall catered to mostly gay men between their upper teens and early thirties, transgender women, and butch lesbians. Patrons were about a third each white, Black, and Hispanic. Most were working class or poor.

In 1969, it was illegal for several reasons to be queer out in public — for one, bars were not allowed to serve LGBT patrons. For another, it was illegal to dress in the clothing for another gender. Under the excuse of enforcing these laws, in the early hours of June 28, police entered the bar and announced they were raiding it. Patrons found to be dressed illegally or dancing with a same sex partner were arrested, as were all the employees.

stonewall_inn_1969

By Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library (Contact us/Photo submission) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This is the Stonewall Inn back in 1969.

Being arrested in a gay bar raid anywhere at the time was a humiliating experience because those arrested often had their names and photos published in the newspaper, which in turn got them fired from their jobs. Few LGBT people were out about their sexuality or gender identity. It was a shameful secret that caused many to seek the relative acceptance of Greenwich Village, even just for the evening.

At this point in the evening, police have escorted employees, transgender women, and lesbians dressed as men to the curb. While waiting for the police wagons to show up, those patrons who were not arrested gathered on the street out front, about 100 people in total. The crowd was uneasy.

The start of violence is a little fuzzy but three events stand out:

  • A woman in handcuffs kept breaking free of the 4 policemen escorting her.
  • Police struck a lesbian over the head with a baton after she complained that her handcuffs were too tight.
  • One of those detained looked to the crowd and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?”

The crowd responded. They threw coins, beer cans, and later, bricks at the police. 10 officers barricaded themselves and a few handcuffed detainees inside the bar.

Stonewall Inn nightclub raid. Crowd attempts to impede polic

New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

Meanwhile, outside the Stonewall, the crowd included homeless, mostly gay youth, who lived in nearby Christopher Park. This is the only known photo taken the first night of the Stonewall Rebellion. It shows those youth scuffling with the police.

Writing about why the rebellion started, a contemporary account suggested the Stonewall Inn “catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering… The Stonewall became home to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why.”

The rebellion continued for three nights.

Michael Fader, who was there, remembered “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration… Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw…There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.”

The Stonewall Rebellion led to annual Stonewall commemorations, and later LGBT Pride Parades.

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Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson)

Two of the most well-known faces of the Stonewall Rebellion are Marsha P Johnson at left and Sylvia Rivera at right. They were transgender women who were at the Stonewall.

Later, both were active through the 70s and 80s LGBT rights causes. Their most notable achievement was establishing STAR House in 1972. The house functioned as both home and chosen family for gay and trans street kids.

The LGBT community owes our struggle to many transgender women of color, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. They are heroes to the community.

Happy LGBT History Month!

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