LGBT+ History by the Decades: Stonewall | Episode 6
Greenwich Village saw a surge in population in the 1960s as rebellious writers, political students, and LGBT folk came to stay. With the rising queer population, the Mafia saw a window of opportunity. Stonewall Inn opened in 1966: selling watered-down drinks and bribes to local police. The homeless and impoverished queer youth of Christopher Street found a home. Raids were frequent at Stonewall, but usually things ended easily. Bribes were given and everything went back to normal, but this night was somehow different. The police would usually round up the patrons taking those who were feminine-presenting and asking for their IDs, but the patrons refused. As resistant patrons were rounded up into police vehicles, one lesbian drag king physically resisted the police: her name was Stormé DeLarverie, shouting “somebody do something!” A crowd of a hundred people were gathered outside and tension rose in the air. Suddenly, violence broke out. The queens, gay men, lesbians and trans patrons began a violent backlash against the police. Notable trans women and drag queens like Marsha P. Johnson stood at the front lines escalating the uprising. Although many say Johnson began the riots, she states herself that she actually came around 2 a.m after the fire had already broken out. Despite this, the riots were a collaborative and spontaneous effort that were transformed by the activism of organizations. Marsha P. Johnson is an almost legendary figure to be revered, and her contributions to the riot are one of her many accomplishments. As the night continued, kick lines formed, singing “We are the Stonewall Girls”. Craig Rodwell, a longtime activist and owner of the Oscar Wilde memorial bookshop, saw the riots from his window and wanted to make sure this riot was not lost among the numerous other LGBT+ riots. He called local papers making sure the event was gaining coverage. This ensured that the second night would bring more attendance. Papers like the New York Post and The New York Times covered the riots. The walls of Stonewall were covered in written words like ‘gay power’. Hundreds of bystanders turned into thousands with other radical groups showing their solidarity such as the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society. Craig Rodwell and his partner Fred Sargeant began to pass out thousands of leaflets to show that the LGBT+ activism was not a one-time event. Marsha P Johnson climbed onto a lamppost and smashed a police car with her handbag. To some, like Johnson and Rodwell, This display of fierce passion was a good thing for the community but longtime activist groups like the Mattachine Society saw it as a step back. Mattachine was not necessarily a group that advocated for queer people to go into hiding, But instead that queer people should be assimilated. They saw Stonewall as the opposite of that. Mattachine’s message was in contrast to the new generation of queer activists. While Mattachine members were mostly white gay men, many younger activists were people of color, impoverished and trans. The new activists didn’t really have experience with assimilation and had nothing to lose. They demanded liberation from the norm, not assimilation into it. Randy Wicker once stated: The Gay Liberation Front was an immediate response to Stonewall. Although one riot was enough to bring attention, many activists saw the need for further organization. The Front was staunchly anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-traditional gender roles. As a part of the drag queen caucus of the Gay Liberation front, Marsha P. Johnson and her friend, Silvia Rivera, a Latina trans woman, started the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R. They fought for the street queens and marginalized members of the community. Those whose identities and expression were not able to be hidden. Although Rivera was a street queen herself, she did everything in her power to provide a place of acceptance for those like her. The Gay Liberation Front wanted to focus on a broader area of issues than just gay rights. Meetings were disorganized, and the work was sometimes unclear. Thus, some disillusioned members formed the Gay Activists Alliance, which focused specifically on LGBT community and took a more confrontational approach to its activism. The Annual Reminders in Philadelphia were yearly demonstrations on gay rights that had been going on since 1965. Craig Rogwell, a frequent demonstrator, proposed that the reminder should be moved to NY and that they should rename it “Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day”. Thus, a march to commemorate Stonewall began on June 28th 1970. The tradition of pride parades began to remember the night of spontaneity that turned into a movement. Stonewall is not important because of the fires, the bricks or the shot glasses. It was important because it made queer people believe that they could have a voice. It wasn’t the work of one man, woman, or person. It was a collaboration of many voices. The Mattachine Society had its time as an important part of queer history, but new activists were needed for new generations. Stonewall was the catalyst for these new activists. It really isn’t as simple as “who threw the first brick?” or “who was there?” the important part of it was what the community did after. In the next episode of By the Decades, we explore the impact of Stonewall in the age of gay liberation. Hi everyone! Alex here. If you don’t know, I now have merchandise for Are They Gay. You can buy shirts like “Proud Member of the Homosexual Agenda” if that’s your thing. You can also get nifty queer history shirts like featuring James Baldwin, or Marsha P Johnson. You can also get a shirt called “Making Queer History” so you can show everyone that just by being here you’re making history. 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