Making Stonewall Matter

Primary historical sources show that debates over the riot’s details and meaning are as old as the event itself.

The Stonewall Inn.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Diana Davies, New York Public Library.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The gay rights movement began way before Stonewall. A trans person threw the first brick—maybe? (Or was it a shot glass?) When describing Stonewall as a turning point in queer liberation, don’t forget to mention how much is left to do. And what about the West Coast’s contribution? The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots has prompted the excavation of every controversy around the event, giving all of us a crash course in the politics of historical memory. As a person interested in understanding the way movements shape themselves around iconic events, I’m loving it. Debates like these can’t, by their nature, be resolved; they’re persistent, messy, and vital.

And these conversations are as old as the events themselves. Marc Stein’s The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History is a primary-source collection of the sort that a professor might assign in a class on social movements. When you’re trying to figure out what Stonewall meant to people at the time, these documents, many of which were first printed in the couple of years afterward, are indispensable. The takeaway from Stein’s collection: Almost all of the present-day controversies around this event—its origins and its meaning—were matters of conversation among activists as early as summer 1969.

“In the aftermath of the uprising,” Stein writes in his introduction, “the rebellion was commonly invoked in debates and discussions about the movement’s internal divisions.” As sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage wrote in a 2006 paper analyzing why Stonewall “became central to gay collective memory while other events did not,” the story of Stonewall’s importance was, first, a construction—“a story initiated by gay liberation activists and used to encourage further growth.” This mythmaking greatly benefited from the recent expansion of alternative and gay newspapers across the country, which had built what Armstrong and Crage refer to as “gay mnemonic capacity” by 1969. Many of the sources in Stein’s collection come from these newspapers. (A bonus for your reading fun: some extremely 1960s hippie lingo.)

Recounting the events of the first night of the riots, the movement’s writers variously assigned “credit” for its spark to lesbians, “queens,” and “nellies.” In the July 4, 1969, issue of the countercultural paper the Berkeley Barb, radical activist Leo Laurence wrote: “Ironically, it was a chick who gave the rallying cry to fight. Pigs were loading her into the wagon when she shouted to a big crowd of bystanders: ‘Why don’t you guys do something!’ That did it. The crowd rushed the police wagon as someone yelled: ‘Let’s turn it over.’ The pig driver drove off, escaping the angry crowd.” (This seems to be a reference to butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie.) In a later piece for the Berkeley Tribe (a more radical descendent of the Barb, formed in the wake of a staff schism), Laurence added:

Surprisingly, the most daring defiance to the pigs’ riot clubs came from the effeminate “queens.” Like one Puerto Rican who shouted at a big bull pig: “How’d you like a big Spanish dick up your little Irish ass?” That freaked the pig so much he hesitated swinging for just a split second and the “queen” split. A large group of gay kids were being rushed by two young pigs in another incident. Someone shouted, “Let’s grab the pigs, rip off their clothes, and screw them both!” They too freaked and retreated fast with their pig-tails tucked between their legs.

That “Spanish/Irish” anecdote seems like it might have come from established activist Dick Leitsch’s account of the riots, which he published in the Mattachine Society’s July 1969 newsletter. Leitsch was a member of the old guard of “homophile” activists, who had been taking a more reserved, respectability-forward approach to activism. But he was also in sympathy with younger activists and welcomed the events of Stonewall, while others of his generation feared they were too visible, too dramatic. In his account, Leitsch described the makeup of the crowd, crediting those who were more effeminate in presentation with keeping things in line:

Suddenly, two cops darted into the crowd and dragged out a boy who had done absolutely nothing. As they carried him to a waiting van brought to take off prisoners, four more cops joined them and began pounding the boy in the face, belly and groin with night sticks. A high shrill voice called out, “Save our sister!” and there was a general pause, during which the “butch” looking “numbers” looked distracted. Momentarily, fifty or more homosexuals who would have to be described as “nelly” rushed the cops and took the boy back into the crowd. They then formed a solid front and refused to let the cops into the crowd to regain their prisoner, letting the cops hit them with their sticks, rather than let them through. (It was an interesting sidelight on the demonstrations that those usually put down as “sissies” or “swishes” showed the most courage and sense during the action. Their bravery and daring saved many people from being hurt, and their sense of humor and “camp” helped keep the crowds from getting nasty or too violent.)

Writing in Come Out! in winter 1972, three years after the events, trans activist Sylvia Rivera used Stonewall to claim a place at the table of gay activism for trans and marginalized people:

By being liberated my half sisters and brothers and myself are able to educate the ignorant gays and straights that transvestism is a valid life style. Remember the Stonewall Riots? That first stone was cast by a transvestite half sister June 27, 1969 and the gay liberation movement was born. Remember that transvestites and gay street people are always on the front lines and are ready to lay their lives down for the movement.

Evidence for Armstrong and Crage’s argument that Stonewall became important in part because activists proclaimed it as important can be seen in pieces written in the immediate aftermath. In the East Village Other, on July 9, 1969, Ronnie Di Brienza, a musician who described himself as a “long-haired, newspaper-tabled hippy … not gay, but not straight either … I must consider myself a freak,” wrote that Stonewall was a sea change: “It used to be that a fag was happy to get slapped and chased home, as long as they didn’t have to have their names splashed onto a court record. Now, times are-a-changin’. Tuesday night was the last night for bullshit.” In the New York underground newspaper Rat’s anonymously authored coverage of the night, the riots are described as strangely inevitable—a powerful description of purpose, felt collectively by a group of people who’ve had enough: “Strangely, no one spoke to the crowd or tried to direct the insurrection. Everyone’s heads were in the same place.”

Black-and-white photo of a parade.
The first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade was held in New York City on June 28, 1970, to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Library of Congress

There’s a whole other essay to be written on the hateful way straight New York newspapers covered Stonewall, including the ostensibly liberal Village Voice, which was later to become a target of protesters who were radicalizing in the wake of Stonewall. Armstrong and Crage credit activist Craig Rodwell, who called his media contacts after happening to pass by the Stonewall Inn on the first night of the riots, with possibly facilitating the “extensive coverage” the events got in the immediate aftermath, but that coverage was a true mixed bag. Stein includes the text of Jerry Lisker’s article “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad,” which ran in the Daily News on July 6, and shows how the author combined misogyny and homophobia in rhetorically minimizing the anger of the rioters. Lisker describes them as “queens, princesses, and ladies-in-waiting,” and writes: “Bobby pins, compacts, curlers, lipstick tubes, and other femme fatale missiles were flying in the direction of the cops. The war was on. The lilies of the valley had become carnivorous jungle plants.” The hatefulness of these sources can be difficult to read, but the contrast between mainstream and alternative papers shows just how much the activists were fighting against.

Sources from the time remind us that the story of Stonewall was always a matter of debate. In the end, these persistent conflicts over Stonewall’s meaning have made the event more, rather than less, vital to the movement’s progress. I, for one, can’t wait to see whatever revisions future historians might add to the record.