I wasn’t taught shit about the Stonewall Riots, and chances are, neither were you. At this point, California is the one state mandated to teach anything to do with the subject, and this law was only passed in 2011. People who oppose the law still think it’s about teaching kids how to be gay. People who oppose the law are ignorant as all hell. But guess what! So are you. Your kids could grow up knowing more about the history of gay rights than you. It’s not your fault that the country has rendered this significant history invisible. But it is your responsibility to do something about it. Stonewall is often considered the the beginning of the LGBT rights movement. What I can put in 800 words is only a small slice of history, but with the anniversary of Stonewall coming up on June 28th, here are some highlights and badasses who were at one point at risk of being erased.
The first Gay Pride march didn’t have rainbows, or Citibank Floats, or Pokémen. It was a routine raid from police who apprehended gay people in order to meet arrest quotas. There were no gay public spaces. Stonewall was controlled and run by the mafia who targeted LGBT people and paid off the police to let them keep business as usual. At times they would find high profile gay patrons and extort them for money. But the Stonewall Inn was not just a bar or a place for deviant behavior, as most people assumed. It was also a place for queer youth, often homeless and unemployed due to discrimination, to spend a night. They stayed out panhandling enough for the Inn’s admission of $3.00.
There’s a lot of mythology about how the riots started. In one story, a lesbian woman later identified as Marilyn Fowler, fought off cops for ten minutes before one finally clubbed her and began shoving her into a paddy wagon. She turned to bystanders shouting “Why don’t you guys do something!” before the whole scene erupted. In another story, trangender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson threw a shot glass into a mirror shouting, “I got my civil rights!”
It was a law that bar patrons must be wearing gender-conforming clothing, and no more than three gender non-conforming garments were allowed. In order to confirm patrons’ sex, cops shoved people into the the bar bathrooms where they performed invasive acts on them.
Most patrons were aware the mafia paid off the police to keep them away, and when a few implied the cops hadn’t paid off this time, others began throwing coins at the police, shouting “Let’s pay them off!” The incident escalated to the point that the officers were so overwhelmed they had to barricade themselves inside the Inn. The streets weren’t cleared until the wee hours of the morning, and the following night there were more riots, with people numbering in the thousands.
Later on people would joke that the riots were incited by Judy Garland’s death, and many journalists and historians would go on to frame the event as a movement of gay white men. Major newspapers would continue to misrepresent the event. The Village Voice, a popular gay publication, derisively referred to the riot as “fag follies” and the homosexuals involved as “forces of faggotry.” Most coverage mocked the individuals involved and turned them into caricatures and stereotypes. But the uprising had lasting impact, spurring the creation of formal LGBT rights groups in most major cities in the US, and putting radical gay activism on the map.
The trauma, activism, and police brutality from those nights is distilled and often used for insults and slurs, as with the video below in response to Kansas City Chiefs’ running back, Larry Johnson calling another Twitter user a “fag” and a “Christopher Street boy” (51 and 53 Christopher St. being the location of the Stonewall Inn). Jay Smooth argues that if only people knew the history of LGBT rights movements, they would understand “there’s nobody more gangster than the LGBT. If they knew their history, like, Rick Ross would be pretending to be gay instead of pretending to be a drug lord.”
Pride events are important because of the numbers, diversity, and representation. It’s hard to feel like you’re a part of any community in a country where the only mainstream gay history we’ve seen is the movie Milk. Teaching this history is a big deal because otherwise those who are oppressed may never see themselves as a part of history, or believe that they’re worthy of advocating for themselves. We may buy into the idea, as Larry Johnson and so many others have, that queer people are weak, and soft, and can’t make change. And amidst of the change that we’re seeing, we would be failures to let that go unlearned and unrecorded.