With all the talk about Stonewall and riots in the news and as the Black Lives Matter protests merge with Pride celebrations, we turned to our favorite historian and keeper of the queer archives Hugh Ryan for some answers and perspective.
There’s been a lot of discussion esp now, about whether Stonewall was a riot or not… what’s the truth? To be honest, I think there might be too much discussion of Stonewall in general. Riot, uprising – whatever word you want to use, Stonewall was one instance of the queer community fighting back against the routine harassment they received from the cops. As they did at Cooper’s Do-Nuts, The Black Cat, The Haven, The Snake Pit, Compton’s Cafeteria, and so many more places over the decades. The importance of Stonewall, for me, is the collective and public nature of the resistance, not necessarily what we call it or who was there on the first night, versus the second night, etc.
Can you talk about the women’s prison on Jane Street and how that figures in?
The Women’s House of Detention – the prison that opened in Greenwich Village in 1929 – was located at the intersection of Christopher Street, 8th Street, and 6th Avenue. Folks on the inside heard Stonewall, and participated in their own way, by chanting “Gay power, gay power, gay power,” while they set their belongings on fire and tossed them out the windows! Arcus Flynn talks about seeing the fiery missiles in this interview about the Daughters of Bilitis
, and this is a short excerpt about that night written by Rita Mae Brown.
The WHoD was actually the site of a number of protests that involved queer people. One of the earliest actions of the Gay Liberation Front after they formed was to take part in a 24/7 protest encampment outside the prison. This is from the Dec GLF 1969 Bulletin:
On International Women’s Day, 1970, there was a violent clash between feminist, queer, and black power groups outside the prison:
Afeni Shakur was in the House of D during Stonewall, and some of the subsequent queer actions outside it. She was there on trumped up charges, as part of the Panther 21. Many of the protests at the House of D were to free the Panther 21 and other black political prisoners (like Angela Davis). After she successfully defended herself and was found innocent on all charges, Shakur attended the Gay Liberation Front workshop at the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. The Chicago GLF branch wrote this about that meeting:
All of this is to say that although the Women’s House of Detention is rarely discussed today, it was an incredibly important location for many of the movements for revolutionary justice that came out of the 1960s.
Who would you identify as some pivotal figures of stonewall and subsequently? I think the pivotal figure of Stonewall, and the organizing that came afterword – all successful political organizing, to be honest – are the unknown, unnamed masses. We’ve spent far too long quibbling about who was there or who did the first what (things that will never be proven), and far too little time celebrating the vast and unknown mass of queer people who squeezed into dirty bars, who came out to their families, who wore make-up or suits on the streets, who got beat up every other day of the year that was not Stonewall, etc. Stonewall is like steam escaping from a pressure valve; it only happened because of the much larger pent up frustration that was contained in the queer community as a whole.
What parallels do you see today to that era? I could write a whole book on that question! I think the biggest parallel is that people are out in the streets demanding justice. This Pride season, treat yourself to an immersive act of historical recreation – go to a Black Lives Matter protest and see the reality of being in the streets for yourself. It’s the only way we make change.
Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator. His first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, won a 2020 New York City Book Award and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice in 2019, and was a finalist for the Randy Shilts and Lambda Awards. He was honored with the 2020 Allan Berube Prize from the American Historical Association. He is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Follow him on Twitter: @Hugh_Ryan