Stonewall is an important touchstone, but there's more to it than just that. We’ll talk about that soon, but first, it helps to understand the context around what made people rise up and why it’s important to the movement. So, first, let’s face it; ever since there have been power structures there are those that get othered into groups. Queer people have traditionally been among the most discriminated against.
Since the early 1900s, there’ve been a number of organizations that represent gay and lesbian people in the fight for human rights. Around the world, discrimination and hatred for LGBTQ people was normal; consider World War 2, where Queer people were considered the worst of all groups captured and placed in the concentration camps. Organizations in the United States, such as The Society for Human Rights, Mattachine Society, and Daughters of Bilitis produced gay and lesbian materials that were vocal examples of the early 20th-century fight for liberation.
Similar to today today, in post-war America, there was a push for traditional “values” and family structures. The United States was working to set itself apart as the leader of the “free world”, products like Coca Cola were entering global sales, and Senator Joseph McCarthy led hearings to seek communists that were hiding amongst the general public. Unfortunately, if your beliefs weren’t norm-core, you were an at-risk population.
Gay and lesbian people were included in this search and destroy effort, with the belief being that these people were subversive, lacked emotional stability, and were perverts. Between 1947-1950, 1,700 federal job applications were denied, 4,380 people were discharged from the military, and 420 were fired from their government jobs for being suspected homosexuals.
Most examples of revolt are focused on gay and lesbian lives; it wasn’t until the 1960s that broader examples of trans people, drag queens, and bisexuals were included. Quite bluntly? It sucked to be LGBTQ in the 50s.
And then Stonewall came in blazin’ hot.
There are noteworthy examples of revolt, including a LGBT riot at the Cooper Do-nuts in LA in 1959. In 1966 event in San Francisco sat in Compton’s Cafeteria, resulting in a riot. There are others, but Stonewall is seen as the impetus of the modern LGBTQ movement.
"From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets."
On Christopher Street in New York City was the Stonewall Inn. Once a restaurant, mafia members invested $3,500 to transform it into a gay bar. Not much was spent on facilities, as the joint lacked running water behind the bar and the toilets overran constantly. Without a liquor license (let’s face it; during that time, what LGBTQ person could get a liquor license?), they paid Gayola to the police to let them keep operating the bar. Outside of this, it was a pretty stand-up place to hang, dance with friends, and meet like-minded people. There wasn’t prostitution or hustling happening here, and in spite of the gambling, it was a reasonably safe place to be.
Starting in June 1969, there was a series of uprisings in the LGBTQ community, mostly related to gay bars. It was commonplace that police would raid the bars, threaten the patrons with outing them or even unwanted sex, and the bar would go out of business. Conversely, various mafia groups owned or provided liquor to the bar, strongholding them into higher fees or controlling their business. Neither was a reasonable solution, and all LGBTQ people were at risk of being arrested just for being gay.
Undercover police raided the bar on June 28th. It was protocol to take crossdressers to the bathroom to verify gender, and to take the names of all others in the bar. Those that were released started to mock the police outside, and with the emerging group of people cheering them on, it was turning into something more than a raid.
"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 crowd yelled “Gay Power” and sang “We Shall Overcome” as the police attempted to make order of the situation.
Pennies and then beer bottles were flung at the police wagon as violence started to break out. The uprising wasn’t planned, but we do what we always do: Queer people fight back.
Y’all, I got goosebumps right now.
Marsha P Johnson recalled that she arrived around 2:00 am, and the building was in flames. The mob even overturned a car to block the street and chased police screaming, “catch them!” The night after, the riots continued with frantic energy. It's notable that the addition of queer affection in public was shown.
From then to now, we observe Pride as a riot — it has been from the beginning. Our struggle to get equal, fair, and humane human rights won't stop until we've achieved equality. While observing the fight, we also find space to celebrate our kinship, celebrating our totally weird and unique identities. As you observe Pride, remember that journey that got us to this point — and the other 11 months of work we have to do in order to achieve equity.