The legacy of Stonewall

by Isaiah Webster III

Same-sex people dancing together was illegal. By law, all people had to wear at least three garments that were “gender-appropriate.” And sex between consenting same-sex couples was so far out of the question that it was forbidden entirely — punishable by imprisonment.

It was amid this backdrop that the civil rights movement for LGBT people began on June 28, 1969.

The Stonewall Inn was a dump — an old, rundown hotel operated by the Mafia. Its bar was nothing special either, with lousy decor and watered-down drinks. But what this Greenwich Village establishment lacked in appearances, it made up for in atmosphere. The clientele that frequented the Stonewall Inn was a true melting pot: businessmen, married men, butch lesbians, transsexuals, cross dressers, trans people, drag queens, black men, white men, gay women, effeminate men.

The people who went to the Stonewall Inn did so because it was one of the few places where they could safely congregate and socialize with similar folk. Though still against the law, two men could dance together at the Stonewall Inn and not worry about being hit in the head or carried off to jail.

On June 28, 1969, the people gathered at the Stonewall Inn were doing the usual — drinking and having a good time. The police were doing their usual too — harassing gay people. The raid of the Stonewall that began shortly after 1 a.m. on June 28 was not unusual. The New York Police routinely raided “gay” bars; and the Stonewall had been raided earlier in the week. Once the raids were underway, anyone could be jailed based on a long list of petty offenses. For some people at the Stonewall Inn, public acknowledgment of their presence there was worse than jail. It could mean the loss of a wife, a job or even personal safety.

What happened next is a mix of mystery, outrage and embellishment.

There were hundreds of people involved in the riots that erupted after the police raided Stonewall. And depending on who you ask, you could get any number of stories. For reasons that will never be known for sure, someone threw a brick and sparked a riot in the streets surrounding the Stonewall Inn. Police quickly lost control of the situation and even barricaded themselves in the bar!

But why such the response now amid what had become a routine occurrence? Why did our community decide the fight back at Stonewall?

Again, the answer to that question isn’t at all clear. Some have speculated that the patrons at Stonewall were already dejected following the death of gay icon Judy Garland six days prior, and decided to take it out on the police. Others speculate that the police simply fell victim to the proverbial “last straw.”

I suspect the answer is altogether more simple.

When Rosa Parks was questioned as to why she famously refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955, she said it was because she was simply tired. She had worked all day; she paid her fare; and she was not going to move for someone else. (Parks was actually seated in the first row designated for blacks.) Rosa’s story is not a glamorous one by any means. She never sought fame or recognition, but her simple act sparked a movement.

My guess is that the people at Stonewall in June 1969 were not at all concerned about their place in LGBT history. I imagine that they too were tired…from a long day’s work and a lifetime of injustice. Their actions on the streets of New York City would give birth to a new movement and a generation of queer leaders.

The Stonewall riots lasted for a few days. But the end of the riots was just the beginning. Within weeks, the first gay organizations began to pop up in New York and later, in California. In June 1970, queer people organized a march in New York City to commemorate the Stonewall riots. Within just a few years, there were marches in many major cities every June. And now gay pride is celebrated around the world every June — a commemoration and celebration of the events that took place at the Stonewall Inn.

“Stonewall” has become synonymous with the LGBT community, from the Stonewall Democrats to the Stonewall Veterans’ Association. Many people, especially those who lived through the 60s and 70s, felt a connection to what happened. They felt compelled to remember how ordinary people took extraordinary steps to secure liberation.

Remembrance is the key. Whether or not transgender people are a part of our community was answered at Stonewall, when trans people fought back against unjustified physical searches. Whether or not drag queens are a part of our community was answered at Stonewall, when drag queens took off their pumps and hurled them at police officers. Whether or not our community is truly diverse was answered at Stonewall, when black men, white men and butch lesbians stood side-by-side to fight armed police with their bare hands.

Long before some us would make a career out of activism, average people who simply wanted to go about their way, became pioneers for everything that followed. Long before we had too many queer organizations to count or multiple all-gay cruises to choose from for vacation, our people literally fought in the streets to be free. Remarkable.

Forty years later, Stonewall is still standing where it always has, in the heart of the Village on Christopher Street. Stonewall is now a gay bar owned by gay people. The drinks aren’t so watered-down any more, though the decor is still simple. Nowadays, New York City offers bigger, flashier queer bars, but they all owe their very existence to Stonewall and the people who fought back there.

The days and times I’ve written about here may seem foreign and incomprehensible to those of us born long after the Stonewall riots. Such is life. It’s beyond comprehension to me that people once drank from fountains marked “colored” and “white.” But surely a generation yet to be born will look back on these times with bewilderment as they try to figure out why society fought so hard over something so petty as “marriage.”

You don’t have to be a seasoned activist to appreciate Stonewall. You don’t have to be an older, white gay man to celebrate the sacrifices of those days. If you consider yourself a member or an ally of the LGBT community, you owe it to yourself to know about Stonewall and its place in our history.

One of the best resources about Stonewall is David Carter’s book, “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” published by St. Martin’s Press in 2004. Read the book, then share it with someone else.