Stonewall: Heroes in the Night
Early in the morning of June 28, 1969, an event took place that would change the landscape of the gay liberation movement. On that fateful morning, a series of violent protests by members of the LGBTQ community erupted during a police raid at a gay bar in Greenwich Village. For several hours, police clashed with patrons at the bar and in the surrounding neighborhoods. The bar was the Stonewall Inn. The clash would come to be known as the Stonewall riots.
Patrons of the Stonewall, other Village lesbian and gay bars, and neighborhood street people and residents gathered outside of the bar a bit past one in the morning, as the raid began. They ignored police orders to disperse. The crowd was stirred up as people were being roughly handled by the police. At one point, an officer hit a lesbian over the head, and within minutes, a full-blown riot involving hundreds of people began.
This year is the 52nd anniversary of that night and the days following it. There were many heroes on the 28th. Here are a few that made a difference.
Homeless street kids were the first to fight with the police. Many of these kids were gay or transgender street youth. The most outcast people in the gay community were responsible for the first volley of projectiles. They also uprooted a parking meter that was used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn, where several police officers were trapped.
A bit later, a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the bar to a waiting police wagon. Some suggest that it was Stormé DeLarverie, a well-known lesbian entertainer. She was fighting with the police, swearing, and shouting. Described as “a typical New York butch,” she had been hit on the head by an officer with a baton. The bloodied woman sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became an angry mob.
Two of the most important foremothers of the modern LGBTQ rights movement rose to the challenge during the riots and the time after.
Sylvia Rivera was a 17-year-old Puerto Rican drag queen at the Stonewall Inn. She was in the crowd gathering outside of the bar as things began to escalate. Rivera was one of the first bystanders to throw a bottle “You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn.”
Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American street queen, was celebrating her 25th birthday at the bar. She climbed a lamppost and dropped a heavy bag onto the hood of a police car, shattering the windshield.
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. (Pay It No Mind) Johnson remained in the Village to turn the riots into something much more, an organized front against homophobia and transphobia. That movement today is known as Gay Liberation or Pride.
For years, their contributions at Stonewall had been minimized and lost to history, but that has changed. New York City is installing a new statue on Christopher Street to celebrate Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. It will be the first permanent public artwork dedicated to transgender women.
By the time of Stonewall, there were 50 to 60 gay groups in the country. A year later there were at least 1,500.
These words from the Department of the Interior’s John Berry at the dedication of the land around Stonewall as a National Historic Landmark capture the importance of the Stonewall riots: “Let it forever be remembered that here—on this spot—men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose, and love whom our hearts desire.”
Words made possible by these and countless other heroes in the night. ▼
Michael Gilles is a playwright, actor, and director from Milton, and a regular contributor to Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.