“It All Began at Stonewall”
And Other Fairy Tales
By Jared Kaden Markowitz
If there’s one thing you know about the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, it’s probably the fact that Stonewall is where it all began.
Problem is, that’s false.
There’s no question that the Stonewall Uprising is a watershed moment in our history that forever changed everything. As for the separate question of what, exactly, is being commemorated at this fifty-year milestone, the answer seems to turn largely on who you ask, as well as which version/portion of the following story that person happens to know:
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, the police executed an openly homophobic raid of a popular queer bar at a hotel called the Stonewall Inn. Although the bar staff tried to comply with police orders, the patrons revolted, immediately resulting in a night of rioting. This was the birth of the Gay Rights Movement. To commemorate the historic significance of that night, President Obama granted national landmark status to the building housing the Stonewall Inn. And the people lived happily ever after, the end.
This is The Stonewall Fairy Tale (as we’ll call it), because it is exactly that: almost entirely fictional. But before we get to our comprehensive, sentence-by-sentence breakdown of all the falsehoods in The Stonewall Fairy Tale (happen to catch any?), let’s focus on the big one: the claim that Stonewall is where it all began.
Although we could quibble over the definition of a “movement”—movements are complex social events with nebulous, sometimes subjective, boundaries that are difficult to pinpoint precisely in time and scope—the Gay Rights Movement, in the broad sense, did not begin at Stonewall.
Before Stonewall, there were a number of gay rights-related efforts in America, including both violent and nonviolent protests. Notably, three years before Stonewall, at a bar just a block away, activists staged a protest against the then common practice of refusing to serve gay patrons, an event now dubbed the great “Gay Sip-In” at Julius’. According to David Carter, historian and author of the most comprehensive account of Stonewall to date, without Julius’, there could not have been a Stonewall: “It was actually the challenge to [State Liquor Authority] policy that led to private clubs like the Stonewall Inn being open.”
[I]t is beyond debate that we, as a community, have allowed the actual facts of Stonewall to be outshined by the story of its impact and legacy.
Around the same time (pre-Stonewall), there was a riot in San Francisco when police tried to arrest patrons of Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin. There were also a number of large, peaceful demonstrations, including Philadelphia’s “Annual Reminders” that freedom had not yet been obtained by gay Americans on July 4, 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968 (and 1969). Stonewall was neither the first nor only instance of political protest—or even violent revolting/rioting against the police—in the name of gay rights. Stonewall, as a matter of pure historical reality, is not the birthplace of the Gay Rights Movement.
And yet, this part of the Stonewall Fairytale persists. Even now, it comes up with frequency, credibility, and ease.
The New York Times, for example, erroneously and repeatedly has suggested that it all began at Stonewall. In June 2011, the Times issued this online-only correction: “An article in some copies …referred imprecisely to the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969…[N]ational gay rights organizations had existed for decades before that.” Yet, in June 2015, the New York Times published the exact same false claim about Stonewall twice more, then had to correct them both: “The Big City column…overstated in some editions the significance of an uprising in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn [which] is not the birthplace of the gay rights movement.”
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, a key New York City Councilperson—the one whose geographic district includes the Stonewall Inn—said, “there are few locations that can be cited as the birthplace of a global movement. One such location is the Stonewall Inn.” Wrong.
As it turns out, there are a number of other Stonewall-related falsehoods that are regularly presented as “fact.” Earlier this year, on Drag Race All Stars, RuPaul made this claim: “Fed up with police harassment, the patrons of the Stonewall used their grief over Judy [Garland]’s death to rise up and fight back, and the Gay Liberation Movement was born.” Although there is plenty of evidence for a number of short- and long-term causes of the Stonewall Riots, there is little, if any, evidence that Judy Garland’s death was among them. More importantly, the movement was not “born” at Stonewall.
Even the permanent plaque affixed to the Stonewall Inn building itself fails to get the facts straight. The plaque features a black-and-white photo of a part of the building to which it is affixed, and it states that the Stonewall Riots began on June 27, ended on June 29, and occurred at 53 Christopher Street. Unfortunately, the first date is wrong, as is the second, as is the address, as is the photo. The Stonewall Riots were from June 28 to July 2, and the Stonewall Inn of 1969 was at 51-53 Christopher Street. The main bar, the main dance floor, and the iconic external vertical sign affixed to the structure, all were a part of a larger section of the building that did not make it into the plaque’s black-and-white photo which, by the way, was taken in 2003.
In short, it is beyond debate that we, as a community, have allowed the actual facts of Stonewall to be outshined by the story of its impact and legacy.
What we are celebrating is the legacy of Stonewall, the watershed historic moment that jolted our movement and jump-started something seemingly new.
The mechanisms by which we have allowed this to happen exceed our present scope, but they have been the subject of scholarly inquiry and research. A sociological study of collective memory, for example, examines the so-called “Stonewall Myth” and explains how a given social group (such as a bunch of gays and lesbians) may engage in the collective acts of selecting an “image of the past” (such as Stonewall), reproducing that image (such as by calling everything Stonewall), then commemorating it through a particular set of practices (such as an annual parade and festival).
From a non-scholarly perspective, it’s simpler: the facts and details of the riots themselves just aren’t as important to us as Stonewall’s impact and legacy. So, we shrug off the details, if we ever even learn them in the first place. And it is Stonewall’s impact and legacy that we are commemorating during this fifty-year milestone.
So, what, exactly, is Stonewall’s impact and legacy?
Although it is indisputable that members of the community were rioting and organizing for rights for over a decade prior to Stonewall, after Stonewall, everything changed, and measurably so. There was an explosion in the number of gay rights-related organizations around the country, going from 50 to 60 at the time of Stonewall to at least 2,500 just two years later.
Moreover, these newly formed, energized groups were far more radical and activist in nature than their predecessors. The relatively tame and conservative Mattachine Society quickly formed the brand new Mattachine Action Committee, which held public forums on the topic of “Gay Power.” Those forums, in turn, quickly led a faction of that group to break away and establish their own new organization: the famously radical Gay Liberation Front. And all of that was within just one month of Stonewall. By the end of that year, many other major, radical organizations had formed, notably including the Gay Activists Alliance.
To commemorate the movement’s newfound energy, activists staged a political protest march exactly one year after Stonewall, beginning almost exactly in the same location as Stonewall itself. They called it Christopher Street Liberation Day and, to the organizers’ surprise, thousands showed up to participate. This purely political march, in hindsight, is now globally recognized as the world’s first Pride parade, though the organizers to this day continue to honor its legacy by calling it “The March.”
At least three other simultaneous marches were organized around the country and took place on that same day. One was in Chicago, one in San Francisco, and one in Los Angeles. The one in Los Angeles was, by far, the largest of the three, and involved an hour-long processional down Hollywood Boulevard. Its organizers dubbed the event “Christopher Street West” (a reference to the street of the Stonewall Inn) that, to this day, remains the name of the entity charged with organizing the annual LA Pride events.
Annual Pride events held worldwide, including parades, festivals, rallies, and protests, all represent individual pieces of the enormous impact and ongoing legacy of Stonewall itself.
In the abstract, few among us would be inclined to cheer on, or otherwise memorialize, any acts of arson, assault, property destruction, or rioting. That, however, is not what we are celebrating in the case of Stonewall, either. What we are celebrating is the legacy of Stonewall, the watershed historic moment that jolted our movement and jump-started something seemingly new.
Although Stonewall does not mark the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement, Stonewall does mark the end of a previous tamer and smaller iteration of that very same movement. People went from feeling oppressed to empowered, and from silent to loud. Instead of asking for rights, folks began demanding them. Stonewall inspired, invigorated, and forever changed the nature, size, and strength of the entire movement.
In this sense, Stonewall is the birthplace of the modern Gay Rights Movement—and that is why we commemorate and celebrate it. The Stonewall Fairy Tale (and our collective inability to get all the Stonewall facts right) is, as it turns out, largely irrelevant.
That said, for those of you playing at home, here it is: your detailed breakdown of every falsehood in every sentence of The Stonewall Fairy Tale.
Police raids at Stonewall occurred regularly, not merely “once upon a time,” and Manhattan is not exactly a “faraway land.” Albeit not exactly an “openly homophobic raid” (insofar as the publicly declared basis for the police raid was that the bar served liquor without a license), the so-called Public Morals Squad of the police department was present on that first day as well, and there’s no doubt homophobia played at least some role in the decision to execute the raid. Although it is true that Stonewall was a popular bar among the locals at the time, they would have objected to characterizing the bar as “queer,” then a highly derogatory term. Finally, despite the establishment’s name, the Stonewall Inn is not, and never was, part of a “hotel.”
In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-owned speakeasy, and the bar staff did not all readily “try to comply with police orders”; to the contrary, some of these mobsters helped spurn violence, at one point lighting trash on fire and inserting it into the bar after the police temporarily had retreated back into it. It also wasn’t only “the patrons” who revolted, as a crowd had formed from nearby residents and passersby, famously including a then-popular folksinger. Although the raid immediately resulted in rioting, that riot could not have been at “night,” for the raid did not even begin until the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
Stonewall was not the “birthplace of the Gay Rights Movement.”
Since the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 occurred over the course of six days, we now commemorate the historic significance of all of it, not just “that night.” President Obama did not make Stonewall a “national historic landmark” for the simple reason that it already had been a national landmark since 2000. Although President Obama did designate Stonewall the first national monument honoring the history of our community, that designation was afforded more broadly to the surrounding area, including all of Christopher Park, rather than simply to “the building housing the Stonewall Inn.”
It is only after we reach “the end” of the fight for full equality that we may “live happily ever after.” Though, technically, that last one’s more of an opinion. •
Art: Shane Rooks, Pride Cocktail (2013).
Jared Kaden Markowitz
Jared Kaden Markowitz is a New York City-based sightseeing tour guide, SCOTUS-admitted attorney, voting member/volunteer for NYC Pride (Heritage of Pride, Inc.), and currently serves as Parade Director for Rhode Island Pride. Jared has volunteered at various Pride-related functions around the country for over fifteen years, and he recently began developing and leading workshops at regional conferences for fellow Pride organizers. On non-Pride days, Jared is a professional magician and Britney Spears enthusiast.