Rewriting the History of Pride
by Master Wolfgang Berben
“It is indisputably true that historiography must be subject to constant revisions. Like all scientific theories, it needs to be characterized by a sort of “conservative” openness towards new ideas; however, revisions and negations are often put forward without scientific grounding. They reject the well-established historiographical methods, while opening themselves to various kinds of ideologies, biases and manipulations.” - Marko Skoric
Recently I’ve noticed a rash of postings going around that credit the creation of Pride (as well as the entire queer rights movement) to single individuals – and often not the same ones. These are usually concerned with who threw the first brick, or bottle, or punch, or penny, or garbage can, or… whatever, and attempt to link the individual with a certain group be it race, gender, gender identity, sexuality or age. The fact is that just as we don’t know conclusively what the first throw was, we also don’t know conclusively who threw it.
What we do know according to newspaper reports and a consensus of eyewitnesses is that around 1:20 am on June 28 1969, there was a raid at the Stonewall Inn bar at 51–53 Christopher Street, in New York City that ended very differently than the raids that came before it. The Stonewall was a mafia run gay bar serving watered down alcohol and operating without a license (it was illegal to sell alcohol to gays) and raided on a regular basis. The mafia routinely paid off police informants so they were usually tipped off in advance that the raids were going to happen. Patrons knew one was coming because cash boxes would quietly vanish, doormen would disappear and the liquor would be carried out or discretely locked out of sight. When the raid commenced, work lights would suddenly come on, music was turned off and everyone knew to stop dancing and sit or stand quietly – often pairing into male/female couples. Anyone cross dressing hurriedly removed or covered up what they could (you had to have at least 3 articles of clothing that matched your binary gender), and lipstick etc. was discretely wiped off. If you had ID you took it out and waited. If not – you tried to look as small and unassuming as possible.
On that specific night however, things were different. The weather had been very hot and sticky and people were drinking more than usual. Many gay men were still in mourning for icon Judy Garland whose funeral at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Church on East Eighty-First Street had been just the day before. The bar had not been warned, though the raid had been planned. Indeed, two male and two female undercover police officers were sent in ahead of time and waited for the raid to begin. Seymour Pine of the New York City Vice Squad Public Morals Division and four other officers came through the door with no warning. They were rough, sneering and aggressive – used to queers (who had no legal or social standing), providing little or no resistance. A few other cops waited outside with cruisers and paddy wagons at the ready.
At first the raid went as usual. Anyone not gender-conforming in appearance, dress or mannerisms were targeted first. IDs were produced, arrests made and queers led out the door like cattle. Soon however, some of the bars customers began to resist. Deputy Inspector Pine has testified that the first significant resistance that he encountered in the bar was from the transvestites. They were refusing to show ID or hide their cross-dressing. Instead of bowing their heads in shame, they were ornery, combative and defiant. As police tried to control the patrons inside the bar (with crowd estimated between 100 – 200 people), the paddy wagons and cruisers lined up outside began to draw a crowd. As arrestees were led out, they became loud and retaliatory drawing more people to the spectacle. As the crowd grew bigger and began to jeer the cops, other bars in the area emptied and their patrons joined in, swelling to several hundred and blocking the street. It was a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
There was a flashpoint moment when the tides turned. This is disputed the moment when the raid turned into a riot. The problem is there is no clear consensus on what that moment was or who initiated it. At some point members of the crowd began to hurl bricks, bottles, coins and garbage at the police, and the situation escalated from there – but the fact is we don’t know how it began. As Tim Stewart-Winter, who studies the history of gay movements at Rutgers University says, this is not surprising. “No one knew at the time that this would be an event of world historical importance. It was late at night; it was a murky situation." Since then fact has blended with fiction, tradition has become accepted as truth and largely apocryphal stories have become entrenched as history.
One of the most famous figures associated with this story is the larger than life persona of Marsha Pay-it-no-mind Johnson. Marsha was a black, gay liberation activist and drag queen (like many, she did not identify as Trans at the time as it was not used broadly). It has become accepted by many that Marsha was at Stonewall celebrating her birthday when the raids began and that she refused to provide ID or cooperate so she was hauled out. She was then the one to throw the first brick as she was known to carry a brick in her handbag to ward off attackers. None of this is true, however. Marsha was not in the bar that night celebrating her birthday – she was born on August 24. By her own account in 1987, she arrived after the riot was in full progress at around 2:00 pm and after the bar had been set on fire and joined in the crowds outside. Later she threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar screaming, 'I got my civil rights' which may be where the story originated.
Sylvia Rivera (of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage but born in New York City), is another figure popularly attributed to starting the riots having thrown a bottle, heel or brick depending on the story. She herself is the origin of these stories as well as the rumour that it was Marsha’s birthday and she was in attendance. She has said Tammy Novak had persuaded her to come down to the Stonewall Inn for the first time. Marsha however counterclaimed that Sylvia was in fact was passed out in Bryant Park after taking heroin. Marsha maintains she had gone up to Bryant Park, found Sylvia asleep, and woke her up to tell her about the riots. Further, Sylvia was 17 at the time, well known to the bouncers for her age and behaviour and wouldn’t have been admitted because of her age. While it’s true that many others were arrested that were under-aged (Allyson Allante was 14), they were arrested outside of the bar. The only person that ever claimed that Sylvia was in the bar was Sylvia herself - 15 years after the fact and and at a time when she was trying to raise awareness for her group S.T.A.R (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries).
Stonewall veteran Bob Kohler has stated that he could never actually place either Sylvia or Marsha at the bar. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Executive Director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project and a community leader for transgender rights, with a particular focus on women of color agrees. She was in the Stonewall Inn meeting with a girlfriend when the bar was raided and places Sylvia at a rally afterwards but cannot place her or Marsha at the bar that night. There is no doubt both Sylvia and Marsha were important figures during the riot that night and the days that followed, but neither can be said to have started them.
Ray Castro (Puerto Rican in origin ) is another icon said to have sparked the riots. Having escaped Stonewall after the raid, he decided to go back in to the bar to give ID to a young friend. Castro then couldn’t get out of the Stonewall: “The police kept me there, they held us hostage,” he recalled. He was arrested in the bar and dragged out of the bar by two officers, He began to fight back prompting the crowds to chant "Let him go, let him go." As they tried to force him into a cruiser, he pushed back against the vehicle and sent the officers to the ground which set the crowds into a frenzy of violence. Castro in part disputed this version saying he did struggle, but that he ended up in a wagon, not a cruiser and didn’t knock anyone down. Asked if he remembers anything about the others in the paddy wagon with him, Castro answered: "The three managers of the bar, Italians, Mafia. Tony Soprano-like, is the only way to describe them). One of the Mafia guys said to me, 'don't worry kid, you're ok in our book, nothing is going to happen to you'." Castro did not participate in the riot that night as he was held overnight in jail, going to court on Sunday, June 29th. At his hearing, he complained that officers had pushed him, and that when arrested he hadn’t been read his rights. “I’m not a radical, but I always had a feeling for the underdog,” he said years later, “I didn’t know I was going to be part of history.”
Stormé DeLaverie a "a typical New York butch" lesbian and Drag King has been acknowledged by multiple witnesses to be the person who threw the first punch. Some refer to her as "the gay community’s Rosa Parks". She had had grown up in the South and was of mixed race. She was arrested and cuffed in the bar and dragged out into the street where she broke away from her captors several times. Insisting her handcuffs were too tight, she fought with at least four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes during which she was hit on the head by an officer with a baton. “The cop hit me, and I hit him back,” Stormé later recounted. Bleeding from a head wound, she looked at bystanders and shouted, "Why don't you guys do something?" According to a witness, an officer picked Stormé up and heaved her into the back of the wagon and the crowd went "berserk": "It was at that moment that the scene became explosive." Stormé didn’t like to talk about Stonewall, but took exception to calling it a riot saying, “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience — it wasn’t no damn riot.”
But does any of it matter? I don’t think it does. As a matter of fact I think it is dangerous because of how it can be used. My own interest is purely historical curiosity but so many others invested in it have an agenda. Their retellings become an attempt to revise history in order to find a hero representing a specific group or as an attempt to give gravity or weight to their cause. As New York Times columnist Ernesto Londoño wrote, “It’s wrongheaded to be overly concerned with pinning one clear-cut act on one identifiable person, in a misguided attempt to say that so-and-so rather than so-and-so “started” Stonewall, and that therefore history teaches us that X rather than Y is true. A heterogeneous street crowd started the resistance at Stonewall, not a particular person.
Arguing about whether drag queens, transwomen, butches, or gender-nonconforming street kids were present at Stonewall, or whether they (and they alone) were responsible for escalating the resistance to police violence, serves mostly as an arena in which some non-transgender gays and lesbians can express antipathy towards trans people and reject political alliance with them as part of an imagined LGBT community. Likewise, trans people, particularly trans people of color, engage in the same debates about history to express a justifiable outrage over the continued marginalization of, and prejudice toward, trans people by many homonormative cisgender gays and lesbians. Fighting over Stonewall history is a proxy battle for more entrenched structural conflicts.”
I think what made Stonewall important wasn’t the actions of a few or a single person from any specific group but rather the sheer number of LGBTQ people that came together and acted as a unified force for the first time in history.