Stonewall - History

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(Sch.: t. 30; a. 1 heavy 12-pdr. sb. how.)

The first Stonewall was a Southern pilot boat captured by Union screw gunboat Tahoma on, or sometime shortly before, 24 February 1863. She was placed in service as a tender to Tahoma pending legal proceedings against her at Key West. She was condemned there and formally purchased by the Navy from the Key West prize court on 24 July 1863. She operated between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, la., for over one and one-half years, serving as a tender for the various Union warships assigned in turn to Tampa Bay. The highlight of her career came on 24 January 1864 when she captured Southern sloop Josephine of Tampa bound for Havana with seven bales of cotton.

In October 1864, Stonewall was transferred to blockade duty, still as a tender, between St. Marks and Cedar Keys, Fla., and she served in that area through the end of the Civil War. She was inactivated late in May 1865 and was sold at auction at Key West on 28 June 1865 to I. Silvery.

History & Culture

Through the 1960s almost everything about living openly as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) person was a violation of law, rule, or policy. New York City’s prohibitions against homosexual activities were particularly harsh. People were arrested for wearing fewer than three articles of clothing that matched their sex. Serving alcoholic beverages to homosexuals was prohibited. For married men and women who lived homosexual lives in secret, blackmail was a constant threat. Discrimination and fear were tools to isolate people when homosexuality was hidden. After Stonewall, being “out and proud” in numbers was a key strategy that strengthened the movement.


Stonewall was a milestone for LGBTQ civil rights that provided momentum for a movement. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn provoked a spontaneous act of resistance that earned a place alongside landmarks in American self-determination such as Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights (1848) and the Selma to Montgomery March for African American voting rights (1965). Demonstrations continued over the next several nights at Christopher Park across from the Stonewall Inn and in the surrounding neighborhood. When asked to describe the difference that Stonewall had made, journalist Eric Marcus observed that before Stonewall, “For most people, there was no out, there was just in.”

People who would identify today as LGBTQ had few choices for socializing in public and many bars they frequented were operated by organized crime. Members of the police force were often paid off in return for information about planned raids. Customers caught in a raid were routinely freed, but only after being photographed and humiliated. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, people fought back.

Following what at first appeared to be a routine raid, a crowd gathered outside to watch for friends in the bar. But as police vans came to haul away those arrested, the crowd became angry, began throwing objects, and attempted to block the way. The crowd’s aggression forced police to retreat and barricade themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. Onlookers joined in and attacked the bar with pennies, metal garbage cans, bricks, bottles, an uprooted parking meter, and burning trash. The confrontation grew as the fire department and the NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force, trained for riot control, joined police reinforcements sent to the scene.

Liberate Christopher Street!

The agitated crowd took to the streets chanting “Gay Power!” and “Liberate Christopher Street!” LGBTQ youth who gathered at Christopher Park—some of them homeless and with little social capital—challenged police, linked arms, and formed a blockade. Police charged the crowd, but rather than disperse, the mob retreated to the neighborhood they knew well with its network of narrow, winding
streets, doubled-back, and regrouped near the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park, surprising the police.

Demonstrator Tommy Schmidt described the feeling of being in the melee: “I was part of a mob that had a kind of deep identity and was acting as one force.” John O’Brien said, “What excited me was I finally was not alone.”

Social change takes different forms. Pioneers organized and took a range of actions and approaches in the fight for their equality. Stonewall was a galvanizing moment that empowered a range of advocacy some mainstream, and some non-conforming or militant, that rejected approaches based on assimilation.

“By the time of Stonewall. we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there were at least fifteen hundred. By two years later, to the extent that counts could be made, it was twenty-five hundred. And that was the impact of Stonewall.” Frank Kameny.

False Trans Narrative Rewrites Stonewall History

As Pride month drew to a close, The New York Times was busy informing readers that after decades of progress, the gay rights movement was still not as inclusive as it needs to be. &ldquoTransgender women of color led the uprising at the Stonewall Inn 51 years ago on Sunday, but they were never put at the center of the movement they helped start: one whose very shorthand, &lsquothe gay rights movement,&rsquo erases them,&rdquo began a recent Times report.

The problem is that it&rsquos hard to erase what wasn&rsquot there to begin with. Whatever contributions &ldquotransgender women of color&rdquo have made to the gay rights movement, they did not lead the riots at the Stonewall Inn that touched off that movement &ndash the Times&rsquo story was factually incorrect. The Times later stealth-edited the paragraph, but it&rsquos just one of three Times stories in the last six months perpetuating this false narrative about &ldquotrans women of color&rdquo and Stonewall. (See here and here.)

The leaders and participants in the Stonewall riots, which involved hundreds in the streets clashing with the NYPD&rsquos public morals squad, were overwhelmingly white men. But in woke America&rsquos rapidly evolving hierarchy of who gets to claim they&rsquore oppressed, being gay isn&rsquot enough for today&rsquos activists and their media allies. So they&rsquore perpetuating myths about the involvement of &ldquotrans women of color&rdquo at Stonewall to give the historic gay rights battle &ldquointersectional&rdquo bona fides.

The claims made about trans people leading the Stonewall riots centers almost exclusively on two people, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both of whom were part of the gay scene in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. Rivera claims to have participated in the riot, but that claim is undercut by witnesses who say they saw Rivera sleeping on a bench when the revolt began after taking heroin. Johnson personally told a historian that he didn&rsquot arrive until after the riot started.

Despite this, a persistent myth has emerged that not only did the pair lead the Stonewall uprising, but that Johnson even threw the brick that started it. As recently as last year, the Times seemed clear about the facts: &ldquoThe impact of Ms. Rivera and Ms. Johnson on the trans and gay movements can&rsquot be overstated, but it doesn&rsquot take much digging to learn that they didn&rsquot start the Stonewall rebellion.&rdquo

Here&rsquos where it gets even more controversial &ndash were Johnson and Rivera even transgender? David Carter&rsquos history of the event, &ldquoStonewall,&rdquo describes Johnson as drag queen. You can watch Johnson in his own words describing himself as a &ldquoboy in drag.&rdquo Drag certainly subverts gender conventions, but it is a distinct and storied tradition within the gay community, and being gay and wearing women&rsquos clothes hardly makes you transgender.

At one point Rivera decided to take female hormones, but quickly stopped. In his definitive book on the event, Martin Duberman quotes Rivera as saying, &ldquoI came to the conclusion that I don&rsquot want to be a woman. I just want to be me. I want to be Sylvia Rivera.&rsquo&rdquo Both Johnson and Rivera could be described as gender fluid and supportive of transgenderism, but transgender activists themselves are quite militant about being &ldquomisgendered.&rdquo By that standard, calling Johnson or Rivera &ldquotransgender&rdquo doesn&rsquot quite comport with the identities they created for themselves.

Nonetheless, scores of media outlets including the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and PBS have been pushing a dubious transgender narrative about Stonewall. Politicians such as Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have also gotten into the act.

Even the gay establishment, which ought to know better, is complicit in rewriting history. Pete Buttigieg, America&rsquos first openly gay major party presidential candidate, incorrectly tweeted &ldquo#Pride celebrates a movement that traces back to the courage of trans women of color 50 years ago this weekend.&rdquo An article currently on the Human Rights Campaign website incorrectly asserts that the majority of rioters at Stonewall fit Buttigieg&rsquos description: &ldquoStonewall&rsquos LGBTQ patrons&mdashmost of whom were trans women of color&mdashdecided to take a stand and fight back against the brutal intimidation they regularly faced at the hands of police.&rdquo

Some notable gay writers are pushing back. Last month, gay marriage champion Andrew Sullivan called out the Times for falsely transgendering Stonewall, asking &ldquoDoes the NYT have fact-checkers? Or is the &lsquonarrative&rsquo more important than reality?&rdquo In a Tablet magazine essay last year, another notable gay writer, Brookings fellow James Kirchick, concluded that the political narrative was subsuming historical truth.

&ldquoAs America has essentially come to accept gay equality, the intersectional left&mdashperpetually in need of an adversarial posture against society, and for whom &lsquotrans women of color&rsquo is now a slogan&mdashhas settled on radical gender ideology as its next front in the culture war,&rdquo he wrote. &ldquoStonewall loses its cachet as an inspiration for contemporary &lsquoresistance&rsquo if it retains its actual gay character, as that renders it achingly bourgeois, and so the event has been distorted into a transgender story, thereby making it more subversive.&rdquo

To be clear, many in the LGBT community either remember Johnson and Rivera fondly or were inspired by them, and they are lauded for their activism in the years following Stonewall. But at this point it&rsquos impossible to say whether they would enjoy their current posthumous fame absent the media regurgitating false claims about their participation in Stonewall and unfounded speculation about their sexual identity. Johnson and Rivera&rsquos legend has now grown to the point that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year the city would build a statue of the pair near the Stonewall Inn. The announcement was accompanied by a statement from de Blasio&rsquos wife, Chirlane McCray, touting their &ldquoleading role at Stonewall.&rdquo

If Johnson and Rivera are to have a statue, contextualizing it in relation to Stonewall is clearly wrong, and the rush to turn the pair into trans rights icons seems to be doing the exact opposite of what the New York Times suggested &ndash it&rsquos erasing a pivotal event for gay men by making the dominant narrative transgenderism. Much has been said lately about the problems of wantonly tearing down statues to erase history, but the ideology behind erecting statues to invented historical narratives might be even more alarming.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

Campaigning and lobbying

Stonewall is renowned for its campaigning and lobbying. Some major successes include helping achieve the equalisation of the age of consent, lifting the ban on LGB people serving in the military, securing legislation which allowed same-sex couples to adopt and the repeal of Section 28. More recently, Stonewall has helped secure civil partnerships and then same-sex marriage and ensured that the recent Equality Act protected lesbian, gay and bi people in terms of goods and services.

50 Years After Stonewall, We’re Still Disagreeing About What Happened There. That’s Why the Archives Matter

T his year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a moment of resistance by LGBTQ people against homophobia and transphobia, police harassment and exploitation by organized crime. The conflict started in the wee hours of June 28, 1969, and continued for almost a week. The Stonewall Inn was an illegal club, operating without a liquor license, controlled by the mafia and regularly raided by the police. Stonewall was frequented by a range of LGBTQ patrons, mostly gay men, but also lesbians, drag queens and transgender and gender-nonconforming patrons. And beyond the clientele in the club itself, Stonewall existed in the larger context of Greenwich Village, where many queer and transgender youth were living on the streets, abandoned and rejected by their families and the society at large.

Given the tremendous gains made by LGBTQ activists in the intervening years, it can be difficult for people to remember the oppression suffered by LGBTQ people in the United States in the 1950s and &rsquo60s. Homosexuality was illegal in almost every state in the U.S., with legal penalties ranging from three months in jail in New York to possible life in prison in Nevada. Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness by the psychiatric profession many LGBTQ people spent long hours in psychoanalysis attempting to be cured, and could also be subjected to electroshock therapy or involuntary institutionalization by psychiatrists and unaccepting families. In New York, LGBTQ people could be denied service in bars or arrested for wearing clothing that did not match their legally-assigned gender.

On that fateful night in June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, confronted yet again by the fact of their oppression, the LGBTQ people in the club and on the street spontaneously fought back. The conflict marked a turning point in LGBTQ politics in the U.S., leading to the birth of gay, lesbian and transgender movements for liberation.

The resulting days of the conflict have been enshrined in popular memory with annual LGBTQ Pride commemorations timed to coincide with the anniversary of the uprising every year. But memories are often unreliable, and the LGBTQ community, scholars and even the surviving participants do not agree about the details of what happened at Stonewall and their importance. There are numerous disagreements about the participants involved, levels of violence, the reasons behind the conflict, and how and why things changed. These disagreements are fueled by a lack of access to the original sources and the sad fact that LGBTQ history is seldomly taught in schools and universities.

Luckily, there are archives that preserve the original documents from this pivotal time, including political leaflets, posters, little magazines and oral history interviews. The New York Public Library has preserved much of this history, and is presenting a range of these original documents for the public in the Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 exhibition and a new anthology The Stonewall Reader. These resources allow us to encounter this original historical moment ourselves and better understand how it felt and what it ultimately meant.

One of these documents is this flyer &ldquoWhere were you during the Christopher St. Riots?&rdquo produced by the Mattachine Society of New York shortly after Stonewall.

Christopher Street Liberation Day: 1970

The very first U.S. Gay Pride Week and march was meant to give the community a chance to gather together to, ". commemorate the Christopher Street Uprisings of last summer in which thousands of homosexuals went to the streets to demonstrate against centuries of abuse. from government hostility to employment and housing discrimination, Mafia control of Gay bars, and anti-Homosexual laws" (Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee Fliers External , Franklin Kameny Papers) By all estimates there were upwards of 3,000 marchers at the inaugural Pride in New York City, and today NYC marchers number in the millions. In 1970, there were also inaugural Pride marches and events held in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but with a considerably smaller turnout than New York. Since 1970, LGBTQ+ people have continued to gather together in June to march with Pride and demonstrate for equal rights.

52 years after the Stonewall Uprising, the spirit of resistance lives on

Especially during Pride month, fighters for the liberation of LGBTQ people reflect on the state of the struggle. There is no doubt that right wing bigots are on the offensive in many parts of the country, introducing and in many cases passing vile legislation at the state level with a special focus on targeting transgender youth. But acts of resistance large and small are challenging the bigots every step of the way.

When a bakery in Lufkin, Texas put out a pro-Pride cookie, the bigots went berserk. Then, people from all over town came out in solidarity and bought all the cookies in the store in response.

When an 11-year-old transgender child in West Virginia was banned from a sporting event, the child and her family have gone to court to fight back. Meanwhile, San Francisco Giants players are sporting a Pride-oriented uniform.

LGBTQ youth, along with Black, Latino and Native communities, are the hardest hit by the Covid pandemic. Right-wing state officials in Florida are working to ban rainbow lighting on bridges in honor of Pride. But demonstrations in solidarity are showing that the bigots are not the majority by filling the streets of the country with pro-LGBTQ, anti-racist, and pro-women calls for justice. Communities are saying no way, and full equality for all is in demand from coast to coast.

There is a growing return among LGBTQ people, young and old, to the militant spirit of the Stonewall Rebellion — this historic and righteous rebellion against centuries of violent patriarchal rule against LGBTQ people and women, where countless thousands were killed simply because of their gender or sexual orientation.

Because of the tragic pandemic, many Pride marches have been postponed in cities across the country, but the struggle goes on. In Los Angeles, organizers have formed a coalition to hit the streets with militancy and determination and to further revive the spirit of struggle. On June 26, members of the ANSWER Coalition and the Party for Socialism and Liberation will join forces with La Familia and a broad array of organizations by gathering at the site of another major rebellion — at the Black Cat bar in Los Angeles against police harassment and violence in 1967, two years before the Stonewall uprising. The demonstration will march through the streets calling for LGBTQ equality and an end to racism and police brutality, demanding housing and education for all and money for jobs not war.

Other actions are taking place throughout the country that commemorate the spirit of Stonewall and the Black Cat. The fight back must grow and flourish. Unity and solidarity of all struggles must be at the center. The spirit of Stonewall lives on in the fight for a just and a true democracy, run by and for the working class — gay, lesbian, transgender, queer and straight, Black, Latino, Asian, Native and white. Now is the time, everyone must unite. History is on our side.

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: The Stonewall Riots

In 1969, a riot at the Stonewall Inn (later known as the Stonewall Riots) became a turning point in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights. Though few records of the actual raid and riots that followed exist, the oral history of that time has been captured by the participants -- both those who rioted and the police. The Stonewall Riots ignited after a police raid took place at the Stonewall Inn. The tension from ongoing harassment galvanized the LGBTQ community to riot for six days. The protest through the streets of New York City is memorialized as the annual Gay Pride parades that are now celebrated around the world.

It's very American to say, 'This is not right.' It's very American to say, 'You promised equality. You promised freedom.' And, in a sense the Stonewall Riots said, 'Get off our backs. Deliver on the promise.' So in every gay pride parade every year, Stonewall lives. -Virginia Apuzzo, quoted in American Experience: Stonewall Uprising (complete transcript available here).

Considering History: LGBTQ Rights Activism Before Stonewall

As we approach the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Ben Railton remembers other, earlier moments of LGBTQ activism.

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.

As we celebrate Pride Month, many commemorations have focused on the June 1969 Stonewall uprising, not just for this month of celebration but for the modern LGBTQ rights movement as a whole. Indeed, June was chosen as the month for Pride in tribute to both that June 28, 1969, police raid on Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn and (especially) the multiple days of subsequent, collective resistance from the city’s LGTBQ community and its allies. While the raid itself was frustratingly typical for the time period, the uprising was anything but, and Stonewall drew national attention to the LGBTQ community in ways that permanently changed the conversation.

A sign inside the Stonewall Inn (Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Yet while Stonewall did certainly represent a turning point, it was not in any way an origin point. In fact, the 1960s LGBTQ rights movement was already well underway by 1969. A trio of earlier activist moments from the decade helps us understand the multiple layers to such social movements — and extend their legacies into our own moment.

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First, it’s important to note that the LGBTQ movement did not originate in the 1960s, but instead built on prior communities and organizations. In 1924, for example, German-American immigrant and postal worker Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights, a non-profit organization based out of Chicago and dedicated to advancing LGBTQ equality. That organization’s efforts and challenges, like its very existence and the stories of its inspiring members, are all part of the history of LGBTQ activism and community.

As with so many American social movements, those longstanding histories were greatly amplified in the 1960s. One of the earliest LGBTQ rights protests in the 1960s took place outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on July 4th, 1965. Organized by a coura­geous group of activists called the Gay Pioneers, this was the first of what would become known as the Annual Reminder Marches and was very purposefully held in that historically significant location on that nationally symbolic occasion. As one of its organizers, Reverend Robert Wood, put it, “We were picket­ing for freedom and equal rights, and the Liberty Bell was a great symbol.” Another local LGBTQ rights activist, Cuban-American immigrant Ada Bello, expressed that critically patriotic perspective directly: “The marches were to convey to everybody that we were just as entitled as any citizen to have our rights respected.” The Annual Reminder Marches have continued to this day, and a collective embrace of them during Pride would make a perfect complement to our commemorations of Stonewall.

The Annual Reminder protest, 1968 (Uploaded to YouTube by WHYY)

In the fall of 1965, a few months after that first Annual Reminder March, the San Francisco priest and activist Adrian Ravarour (with the help of young activists Joel Williams and Billy Garrison) founded Vanguard, a community organi­zation inspired by the civil rights movement and dedicated to advocacy and activism for LGBTQ rights. The Reverend Larry Mamiya, a civil rights movement leader and an ally of the organization through its relationship with San Francisco’s radical Glide Memorial Methodist Church, describes Vanguard in direct relationship to the decade’s other social and protests movements: “At that time, I did not know about the background of Adrian’s founding philosophy, which included Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among others . . . In retrospect, Vanguard can be seen as the spearhead of a nonviolent social change movement of young gay people, the first in the nation dedicated to bringing about social justice and equal rights.”

A year later, Vanguard put those ideals into action, helping to organize and support one of the decade’s most influential LGBTQ protests, the August 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. In this uprising, which directly foreshadowed the events at Stonewall three years later but remains far less well known, a group of transgender activists, drag queens, and their allies fought back against the consistent discrimination and police ha­rassment and brutality they had faced for many years in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. In her book Transgender History (2008), scholar Susan Stryker calls the riot “the first known incident of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history,” and notes that the protests, coupled with a number of ongoing Vanguard community service efforts in the neighborhood and beyond, pushed the city to “begin addressing them as citizens rather than as a problem to be removed.”

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot historical marker (Gaylesf, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As is the case with the civil rights movement, a too-narrow focus on individual moments and leaders makes it much more difficult to remember the multi-layered, multi-faceted origins of the LGBTQ rights movement in America. If we only remember Stonewall, it might reinforce narratives of LGBTQ Americans as predominantly victims of oppression and brutality. Those histories are part of the story of the movement’s origin points to be sure but so too are the groundbreaking challenges faced by the Society of Human Rights, the communal and critical patriotic efforts embodied by the Reminder Marches and Vanguard, and the proactive uprising at Compton’s Cafeteria. For this year’s Pride Month, let’s try to remember them all.

Featured image: The Stonewall Inn in 2016, two weeks after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando (Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

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The Stonewall Inn was declared a National Historic Landmark

On the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1970, the very first gay pride march was held in Manhattan and since then, millions of LGBT pride marches, parades, picnics, parties, festivals, and symposia have taken place and June has been declared LGBT Pride Month to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots. Although the original Stonewall Club closed its doors in December 1969, the totally renovated Stonewall Inn reopened on March 12, 2007, at 53 Christopher Street. On June 24, 2016, the Stonewall Inn was officially recognized as a National Historic Landmark਋y President Barack Obama due to its association with events that outstandingly represent the struggle for civil rights in America. The Stonewall Inn is the very first LGBT National Historic Landmark in history. 

The Stonewall riots were a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. Its participants shaped a new cultural awareness of a population that was largely ostracized. Along with Johnson, who played a pivotal role in the initial moment of resistance that sparked the landmark rebellion, millions of activists continue to commemorate the events at Stonewall and fight for LGBT rights. Numerous plays, musicals, books, and films celebrate and honor the history of Stonewall and anyone can drop by The Stonewall Inn to see “where pride began.” 


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