Let’s Talk About Stonewall

[Content note: homophobia, transphobia, violence]

During Monday’s inaugural address, President Obama referenced “our forebears” traveling through Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall on the long road towards freedom. It was an unexpected and poignant moment for me and many of my fellow LGBTQ Americans. Cool beans.

In the intervening days, the media has been awash in explanations of what happened at Stonewall:

“In 1969, some cops rolled a boulder in front of New York’s gay bar. Miraculously, the gays’ mix tape lasted for eight days. When some asshole moved the rock so he could get free parking, the gays came out and had a grand feast with the police. To commemorate the police’s decision to for some reason let Rosie O’Donnell have a TV show, each year those people hold a big parade that makes it a total pain in the ass to drive to that Saturday’s ballsport matches.” -Some douche, probably

And then there’s NPR:

”So, what was Stonewall?”

Given that the Stonewall rebellion happened over forty years ago, and that allowing public school teachers to acknowledge queer peoples’ existence is still a controversial matter for many Americans, it makes sense to examine Stonewall.


The NPR story is representative of a common theme in Stonewall narratives.

[G]ay men resisted police harassment at the Stonewall Inn

The Stonewall Inn… was one of the few places where gay men, almost all necessarily closet, could gather.

[A] gay male bar in New York

It was not filled, as some accounts have it, with drag queens and street hustlers.

[Authorities] targeted gay men.

[T]he men began to throw things.

It wasn’t the first time gay men had pushed back.

Gay men in San Francisco had already been protesting.

At this point, most of you already know where I’m going with this. Before I get there, let me be clear about a couple of things.

Two thousand and thirteen is not nineteen sixty-nine and community identities evolve with time.

In the late sixties, society did target gay men for punishment. It still does, even if we’ve made a lot of progress. For one thing, “homophobia” is now a word.

During the sixties, straight society had an even less nuanced view of LGBT lives then it does now. If you were the kind of person who had the wrong kind of sex with the wrong sort of people in the wrong sort of clothes, you were one of the others. There wasn’t a lot of parsing out “straight acting” homos from queer ones.

The LGBT community has always been both a community and a coalition. Yet, in the years since Stonewall, various members of the community have put themselves forward as more palatable, less threatening, and therefore more deserving of rights.

‘Sure I have sex with other men, but at least I’m not once of those lipstick-wearing penis-havers.’

‘Sure I had a physical condition, but I got it fixed and I’m now I’m having the right kind of sex, unlike some people.’

The act gets old.

Stonewall was not merely gay men’s riot. Call us what you want, but queens, trans women, and otherwise gender non-conforming people (and yes, there were butch women) were a major part of the rebellion that many gay men trace back to the Stonewall.

What’s more, while events in Greenwich Village were pivotal in queer liberation, we’d been fighting back for years. Stonewall wasn’t the first violent protest of police harrassment where trans* people played a major role. It’s also worth noting that queers of color comprised a large proportion of those fighting back.

I’m not pointing all of this out because I want to play oppression Olympics. I’m not even pointing it out to educate folks– I suspect most regular readers of both Shakesville and my work are already well aware that trans* people have long been a part of the struggle for queer rights.

I’m pointing all of this out because most straight folks are clueless about this aspect of our history. I’m pointing this out because it’s important to keep calling out certain corners of the gay community on their incomplete narrative.

Stonewall was embedded in a much larger, intersection fight for social justice. Don’t rob my elders of their legacy.


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