“That night, the police ran from us, and it was amazing.“
— a participant describing the first night of the uprising.
June 28, 1969
We need the Stonewall Uprising today because it teaches us three essential truths: diversity, weakness, and power. The Stonewall Uprising shows us the need for diversity in groups seeking social change. It reveals the liberating power of weakness, those with little to lose. It reminds us of the crucial need to claim and act on our own power. Diversity, weakness, and power. These truths matter today in every struggle for social justice.
The Stonewall Uprising began in the early hours of June 28, 1969. But the conditions that made it happen began years earlier. Simply put, being LGBTQ in 1960s America was dangerous. If one was “outed” you could lose your job, family, everything. There really was no “out.” You were in the closet or you had nothing. There were some people who were “out” in their way, mostly young people, many who had been kicked out of their families, who had left their homes and come to New York City with nothing. They had little to lose.
The New York Police Department regular raided gay bars but they usually did it on weeknights, when there were few patrons. Most gay bars had relationships between the mafia and the NYPD. So raids were short, small, dangerous to the patrons, and frequent. The police would enter a gay bar, round everyone up, take their identification, and usually arrest them. Being arrested in a gay bar could mean the end of one’s life as it was. If your family or employer found out, you could be destroyed. It was simple. Thus, many gay people stayed silent, and if there were in a bar, they never fought back. That would invite disaster.
But over time, people were tired. They had been beaten by police and gone quietly. They were harassed, threatened, and stayed silent. Then a combination of events conspired to make June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn different. The Stonewall had been raided the Tuesday before, June 24, 1969. That was a “normal” raid. A small weeknight crowd. Then the police returned on Saturday night, June 28, 1969. The night was hot. The Stonewall Inn was packed, and there weren’t very many cops conducting the raid. It was simple: people fought back. They didn’t go quietly.
Led largely by Trans women of color, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, among others, the arrested patrons did not go quietly. A crowd began to gather outside the bar and they taunted police as they tried to secure the arrested patrons in the police cars. The taunting grew and the police, feeling threatened, barricaded themselves inside the bar with a few patrons and reporters from The Village Voice, who had come from their offices down the street. The crowd grew larger and more angry. A group of Trans women uprooted a parking meter and used it as a battering ram to re-enter the bar. There were thousands of people outside and the police radios were not working. The police panicked. People were standing on cars, shouting, angry, demanding to be left alone.
Upon reflection, people recalled they had spent the last nine years watching scenes from the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and the peace movement, people actively resisting injustice. They took a page from those movements.
The door was smashed in, people escaped the bar, more police came. The police battled with protesters and the crowd, still growing, wrapped around the block so that the police were surrounded, protesters in front of them and behind them. The NYPD had never seen LGBTQ people fight back. The protesters also sang, thew pennies at the police, some made a kick line. All this was degrading to the NYPD. They were being mocked and beaten at the same time. In the eyes of the NYPD, this was new and dangerous. It was new and liberating for the LGBTQ protesters. They had suffered enough.
At the night’s end, many people were injured, including police officers. But what would happen the next night? That question was soon answered. The next day, various LGBTQ groups printed over 5,000 leaflets calling for more protests. These reached not only LGBTQ citizens but many others. The next night, thousands showed up to protest: Black Panthers, anti-war protesters, all groups with a sense of justice and anger toward the police. For three more nights, the Greenwich Village neighborhood around Christopher Street pulsed with protest, police, violence, and anger. From June 28, 1960 to July 3, 1969, a revolution began.
In the end, a movement was born. People knew the LGBTQ community would never return to its fearful, silent self. People had seen the power of diversity, the match-strike caused by weakness, and the exhilarating confidence that comes when one feels the power of one’s own actions, to create change. Planning began for a protest march in New York one year later, on June 28, 1970. This would become the first Gay Pride March. Today, Pride marches take place all over the world. From small towns to big cities, from Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, to South Bend, Indiana.
The diversity of the groups involved in the Stonewall Uprising were crucial to its success. The patrons in the bar that night were “street kids,” young people with little to lose. The participants in the Uprising were multi-racial and multi-generational. Black, brown, white people all took part. Many of the leaders on the first night were Trans women of color, the most vulnerable population. They especially taunted the police in ways that enraged the NYPD and inspired the onlookers. The participants also included professional white gay men and women who had also seen enough. These groups came together, resisted together, and literally fought together. This had not happened before.
Having little or nothing to lose can be a freeing force. After so much harassment and frustration at the hands of the NYPD, one’s weakness can become power. Those with little to lose, the most vulnerable, came to the front, took leadership, and lit the match that started the Uprising. Trans women of color, who today are still among society’s most vulnerable members, fought the police from the beginning of the Uprising. They brought a signature style mixed with anger that inspired many others. Young people, sometimes called the “street kids,” also brought a “weakness” to the moment. They had already lost everything. They had left their families, their hometowns, and come to New York in search of a a life. Sometimes, fighting for your life is the only choice and it defines you.
Until you see the police turn and run from you, you cannot imagine the police turning and running from you. Until you take power for yourself, with others, it’s hard to imagine that power is there. One has to do it, to see it. That happened in the Stonewall Uprising. LGBTQ people watched Black Americans take control of their lives in the Civil Rights protests. They watched women in various women’s rights marches do the same. But they had always lived in fear of doing the same thing. That changed on the night of June 28, 1969. People realized the world would not end if they stood up for themselves. In fact, when they stood up for themselves, the world did not end, it changed.
Today, as much as ever, we need the power of diversity, the freeing knowledge of our own weakness, and the awareness of our power. As LGBTQ people, to face the growing tide of violence, discrimination, and oppression, we need all our groups together. Trans women need the support of others and we all need their support and passion. In a world where human dignity is under assault, we need our diversity, weakness, and power to lift people up. In popular culture, we have many allies, but we also have vicious and violent voices like NBA star Kevin Durant’s, taunting and silencing LGBTQ people. We have political efforts in the United States to deny Trans people basic human rights. We have efforts to allow all manner of discrimination under the lie of “religious liberty.” If the signal mark of your Christianity is that you cannot sell an LGBTQ person a cake, or you cannot work with a same-sex couple on adoption, then you know nothing of Christianity. In a world where LGBTQ refugees face violence every day and indifference from the world, we need to take the lessons from the Stonewall Uprising and build more just communities in every country.
We need to teach and learn about the Stonewall Uprising. Most of us know little about it. I certainly was never taught about it in school. We need its lessons about the beauty and power of our diversity, the liberating nature of knowing one’s weakness, and the power we all have to make the world more just. It’s always time to learn from Stonewall.
The photographs above are from history.com and from the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Street National Historic Landmark.