Peering through pinhole cracks in a piece of plywood covering a window of the Stonewall Inn, officers could see the crowd they had just ejected swelling with sympathetic onlookers who were also looking for violent revenge. Hundreds of people–enraged by lifetimes of persecution at the hands of police and the laws they enforced–were out to destroy, injure and even to kill.
One group of rioters tore a parking meter from the sidewalk and used it as a battering ram as others lit garbage cans and hurled them through the windows. Luckily for the officers barricaded inside they were able to escape out a back window as a cavalcade of cop cars and patty wagons arrived on the scene. What followed were two nights of destructive rioting that focused national attention on the predicament of LGBT folks in 1960’s America.
The rioters had a lot to be angry about. Homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois and being outed could destroy your life: you could lose your job, go to jail, be lobotomized, or even chemically castrated. The military planted spies in popular gay bars to entrap curious soldiers who would then be dishonorably discharged.
In New York City thousands of people per year were arrested for homosexual behavior including dressing in drag which was illegal. In some cases, the police would perform sting operations in drag themselves to entrap unsuspecting Johns or actual drag queens. Police were required to either visibly check or grope suspected drag queens to verify their sex before being arrested. The city created a powder keg of resentment among the LGBT community because of its draconian laws and policies.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising the Stonewall Riots happened and there’s no question they were an epoch in the Gay Rights Movement. Without the attention it brought, progress towards legal parity could have taken much longer and LGBT individuals would have continued to look like easy targets…
But is an alcohol fueled riot in which people & property was violently damaged really the historical fulcrum we should point to as our most “proud” hour? On social media, at pride events, in the press, and among our community, Stonewall has been elevated to this mythical genesis story completely cleansed of the chaos it caused.
The fact this event has been curated as the defining moment for LGBT people also illuminates an uncomfortable double standard in America. There’s no exaltation for riots populated by black people looking for equality; if any thing they’re mercilessly squashed and relegated to the margins of history. The African-American Civil Rights Movement became recognized world-wide as one of humanity’s greatest achievements because it came about through a restraint from violence.
So why have we—when there are so many other world-changing non-violent achievements in our community’s history—chosen Stonewall as our archetypal civil rights victory?
Just a few years prior in 1966, the Mattachine Society of New York City convinced newly elected Mayor John V. Lindsay to end many of the city’s oppressive policies (although during his re-election campaign in 1969 he went back on these promises). The Gay Rights Movement was really activated by early organizations like these that began the push for actual legal reforms.
After Harvey Milk–the first openly gay elected official in California–was shot to death, Gilbert Baker designed and constructed the first rainbow gay pride flag. This symbol has not only become a global export but an expression of love that transcends sexuality and gender.
On October 14th, 1979 an estimated 100,000 people attended the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
The odious “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in the military was repealed allowing brave LGBT service people to serve openly and proudly without fear of a humiliating dishonorable discharge.
Same-sex marriage prohibition laws were found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling on April, 28th, 2015 allowing us for the first time in human history to legally marry who we love. This legal victory inspired countries like Taiwan to legalize same-sex marriage.
In the end it isn’t alcohol fueled violence at a seedy bar that has brought about real change for the world and its perception of us. It’s the careful, diligent and non-violent efforts of people seeking to change the system, not destroy it. As we celebrate Pride month, party at World Pride in New York, and take the obligatory selfie in front of the Stonewall Inn, remember our complete history, and ask yourself what are you REALLY proud of?