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Where does the name Stonewall come from?
New York City--“Mommy, why is the Pride Parade and Festival held in June?”
At some point, some child has asked his or her mother that question.
The answer goes back to 1969, to a summery night hours after the funeral of gay icon Judy Garland.
Just after midnight, in the first minutes of Saturday, June 28, the police raided a gay bar on Christopher Street between Seventh Avenue South and Waverly Place. The watering hole, the Stonewall Inn, was one of a number of gay bars that was a regular target of the cops when they needed to seem as if they were doing something to fight “perversion.” It was the bar’s second time being targeted by the police in a week.
What began as a routine bust turned ugly and historic as a crowd formed and urged on the drag queens and gay men. The police released most of the bar’s 200 patrons, but the staff, a trio of drag queens and two transsexuals were loaded into a paddy wagon.
The crowd went from its usual happy-go-lucky, gay self into something angry and violent. The officers who went into the bar on the raid were forced to call for more heavily-armed back-up.
According to David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, Dave Von Ronk told the author that, happening upon the scene, he asked what was going on. One of the bystanders said that the police had not been paid off, and members of the crowd suggested “paying them off,” leading to a barrage of pocket change.
“I had been involved in antiwar demonstrations where the police descended on us like armed locusts,” the heterosexual folk singer said. “What I saw was yet another example of police arrogance and corruption. As far as I was concerned, anybody who’d stand against the cops was all right with me, and that’s why I stayed.”
“I reached in my pocket and tossed a quarter or just some pennies and around that time the heavy artillery cut in,” Von Ronk noted. “I assume that some of the street people in the park had decided to join the fray because beer cans started flying over our heads.”
Michael Fader told Carter, “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration. It was spontaneous. That was the part that was wonderful.”
When riot-control officers arrived, it took them an hour to get the crowd to leave. They were taunted, according to www.lgbtq.com, with the chant of, “We are the Stonewall Girls, we wear our hair in curls, We wear no underwear, We show our pubic hair, We wear our dungarees, Above our nelly knees.”
The next night, another crowd formed outside the bar, less violent this time, protesting the police raids. Thousands of people participated in the second night of protest outside the bar.
“Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force,” wrote Jerry Lisker, a reporter for the New York Daily News in a July 6, 1969 article. “The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs . . . Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt. New York City experienced its first homosexual riot.”
Lisker concluded, “The police are sure of one thing. They haven’t heard the last from the Girls of Christopher Street.”
In that statement, his sensationalistic story was remarkably prescient.
Less than a month later, a group formed calling itself the Gay Liberation Front, leading to the city’s first gay rights march the following June.
The Stonewall Riots have been immortalized in books (Stonewall by Martin Duberman; Carter’s Stonewall; a chapter in Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth Century America by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, among others) and the eponymous dramatic film, documentaries and more. It was the turning point in the LGBT rights movement, spawning the June pride events across the nation.
Nobody really knows who started “the riot.” Trans activist Sylvia Rivera said she threw a brick, aggravated by a police officer prodding her with his baton. Prominent LGBT historian John D’Emilio wrote in The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture that a lesbian being led through the gathering crowd to a waiting police car began the violence. Others believe it was a Latino hustler or a homeless person.
“Stonewall was a messy situation, never made for myth,” Jewelle Gomez is quoted in Becoming Visible. “It was a polyglot of most of us and who we are as gay people. Stonewall was more of a bad trip than the stuff of dreams.”
“Yet there it is,” she continues. “Spontaneous generation of the demand for equality, made not by the suited middle-class respectables but by the late-night habitués of a sleazy mob-run clip joint.”
The dichotomy, between the “respectables” and the others, has caused controversy in the re-telling of the Stonewall mythos and in celebrating the anniversaries of the riots.
Various stories of who threw the first stone or bottle or coin or trash can has had it come from a white, middle-class gay male, a drag queen of color, a Latino hustler. It is as if every social, sexual and ethnic group has to put their own stamp on the story, put themselves in the lead.
At the time, one group that tried to distance itself from the violence was the Mattachine Society, the seminal gay advocacy group that had, until that time, been in the very forefront of the struggle for equality.
However, a hand-painted sign on the plywood-covered window of the Stonewall read, “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the village--Mattachine,” marking it as an organization whose time had passed.
The Christopher Street crowd were no longer about “peaceful and quiet conduct” and Stonewall was now a battle cry.
The word itself has become synonymous with the quest for LGBT equality. Looking at Ohio alone, Columbus’ LGBT center is Stonewall Columbus. Akron, Cleveland and Cincinnati all had organizations called Stonewall, and the national organization for LGBT Democrats and their allies, along with its local chapters, is the Stonewall Democrats.
In Ohio, Columbus’ Pride Holiday is closest to the actual date of the Stonewall riots, but each city’s Pride parade holds an echo of the hope and passion that marked those two days in 1969.
And the Stonewall itself? In 1999, the 150-year-old building at 53 Christopher Street was named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. The original bar closed later in 1969, but a new gay bar opened there 20 years later--with glass in the window instead of plywood--named simply “Stonewall.” It closed last year and a remodeled Stonewall Inn, matching the now-gentrified neighborhood, opened in April.
Standing watch in a park across the street is a statue of the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson. But the bar wasn’t named after him. The name first appeared there in 1930 as “Bonnie’s Stone Wall” a tearoom and later a restaurant that author Carter says may have been named for one of the first books to depict lesbian love, The Stone Wall, published the same year.