It had been five years since I’d stepped foot in Greenwich Village’s historic Stonewall Inn and unsurprisingly nothing inside had changed. The world around it was no longer the same — drag bars and dingy dives had been replaced with bank branches, a Dunkin Donuts and perfumeries casually displaying corporatized rainbow flags. The “debate” surrounding gay marriage had come and gone, and we had won the battle. But the dim red lighting of the bar had stayed the same, and as I perched myself on a rickety wooden barstool at the far end of the bar near the red velvet pool table, I noticed that little about the crowd had changed either.
It was an early Monday afternoon and everyone was casually sipping drinks that were overpriced in both the New York and historic landmark sort of ways; newly sober, I was trying to slowly make the most of a $5 soda. Kylie Minogue was blaring through the speakers—dance music is both timeless and immediately dated in the quickly moving queer zeitgeist—and a video to a different song was playing on the small televisions suspended from the bar’s ornate plaster ceilings. Beside the televisions hung dozens of rainbow flags, with two trans pride flags squirreled away near the historic photos hung at the bar’s opening.
It was an unsurprising relegation to the sidelines of the importance that transgender people—namely trans women of color—played in the event that had made the bar famous to begin with, the Stonewall riots of 1969. The 51st anniversary of the start of the uprising takes place this weekend.
In her podcast One From the Vaults, Morgan M. Page builds on the extensive and tireless work done by historian Reina Gossett to unearth the stories of the trans women who helped galvanize the fight for LGBTQ rights. Page speaks of the lives of Sylvia Lee Rivera and Marsha P. (“Pay it No Mind”) Johnson, two trans women of color who were central in the Stonewall riots and the ensuing work for queer and trans civil rights. Back then these women referred to themselves as Drag Queens; the distinction drawn today between queens who are cisgender men and those who are transgender women did not necessarily exist linguistically at the time but the difference itself did. Johnson became something of a mother figure to Rivera, who had left her home at a young age after years of hardship following her mother’s suicide. Upon seeing a pre-teen Rivera on the New York Streets, Johnson, who had herself been panhandling on 42nd Street, told her, “Oh miss thing, you’re so young; you really should be at home with your mother.”
Like other drag queens, lesbians, and gay men, Johnson and Rivera were both frequently jailed and sent to the prison Rikers Island. Rivera spoke of her political interests with passion, telling trans butch lesbian author and activist Leslie Feinberg in an interview: “I was a radical, a revolutionist […] I am glad I was in the Stonewall riot. I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail I thought, ‘My god, the revolution is here, the revolution is finally here.’ I always believed that we would have a fight back, I just knew that we would fight back. I just didn’t know it would be that night. […] That’s when I saw the world change for me and my people. Of course, we still got a long way ahead of us.”
It’s unclear if Rivera actually was at the Stonewall riots (it was reported that Johnson herself disputed Rivera’s claims of having been there—at least on the first night). Page explains, “Either way, what we can say for sure is that Sylvia was, and had always been, part of the vibrant street culture that spawned the riots that night. And Marsha, meanwhile, was seen by many to be hanging off a street post dropping a heavy purse through the windshield of a police cruiser.”
Johnson’s participation in the riots is becoming more well-known every year: She was celebrating her 25th birthday when police raided Stonewall, supposedly for its lack of a liquor license, and officers began to “lead women in the club to the bathroom to verify their sex.” Johnson “was among the first of the patrons to resist the police that night.”
The Stonewall riots weren’t the first outward expression of solidarity for gay rights, just the one that has endured the most in the public conscious. The days of rioting in New York actually followed two events in Los Angeles in 1967, one of which took place at the Silver Lake haunt the Black Cat, now-indistinguishable from the other hipster havens that pepper that overpopulated section of Sunset Boulevard. Just minutes into the new year the then-bar, which was full mainly of gay male patrons, was raided by undercover LAPD officers who had infiltrated the space.
Violence — a bartender was pulled over the bar and his spleen ruptured—and arrests ensued, and six weeks later more than 200 people participated in planned protests against the police’s action. Multiple rallies took place throughout the city on February 11th and the cases of two men who had been convicted after the Black Cat raid made their way all the way up to the Supreme Court, which declined to try them. They were the first cases to try to extend to gay individuals the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects — among other things — equal legal rights.
Certainly the events in L.A. as well as outbreaks of LGBTQ resistance before 1967 might have had something to do with galvanizing the riots at Stonewall, but the events undeniably took very different forms: One was ultimately orderly and organized while the other was a days-long eruption of tensions felt by those across the community, an appropriate response to a violent powder keg sparked by police. It’s not simply the “drama” of Stonewall that’s made it a lasting image in America’s history — and led to the bar being declared a national monument in 2016 — it’s the fact that Stonewall’s approach was different, urgent and led by the part of the community against which the most dramatic and deadly violence is still being perpetrated to this day. (Marsha P. Johnson herself was found drowned in the Hudson River soon after the 1992 pride march, leading—after much effort by Mariah Lopez—to the opening of a still-unsolved homicide investigation.)
Not only that, but the year after the Stonewall riots, “the first gay pride parades were held,” explains research from Penn State University, “and two years after [the riots] there were gay rights groups in every major American city.” Clearly, Stonewall had sparked a particular sort of resilience and courage in LGBTQ individuals and directly caused the organization of formal groups across the United States.
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I try to see if anyone else in the room is also trans, but all I find is a man giving me the look that means he’s clocked me first. I move to the back room of the bar, which has a curiously stained carpeted floor that I try not to think about as I sip the Pepsi or whatever sugary garbage it is that I have been relegated to drinking while I figure out what a sober person orders or does at a bar. Across from me in the empty room is a tilted cardboard cutout of a femme in extravagant makeup and a voluminous blonde wig. To her side is a scrawled-out advertisement for “Trans-Jester Tuesday” in an upstairs part of the bar that I didn’t even know existed. Trading one sort of public laughter for a different, private one—one that’s requested. It sounded nice. I wished it was Tuesday.
There was a big, lit-up photograph on the back wall of the small room, the same image gracing a couple of the tourist shirts for sale behind the bar. It was a group of men marching next to a police barricade holding a banner reading: “Stonewall means fight back! Smash gay oppression!”
And on the wall next to me a framed copy of the front page of the now-defunct newspaper the Gay Community News, relevant as ever nearly half a century after the riots: “Rich-poor-drag-butch[, …] long live the spirit of Stonewall.”
Photo credit: Kathy Drasky. Inline: Travis Wise.