The Stonewall Riots are globally remembered as the cornerstone of Pride Month, and rightfully so. Fifty-one years ago, a routine police raid on Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York turned into an upheaval against homophobic society, laws, and policing.
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a police raid— often conducted on secret or private bars that exclusively served LGBTQIA+ patrons— turned its head on the New York Police Department.
Some accounts say that the pivotal moment came when few of the lesbians who were brutally shoved into a police wagon showed resistance. In response, the crowd lit up in anger and resistance. Instead of running away to save themselves, the patrons fought back, even leading to the police barricading themselves within the bar itself as they waited for backup.
News of the clash spread and more people gathered, throwing anything they could find: nickels, garbage cans, broken bottles, and yes, bricks too, though ‘the first brick’ may have been more myth than real. Eventually, it took the fire department and a riot squad to quell the riots on the first night.
Defiant, Stonewall reopened the next evening, and the confrontation between police and community members continued for the rest of the week, drawing hundreds and upto thousands of community members. A total of twenty one protestors were arrested over the week, with the majority being arrested on the first night itself.
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly led to the Stonewall riots, or the status that it earned in present-day Pride and LGTBQ+ liberation movements. The movement for LGTBQ+ rights existed before Stonewall (if relatively subdued relative to what came after), and so did the concept of ‘Pride,’ in the form of ‘Personal Rights in Defense and Education’ (PRIDE) that went on to become the Advocate magazine.
Stonewall wasn’t even the first time the community clashed with the police. It has been postulated that the act of naming, “the first to be called the first,” and the decision of organizers to commemorate its anniversary in the form of ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’ contributed largely to Stonewall becoming a permanent and popular fixture in LGBTQIA+ history and collective memory.
Regardless of the contributing factors, the cultural impact of Stonewall on American and Western LGBTQIA+ communities was immediate and intense. It became the epicentre of a louder, more radical movement. The community had tried it the ‘respectable’ way through organisations such as Mattachine, but it didn’t get them anywhere.
The number of LGTBQ+ focused organisations and magazines soared after Stonewall, going from around two dozen to four hundred. These included radical organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front and Radicalesbians.
The year after Stonewall, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who were present at the riots and are considered transgender icons, created the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which focused on struggles of drag queens and trans and gender-non-conforming youth who often lived on the streets.
Stonewall Inn as it existed no longer stands, but the new Stonewall Inn in the same street and the park across it have been recently declared as a historic national monument.
The old Stonewall was not a luxurious bar in terms of drinks or furnishings. It was not a place frequented by upper or middle class, white, cisgender gay men. Being a dance bar whose patrons included working class or homeless LGBTQIA+ people and drag queens, it was often looked down upon. All of that changed in one week, and the spirit that shone in Stonewall that night continues to resonate and be celebrated in the hearts of all LGBTQIA+ people.
In light of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the rioting that happened alongside, many LGBTQIA+ people on social media have responded to criticism by reminding people of Stonewall, and how the “first Pride” was a riot led by Black and Latin transgender women, gender non-conforming youth, and other LGBTQIA+ people of colour, the very people whose history and resistance has often been white-washed, diminished, or erased altogether.
As said by Martin Luther King Jr., “A riot is the language of the unheard.”