The Stonewall Riots

Writer and communications specialist Max Mosher gives a quick and important rundown of the Stonewall Riots, which happened 53 years ago today.

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.  

Max Mosher is a writer, communications specialist and the Old Hollywood Correspondent for The Town

Featured photo of trans woman Marsha P. Johnson.
Credit Diana Davies/New York Public Library

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A Note from Our Artistic Executive Director

A message from Artistic  Executive Director Emily Dix regarding Bygone Theatre’s commitment to diversity and accessibility;

When I started Bygone Theatre back in 2012 my main goal was to produce engaging, character-driven theatre from the early 20th century – there were stories I wanted to see onstage that were only available at big companies, like Soulpepper, Stratford or Shaw, and I wanted something similar but on a smaller, more accessible scale. I set about making theatre with whomever I could find, and focused more on the work than those involved. Now, as Bygone Theatre enters our 9th season, it is clear we need to expand our focus and work harder to prioritize our commitments to diversity and accessibility; simply saying “all are welcome” and using wheelchair accessible spaces is not enough. We need to make concrete, measurable changes in order to better serve our community and our work.

As a company that produces “vintage theatre”, we are in a unique position when it comes to diversity. We have the opportunity to re-examine stories through a more authentic lens, looking at them not from the perspective of turn-of-the-century, primarily white audience members, but through one of historical insight, that acknowledges that the world has always contained diverse communities with fascinating stories, even if they weren’t being published or produced.

Plays from the 1920s-60s often feature racist stereotypes, that or they completely white-wash the story and show no diversity at all. When re-staging these stories it can be easy to fall into the trap of eliminating the overt racism while still maintaining the subvert – colourblind casting, 2-dimensional characters, or tokenism. Does that mean these stories are no longer relevant, or not worth retelling? No. But they do need to be redone. And that needs to be done with care.

While diversity and accessibility have always been important to us, we have admittedly existed in a bit of a bubble. Attempts to engage communities outside of my own have rarely been met with much success, and to be honest, the difficulty in doing this lead to me not making it a top priority. I do the majority of the work for Bygone on my own, and I did not know how to engage people past simply putting the message out there, and I never had time to really learn how.

Then COVID-19 happened.

After the initial upset of coming to terms with the uncertain year ahead of us, we at Bygone came to the realization that this “break” in the regular programming is exactly what we need. We are taking this time to learn and improve, not just as artists, but as people, and a part of the Toronto theatre community. We are listening to the voices speaking out against discrimination in the arts (the #InTheDressingRoom thread on Twitter was eye-opening and deeply upsetting). We are listening to the voices telling us how to be better allies. And we are taking time to make important changes and commitments, and to share that with you now as a commitment to change and accountability. This is not a final comment, it is a series of first steps. As we continue to learn and grow we will readdress these commitments, make more, and do more. I will make these a priority, and am working on learning how to do more. The following statements come from myself, and the Bygone Theatre Board of Directors:

Bygone Theatre believes Black Lives Matter.

Bygone Theatre sees the racism faced by BIPOC communities, believes their stories and stands with them in solidarity.

Bygone Theatre sees the homophobia and prejudice members of the LGBTQ2+ community faces, believes their stories and stands with them in solidarity.

Bygone Theatre sees the women who face sexism and discrimination, the members of the #MeToo movement, believes their stories and stands with them in solidarity.

Bygone Theatre sees the challenges and discrimination faced by Mad/Disabled communities, believes their stories and stands with them in solidarity.

We are making a commitment to support all these communities, prioritize their members and stories in our work, and to continue to work to become better allies. The following is our Commitment to Diversity and Accessibility, as of June 30, 2020.

BYGONE THEATRE DIVERSITY & ACCESSIBILITY STATEMENTS

OUR COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY

Auditions & Casting

  • 50% of all audition slots will be reserved for those who self-identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Colour)

  • Our Diversity & Accessibility statements will be included on all audition postings

  • We will begin our casting process earlier than we have in the past in order to make time to submit postings to diverse communities currently outside of our network

  • We will continue to provide character breakdowns that do not include physical attributes or race (unless essential to the story) and will promote colour-conscious casting

  • Casting will prioritize actors that have the shared experience of the character ​​

Rehearsal Process​

  • The first day of rehearsal will include a talk about equity, diversity and inclusion​

  • All cast members will be required to sign a contract that includes a code of conduct which addresses equity, anti-racism and sexual harassment – this will include a clear structure breakdown for a complaint and resolution process

  • Should we produce a show that centres around a character or story about a diverse community, we will hire a consultant or creative team member from that community to address any issues both in the play and the rehearsal room

Production Process​

  • We will prioritize the hiring of female, LGBTQ2+, Mad/Disabled and BIPOC production artists*​

  • We will prioritize businesses run by women, LGBTQ2+, Mad/Disabled and BIPOC folks when purchasing items for our company or productions

  • We will research the companies that we patronize to ensure they have values consistent with our own

*At the time of writing Bygone Theatre is without any consistent funding, and so our productions rely heavily on the support of volunteers. When we achieve a status that allows us regular operating funding we will re-address this and make a more concrete commitment to diversity numbers, but at the moment many roles are filled by our Artistic Executive Director (who often produces, directs and designs our shows) and whomever chooses to volunteer.

OUR COMMITMENT TO ACCESSIBILITY

Auditions & Casting

  • We will provide accessible auditions by prioritizing accessible spaces, and, when not available, allowing self-tapes or other opportunities for audition submission

  • We will clearly state the accessibility issues with any space we use, and will provide accommodation whenever necessary

  • We will clearly state all accessibility issues and potential solutions on all casting and production calls – for example, roles that can be fulfilled from home or that can be completed on a flexible schedule​ will be stated clearly so as to encourage those with accessibility issues to apply

  • We will continue to hold rehearsals in spaces that are accessible by the TTC

  • We will continue to create flexible rehearsal schedules that value actor’s time

Rehearsal & Production Process​

  • We will continue to encourage open communication especially around issues of accessibility, and will provide accommodation as necessary

  • We will continue to provide a judgement-free zone and will consult with cast and crew privately to ensure all of their needs are being met

  • We will provide all cast and crew with a clear breakdown of roles, responsibilities and hierarchy in order to ensure clear communication, and will include protocols for submitting concerns or complaints

Audience & Community

  • We will continue to prioritize accessible performance spaces and advertise possible accommodations

  • We will continue to provide ticket discounts to disadvantaged groups

  • We will continue to offer Relaxed Performances (dependent on show)