The Stonewall Riots

Stories of Black resistance and resilience

June marks Pride month, when the world’s LGBTQ+ communities come together to celebrate freedom 🏳️‍🌈. But this year, as the world is lit up by rage against racial injustice, there has never been a better time to look at Pride’s history and legacy. By Emma Irving.

It’s Friday 27 June 1969. You stand outside the Stonewall Inn, New York City. It’s a hot night, and the air feels oppressive, a little feverish.

Six men and two women pass you by and enter the bar in plain clothes. Suddenly, the night erupts as the undercover police arrest the bar’s employees, along with several others. This is the third raid on Greenwich Village gay bars this week.

It’s hard to see what’s happening in the chaos, but you watch crowds come together in anger when police try to shove Black lesbian Stormé Delarverie (see image) into a police car. Two transgender women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, are the first people to resist arrest and throw things at the cops. The air grows thick with chants, then bottles and bricks.

You don’t know it now, but this night will change the lives of America’s gay community forever.

As riots waxed and waned over the five days after that fateful night, an international gay rights movement was born.

Organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance were formed, modelled after the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. They were unafraid to use confrontation to push reform.

Members held protests, met with political leaders and interrupted public meetings to hold those leaders accountable.

“It really is like the shot heard around the world, or the hairpin drop heard round the world,” said Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor in Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality (the hairpin drop was a parody coined in Stonewall’s aftermath of the stanza from ‘Concord Hymn.’).

There had been previous riots in the U.S. involving gays and lesbians fed up with routine harassment, but Stonewall – erupting when it did amid protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights and gender equality – marked a decisive break from the more passive sexual-orientation politics of the day.

The next year, change continued to gather pace. The Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in 1970 – a conference organized by the Black Panther Party – was a key moment in which activists from Black Power, feminist and gay liberation movements stood together in defiance of those who sought to divide them.

The nation’s first Gay Pride march took place on June 28 1970 in New York City, just one year after the Stonewall riots. The event attracted thousands of people and signalled another important milestone. In the years that followed more cities and towns organised parades in support of gay rights.

Harvard’s Evelynn Hammonds, chair of the Department of the History of Science, has written on their power.

“The marches were among the first highly visible public events for people to express their gay sexuality and for allies to have an opportunity to support the gay people in their lives,” she said. ““The marches also became vehicles for political expression as well, which you could see by the signs that people held up, which made the marches political moments as well as scenes of gay pride.”

To reflect on this history feels particularly powerful this week, when we watch demonstrators in 350 cities across the world across the world join together to fight for justice in the face of systemic oppression.

But it also reminds us that we have far to go. Black LGBT people experience extreme levels of discrimination. 51% of BAME LGBT people reported having experienced racism in the LGBT+ community. This number rises to 61% for Black LGBT people.

George Floyd’s death has reminded the world that the rules are different if you are Black. Many African-Americans still live in places with the worst schools, the worst health care, and the worst jobs. Covid-19 has rammed home the fact that when America suffers, Black America suffers most.

Despite the fact that Black LGBT people were the spark who lit the fire that blazed the way for LGBT rights, they still have to demand to be heard.