Stonewall refers to the turmoil associated with the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York City that started in the early hours of June 28, 1969 (also known as the Stonewall Riots, Stonewall Uprising, and Stonewall Awakening), and to the Stonewall Inn for which the event was named. In terms of Gay culture, Stonewall is a creation myth and shrine. Although the Stonewall myth is based heavily on fact, it is important to understand the story as a statement of communal origin as well as an historical account. As a shrine, the Stonewall Inn is an important site for LGBTQ pilgrimage.
The presentation of the myth in its standard Gay version differs tellingly from the Straight media version that came out in the immediate aftermath of the event.
Accounts that describe the Stonewall Inn before the Stonewall event portray the establishment as a seedy Gay dance bar and an illegal juke joint posing as a legitimate business. Drinks were watered down. Glasses were rinsed in tubs of stale water and used again because there were no functional sinks at the bar. Illegal drugs were available if the buyer had the right connections. Nevertheless, the Stonewall Inn was a popular bar in Greenwich Village for Gay men and people of any orientation, gender variance, or nontypical sexual physiology because of two factors: an ethos of inclusion and the fact that customers could dance to music from its jukebox.
The mythic power of Stonewall as a universal narrative for all LGBTQ folk is enhanced by descriptions that highlight the diversity of patrons. Although the clientele was predominantly male, Stonewall’s door staff admitted a motley crowd in terms of ethnicity, race, occupation, and gender. Most of the patrons were African American and Hispanic. All kinds frequented the Inn: nelly flamers (effeminate men), working-class men, Wall Street bankers, chicken hawks (older men in search of younger men), chicken (younger men), drag queens, transwomen, some hippies, and a few women-born women and possibly transmen, including butch (masculine) Lesbians in men’s clothing.
The myth juxtaposes the illegality of the bar with the corruption of law enforcement authorities that regularly harassed the Gay community. Stonewall is described as having a fairly comfortable relationship with the police. Once a week, an officer would stop by to pick up approximately $2000 in cash. The management was then permitted to maintain the illusion that the Stonewall Inn was a private bottle club (patrons brought their own liquor so that no liquor license was required). $2000 also meant that the police would announce their raids in advance. In case police did show up, a warning system of lights would notify customers to stop dancing with members of the same sex, an activity that was outlawed at the time. Bartenders would then grab the cash made from drink sales and melt into the crowd.
Standard Gay Version of the Myth
On June 28, 1969 (actress Judy Garland’s funeral had been held the day before), there was an unscheduled police raid on the Stonewall Inn at a little after 1 AM. A crowd gathered to taunt the police. They cheered the arrested staff and cross-dressers, who posed for the crowd and waved like celebrities as they were ushered out of the bar and into the paddy wagon for wearing clothing considered inappropriate for their perceived gender.
Trouble broke out when one person, pushed and prodded to a waiting vehicle by the police, pushed back. One popular account attributes the first spark to a Lesbian dressed in men’s clothing. Another account says that it was a transwoman. Angry words led to rocks, bottles, and coins (symbolizing the bribes that police demanded from Gay establishments) thrown at the officers. Transwoman and activist Sylvia Rivera said she yelled, “You already got the payoff, but here’s some more!” while throwing coins. Police barricaded themselves in the bar until reinforcements arrived. Three days of civil insurrection ensued, “Gay Power!” was shouted openly in the streets, and Gay Liberation had begun.
It was liberation, however, on Gay terms. Stonewall is portrayed as a lesson in successful violence management. Although there were displays of violent aggression from both sides (Rivera’s drag mother, Marsha P. Johnson, reportedly climbed a light pole and dropped a heavy weight on a police car below, cracking the windshield), nobody on either side was shot and nobody was killed, but plenty of Gay people (and some Straight Allies) were beaten. Hilarity and silliness played an important role in keeping things from getting out of hand. In fact, Stonewall is remembered as much a street party as an insurrection.
Public resistance consisted of hitting the police with wit and humor as well as sticks and stones. Accounts of Stonewall describe how Gay men taunted law enforcement officers with performances of camp (exaggerated feminine speech performance and body language, usually adopted when one is saying something outrageous) and then running away. At one point, the riot police became unwitting cast members of street theater. A chorus line of said queens danced in front of the police, high-kicking Rockettes-style in a row, while singing the following ditty to the tune of “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay,” (a song attributed to Mammy Lou of St. Louis, who sang it at Babe Connors’ brothel in the 1880s):
We are the Stonewall Girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
After the unrest, city authorities decriminalized Gay bars, and laws against cross-dressing were effectively abolished.
By 2013, the Stonewall myth was so much a part of the American historical consciousness that, during his second inaugural address on January 21, President Barack Obama referred to “Stonewall” as one of three important sites in the American struggle for equality. The President mentioned Stonewall along with Seneca Falls (New York, women’s rights) and Selma (Alabama, African American rights).
Straight Media Version
The mainstream press tended to portray the Stonewall event as a slapstick comedy routine. All of the insurgents were described as Stonewall Girls: saucy, limp-wristed girly-men who relentlessly ridiculed the cops. In ”Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square” published in The Village Voice (July 3, 1969), the unrest on the previous Saturday was “led by a group of gay cheerleaders” and “The scene was a command performance for queers.” Police were portrayed as hapless straight men to the queeny comedians. The Daily News, the largest newspaper in the country at that time, printed an article, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad”:
According to the reports, the Stonewall Inn… was a mecca for the homosexual element in the Village who wanted nothing but a private little place where they could congregate, drink, dance, and do whatever little girls do when they get together… The crowd began to get out of hand, eye witnesses said. Then, without warning, Queen Power exploded with all the fury of a gay atomic bomb.
The article does not mention any women or masculine men who resisted the police. It focuses only on men in drag:
Queens, princesses, and ladies-in-waiting began hurling anything they could lay their polished, manicured fingernails on. Bobby pins, compacts, curlers, lipstick tubes and other femme fatale missiles were flying in the direction of the cops… There were some assorted scratches and bruises, but nothing serious was suffered by these honeys turned Madwomen of Chaillot.
Although it is easy to read the article as an exercise in stereotyping, the exaggeration of feminine traits in the insurgents (“Bobby pins, compacts, curlers, lipstick tubes and other femme fatale missiles” instead of rocks, bottles, bricks, and coins, for example) highlights the ineptitude of the police far more than the decadence of the protesters. As such, the article also trivializes those Gays and their Straight allies who were beaten senseless by the police. But the queens were the heroes: portrayed as buffoons more so than bullies, the police were the butt of the joke.
Pre-Stonewall Gay Rights Incidents
Stonewall was not the first time Gay people had publicly resisted. The earliest record of such an incident was during a molly house raid in England in the early 1700s, when men who were dancing, flirting, and having sex with each other physically resisted arrest.
It was also not the first time that resistance had been reported in the American media. In 1964, the Daughters of Bilitis and the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) teamed up with Christian ministers in San Francisco to address problems faced by the Gay community. Cecil Williams, the African American pastor of the Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin, and European American minister/social worker Ted McIlvenna helped set up the Counsel on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) in 1964. A new year’s costume ball fundraiser sponsored by the CRH was organized. Shocked by the idea of ministers working together with homosexuals, law enforcement officials met with the ministers and told them not to go through with the party.
When the fundraiser proceeded anyway, paddy wagons were lined up at the venue, photographers were there to shame the attendees by taking their pictures, and four people were arrested when they protested. The public outcry against the police (from Protestant ministers, no less) dramatically improved Gay civil rights and galvanized the Bay Area Gay community.
In 1966, a group of protesters led by angry transwomen rioted at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, an event remembered today as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. Neither Compton Cafeteria nor Stonewall riots were organized, although organized protests occurred after both events, including what would be remembered as the first Pride Parade one year after Stonewall.
As an extended performance, Stonewall incorporated violence mixed with humor. It was violence that attracted national and international media attention. But even more provocative was the notion that pansies (effeminate men) were doing the fighting.
Generations living in the 1960s had been taught that cross-dressing was humorous, witty, and harmless. The nation would watch Milton Berle dress in drag for laughs on the popular Milton Berle Show. Comedienne Lucille Ball would occasionally dress up like a man on I Love Lucy. Larry and Curly of the Three Stooges did drag, as did Bugs Bunny of cartoon fame. Children would grow up laughing at Chip ‘n’ Dale, the effeminate male chipmunk couple, and the pink theatrical lion Snagglepuss, quite possibly the campiest queen on Saturday morning television. In all of these instances, cross-dressers and effeminate male characters were the heroes.
As angry as the riot police were when taunted, they showed remarkable restraint. Had they not considered the protesters basically harmless in their impunity, had the Stonewall Girls been perceived as a real threat, people would have been killed.
Pride, Parties, Activism, and Pilgrimage
After the Stonewall incident, poet Alan Ginsberg said that homosexuals had “lost that wounded look” that characterized traumatized souls. Internal feelings of self-hatred could be just as damning and hurtful as the words and actions of their external oppressors. On June 28, 1970, exactly one year after Stonewall, an official Gay march was held in Greenwich Village (one was also held in Chicago the day before, and another was held in Los Angeles), which was followed by a dance party.
This 1970 post-march dance party was the precursor to Circuit parties (large weekend dance events) thrown during Gay Pride celebrations. At least three Pride weekends are also full-fledged Circuit parties: the San Diego Zoo Party, Toronto Prism, and New York Pride.
Stonewall is enshrined as the pivotal moment in the LGBTQ community’s folk history. Pride celebrations held around the world commemorate the uprising. Many of them (especially those in major cities) occur on the weekend closest to June 28. As public displays of self-worth, Pride parades are street theater where many LGBTQ folks flaunt their orientation, gender expression, and non-typical sexual physiology, and where Straight allies show support for Gay folks.
The site of the old Stonewall Inn (which has changed ownership since 1969 and not always been a bar) is a place of pilgrimage, with a memorial to Gay Pride right across the street from it in Sheridan Square. Some LGBTQ community centers across the USA have taken the name “Stonewall,” such as the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. There is also a national political organization known as the Stonewall Democrats.
Gay communities in different countries may have their own “Stonewall moment,” such as the protests in Toronto against bathhouse raids in 1981, the 1990 Sex Garage protests in Montréal, and the nonviolent 1998 Wigstock Riots in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Loughery, John. The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A
Twentieth-Century History. New York: Henry Holt, 1998