Since the Stonewall Riots became legendary practically overnight, with the debris on Christopher Street barely swept away before accounts that played freely with fact and fiction entered history, let’s set some myths straight.
The confrontation between the NYPD and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community that ignited in the early hours of June 28, 1969, was in no means the start of the gay rights movement. It wasn’t even the first time queer people fought back against police oppression: San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria Riot occurred in 1966, and the riot at Cooper Do-nuts in LA, when drag queens and sex workers resisted arrest, happened way back in 1959.
We do not know who threw the first brick, or if a thrown brick was really the first act of defiance. But we do know that Black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson courageously stood at the vanguard. And, although it pains me to say as a Judy Garland fan, there’s no evidence that grieving patrons were motivated by the singer’s funeral the day before, although who can say for certain what fed into the combustible mix of emotions that swirled in the heady summer air that night.
What’s beyond dispute: the Stonewall Inn was a dump. Run by the mafia, as many gay bars were at the time, it had no fire exits or running water behind the bar – dirty glasses were rinsed off in buckets and immediately used again. It only stayed thanks to weekly payoffs to the cops. Police raids were frequent, with patrons deemed to be ‘cross-dressing’ receiving the brunt of harassment.
Which is how it all started. At 1:20 am on June 28th, four plainclothes police officers entered the bar and announced a raid. But something was different this time. People refused to hand over their ID and go with police. Tensions were heightened when the officers began sexuall harassing lesbians present. Members of the community began congregating on the street and the crowd outside soon outnumbered those trapped within. After police started letting them exit the bar, patrons hung around outside, burelsguing for the growing crowd, egged on by shouts of “Gay Power!” The officers had not expected this.
Violence broke out when the outnumbered police, trying to get control of the situation, began knocking people down. The crowd threw pennies at them, a witty reference to the pay-off tradition. Marsha P. Johnson was seen climbing up a lamppost and dropping heavy objects onto the hoods of police cars. Terrified, the police barricaded themselves in the bar as the crowd threw bottles, garbage cans and bricks, and even uprooted a parking meter to use as a battering ram on the door.
Backup arrived and arrests continued, but a group of drag queens and trans folks formed an impromptu kick-line, a camp inversion of the phalanx of cops. They sang: “We are the Stonewall Girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don’t wear underwear/ We show our pubic hair!”
The street was cleared by 4 am but witnesses said there was still electricity in the air. A lot of the protestors didn’t want the moment to end and returned the following night for a second night of riots. In contrast to earlier confrontations, Stonewall made the newspapers. The energy electrified the community, with activists founding groups with militant names like Gay Liberation Front. Queer people would now demand liberation, not request toleration.
One year later, the Christopher Street Liberation Day assembly marked the world’s first Pride Parade, with corresponding marches in Los Angeles and Chicago. In the next few years, the number grew exponentially around the world. The Stonewall Riots proved to be the perfect unifying community moment and foundational origin story for a generation of LGBTQ2S+ folks who were ready to step out of the seedy shadows and never turn back.
Featured photo of trans woman Marsha P. Johnson.
Credit Diana Davies/New York Public Library