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Gay pride parades are a rite of summer, with LGBTQ people, advocates and allies filling the streets of cities around the world, urging inclusion, acceptance, equal rights and protections under the law and taking a moment to demand recognition in a world that has, for generations, wanted gays, lesbians and gender-nonconforming people to stay in the shadows.
New York, New York:
Much like the Pride flag, pride parades got their start from a dark place of oppression and violence.
Pride parades are organized throughout June, but most major cities host them around the end of the month to coincide with one of the biggest events in the history of the LGBTQ community: The Stonewall Inn riots of 1968.
Being gay or trans or event wearing clothes not deemed “appropriate” for your apparent gender were all reasons for ridicule in the 1960s, despite the overall impression that this was a time for liberation and “free love” throughout the U.S. In New York City, it was illegal to solicit gay sex and there was a law on the city’s books that allowed police to arrest someone for wearing fewer than three pieces of “gender appropriate clothing.”
Breaking The Law, Breaking The Law:
Remember that, during this time, a person could be arrested for holding hands with their same-sex partner. That the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a “sociopath personality disturbance,” requiring treatment for being mentally ill, something that did not change until 1973.
Being gay, especially in public, could result in being on a kind of early “watch list” with the FBI because of a belief that gay people were prone to blackmail and “over acts of perversion.” And be careful what was ordered through the mail – people suspected of being gay had their mail monitored for any paraphernalia which, if noticed, could be reported to police. Being gay was also a ticket to being dishonorably discharged from the military and fired from some government or teaching jobs.
Gay bars were also illegal, because being gay was basically illegal and not something to do openly or without fear. The New York State Liquor Authority, which governs bars and liquor stores alike, denied licenses to and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or suspected gay individuals. The belief was that this particular segment of the population was unruly and shouldn’t be served.
That didn’t stop clubs from forming or social halls from opening their doors to the gay and lesbian (at the time) community. By 1966, most of the regulations were overturned in New York City, so people could buy drinks at their local watering hole. However, the act of being gay and expressing homosexuality in any way was still enough to prompt harassment and abuse. Even dancing with someone of the same sex was illegal.
Enter the Mafia:
Organized crime was rampant in New York City at the time and, unsurprisingly, the cunning businessmen realized there was a fortune to be made by buying bars and running them as gay clubs on the sly. The Stonewall Inn was just such an establishment: the Genovese family bought the club, closed it temporarily for quick-and-dirt (cheap) renovations and reopened it under the same name. It was now a “private bottle bar,” meaning it didn’t need a liquor license because patrons were supposed to bring their own booze.
Of course, that wasn’t exactly what happened, and the bar was kept mostly stocked with bootleg liquors and drinks that were often watered down to extend profitability.
There were other rules and snags as well: Patrons had to sign in to the bar’s ledger upon arrival, to keep up appearance that this was an “exclusive” club. Many of the utilities didn’t work as they should, including a lack of water behind the bar and toilets that didn’t always keep things down.
Finally, there was a gay bar that allowed dancing again. And it was located in the bastion of bohemian activity, where people already felt more liberated and progressive than in other, stuffier parts of the city, the Greenwich Village made famous by artists like Bob Dylan.
Guests had to pay a small entry fee to get in the doors. Some runaway gay kids would steal or panhandle to get enough money to go inside, just to be around people who were like them in ways that couldn’t be publicly discussed or openly admitted. Drag queens, who were shunned and sometimes attacked at other gay establishments at the time, were welcomed with open arms. It was a large place, making it a haven for the population desperate for a place to be, without the usual repercussions.
Unless you were a wealthier patron, at which point the Genovese family might extort some extra money from you to keep your homosexuality a secret.
The perks of being a frequent guest at a Mafia-owned club were important, however: While still the subject of police raids to look for illegal activity, the Genovese family kept some cops on their bribery list in exchange for getting an early warning when a raid was set to take place. That gave patrons and those working in the bar a chance to make things look more “legal” when their visitors in blue arrived.
All that changed on June 28, 1968.
There was no warning that a raid was going to take place—the third raid in two weeks on bars in Greenwich Village. There was no time to cover up, or get rid of the liquor behind the bar, or change out of “gender inappropriate” clothing and into something that wouldn’t get a person clubbed in the head.
In his book, Eric Marcus describes the scene as tense but not fearful, at least not at first. Plainclothes officers came into the room and, as soon as people figured out the bar was being raided, the interior lights went on. The doors were closed and people forced to stay inside until told otherwise.
“We had to line up, and our identification was checked before we were freed. People who did not have identification or were under age and transvestites were detained. Those who didn’t meet whatever standards the police had were incarcerated temporarily in the coatroom. The coat closet. Little did the police know the ironic symbolism of that. But they found out fast.”
Things happened quickly. Police rushed in with a search warrant. As they barged through the crowd, arresting at least 13 people including employees and those found to be wearing fewer than three pieces of “gender appropriate clothing,” the patrons decided they’d had enough.
Two drag queens were in the Stonewall that night, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. It was Rivera’s 25th birthday and, remember, the bar was one of the few that welcomed drag queens with the rest of the gay community. Both women – transgender, in today’s terminology – had been advocating for LGBTQ rights since early in the 1960s. The raid was an attack on their safe space and they would not sit idly by and allow it to happen. One of them threw a brick and a bottle at the officers, which might have been the spark that ignited what happened next.
Other drag queens were the first to tell police they wouldn’t be going quietly into that dark night. They formed a chorus line, dancing in the street in defiance of orders to go home. If the queens did move at all, they regrouped a short distance away.
People gathered in the streets, initially to wait out the raid before going back inside or making sure everyone was ok. When it was clear that people were getting beaten up, the patrons became protesters, first chanting and yelling, then throwing pennies and empty bottles. A woman was seen getting hit in the head with a billy club as she was carried out to a squad car.
The officers, feeling threatened and grossly outnumbered, retreated inside the Stonewall. The protesters, angry and resentful of their treatment, started the bar on fire. The police were able to get out uninjured, but not before taking all of the cash in the bar’s registers and breaking any bottles they found in the wells. The crowd didn’t disperse for several hours.
The scene would repeat itself, with varying degrees of intensity, for several days. Night after night, members of the LGBTQ community and their friends gathered outside the wrecked Stonewall Inn, supporting each other and defying orders to leave the area. Night after night, police arrived armed and ready to try and scare the crowd into leaving. They would not leave; they would not be shoved into the shadows any longer.
“There was a very volatile active political feeling, especially among young people, when the night of the Stonewall Riots came along,” said Craig Rodwell, one of the protesters. “Everything came together in that one moment. People often ask what was special about that night — there was no one thing special about it. It was just everything coming together, one of those moments in history that is, you were there, you know this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
One account from a bystander compared Christopher Street, where the bar was located, to “a battlefield in Vietnam. Young people, many of them queens, were lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from the head, face mouth and even the eyes. Others were nursing bruised and often bleeding arms, legs, backs and necks.”
The crowds grew in size every night and by Wednesday, July 2, more than 1,000 people gathered in the streets. Items were thrown, people were beaten, shops were looted, five people were arrested.
Eventually, the fever died down. On July 4, a group called the Mattachine Society went to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for an annual protest, but the crowd from New York City was bigger than usual. One of the protesters that day decided he wanted to do something similar in New York and, as soon as he got back, Craig Rodwell set about organizing the first Pride Parade in the Village, which took place on June 28, 1970. The march was inspired by Brenda Howard, commonly known as the Mother of Pride, who coordinated a rally and the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March, along with co-popularizing the term ‘Pride’.
Simultaneous marches took place in Los Angeles and Chicago. By 1972, parades were taking place in Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Miami, Minneapolis and Philadelphia.
The occurrence of Pride Parades is just one of many things to come out of the Stonewall riots.
The movement also created the Gay Liberation Front, the first organization in the U.S. to have the word “gay” front and center in its name, instead of using codes to indicate the preferences of its members.
Within a few months, a newspaper called simply Gay was publishing in New York, in response to the refusal of the Village Voice to use the word. (It should also be noted that there are precious few photos of the riots as they occurred, mostly because the papers of the time didn’t cover “gay issues.”) Other groups, including the Gay Activists Alliance, followed shortly thereafter.
But it needs to be stated that the history of the Stonewall riots has not always shed light on all people involved.
Some accounts have been accused of “transwashing” history, eliminating the role that drag queens and transgendered people played in the rioting.
The Stonewall Inn, with its reputation of welcoming anyone and everyone, would have had a decent number of not just gay men and lesbian women but men who dressed as women to perform but could have been gay or straight (drag queens), as well as transgendered people, who wore clothing designed for the opposite sex all the time. (Hence the law about having to wear three pieces of gender-appropriate attire.)
One person who was at the rioting said it was four transgendered people who saved him from a beating at the hands of the police. He also says the gay pride movement, along with the parade, needs to be credited to transgendered people. The same way women at the time who sought abortions often found themselves in dangerous, unclean and unsafe situations, some transgendered people too would have to consider or perform “back alley” sex reassignment surgeries.
“It’s important for people to understand. To join in means somebody else was already there. And that was the transgenders,” said Wayne Dynes, who lost a piece of his skull in the beating. “My favorite memory is the moment I first went out the door, and I saw the queens and the transgenders being loaded up in the paddy wagon and somebody – finally – threw a high heel! It was that moment – it was such a liberating moment inside, it was so freeing…. Thirty years later, I am so saddened by knowing where the community is at now; in which transgenders and transsexuals – in many cities – are excluded from the Pride Parade. Many transgendered and many gay people do not know the role that transgenders (played); how important… we would not have Gay Pride Parade if it was not for the transgenders.”
The Mayor of Christopher Street:
Marsha P. Johnson – she said the P stood for “Pay it no mind,” which was also the answer she gave when people asked whether she was a man or a woman – and Sylvia Rivera were both wearing dressing that night. They started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and are considered pillars of the gay liberation movement. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, named in her honor, advocates on behalf of the gender non-conforming community.
The original Stonewall was closed within a few months after the riots but the location, 51 and 53 Christopher Street and the surrounding areas, was declared a National Historic Landmark in June 1999. This was the first location of significance to the history of the LGBTQ community; the Stonewall Inn itself was declared a landmark in 2000.
When the Supreme Court declared the national right for homosexual couples to marry, in June 2015, people flocked to Stonewall to celebrate, as they had done in 2011 when New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo made gay marriage legal in the state. In June 2016, President Barack Obama established the creation of the Stonewall National Monument, a nearly eight acre site, which will protect Christopher Park from development.
And for those who are interested, The Stonewall Inn reopened in its original location in 2007 after short, temporary relocations over the previous few decades.
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