The Stonewall uprising of LGBTQ people in June 1969 was nothing like the Pride fests of this month that are often more like gay expos than remembrances of the real-life fights for equal rights that continue even today. There is nothing wrong with celebrating even though entrance to many is becoming more and more expensive, but they clean up the real grit that the actual events involved.
Making the uprising more respectable has been de rigueur. Remember director Roland Emmerich’s film “Stonewall,” that hit the theaters in 2015? Of course, it was a fictional story based loosely upon the real events of the Stonewall uprising.
But it drew criticism as soon as its trailer appeared as a “whitewashing” because it portrayed white men led by Jeremy Irvine’s character, Danny, as central characters in inciting the fight against police brutality on June 28, 1969. On-line petitions multiplied, one saying: “Do not support a film that erases our history. Do not watch Stonewall.”
Though the actual events of those early morning hours in June 1969 outside a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall Inn are often called the “beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement,” we know that that’s historically inaccurate.
Organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis, ONE, Inc., and the Mattachine Society were founded back in the 1950s. In that decade, gay people also began to turn to the courts to fight for the right to receive gay magazines in the mail or to congregate in bars without police harassment.
The civil disturbances that came to be called the “Stonewall Riots” are then more symbolic, the way the Battle of Bunker Hill or Paul Revere’s late-night ride symbolize the beginnings of the American Revolution. They were LGBTQ people saying: “Enough is enough,” or, as Popeye would’ve put it: “That’s all I can standz ‘cuz I can’t standz no more.”
But was that night at Stonewall extremely disorderly? You bet.
The “order” of things was bigoted, harassing, and deadly. And when people oppose the order of things, the keepers of the status quo accuse them of disorderly conduct.
To be “orderly” is never a neutral, non-political act. It promotes the skewed values and “normal” discrimination of the current structures.
Was it also messy? Definitely.
Real healing makes messes. Democracy itself is messy. It’s not for neat freaks or the anal-retentive. It’s not for those who want to look good in the eyes of people who set the dominant, sick agenda and who reward anyone who supports it.
Was it perfectly done the way contemporary leaders would like it to be? I doubt it and would hope not.
We lose much in the struggle for freedom when leaders wait until it can be done perfectly. It was a hot, muggy night of spontaneous resistance, the kind that explodes out of a long-lasting, wearing, burden of oppression that the larger community refuses to acknowledge.
Was it led by gay leaders who worried about what straight people would think of them if they didn’t remain moderate, middle-of-the-road, “straight-acting,” and nice? Of course not.
If any worried mainline gay leaders were in the bars that night, they didn’t want to stand out. They probably criticized these revolutionaries as ignorant rabble.
Did it take place in a boardroom, theater, concert hall, dinner party, church, or fine, well-mannered social club? Are you kidding?
The Stonewall Inn (next door to the present New York bar by that name) was a shabby dive that served watered-down drinks in glasses that were questionably sanitary. It wasn’t really even a drag queen’s bar. Only a certain number of drag queens were allowed in at a time and only if the owners knew them.
Was it led by gay leaders who drank expensive wine, read style magazines, could afford to attend expensive fund-raisers, hob-knobbed with politicians, and invested wisely? No.
As if to throw the whole issue of LGBTQ classism in our faces, it was led by drag queens and street people, many of color.
This symbol of LGBTQ liberation isn’t about the cultured, coiffed, and privileged but the least understood and the down on their luck. They were looked down upon by others as lazy, dirty, and “low class.”
But that’s not how the real combatants and their contemporary supporters viewed the scene. The late transgender person, Ray “Sylvia Lee” Rivera claimed that for her compatriots who were there in the midst of the disorder of the Stonewall revolution it was “beautiful and exciting”:
I thought, ‘My god, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here.’ . . . 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. (Leslie Feinberg, Trans Liberation, 1998, 109)
Michael Fader described the scene as:
All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.
To have the symbol of LGBTQ liberation as the resistance of drag queens and street people, many of color, reminds us of what’s important. It’s not the ability to fit in, rest in privilege, and gain the approval of the powers that be.
It’s the prophetic disturbance by the outcasts of society. And thus Stonewall symbolizes our connection to the other human issues it represents: poverty, gender oppression, and racism.
Was it non-violent? Hardly. And for someone committed to non-violence, that’s a hard fact to face.
But the United States was born in violence and symbolizes its birth violently, which probably contributes to the violent nature of our country. Our leaders use violent images to justify the American emphasis on the symbols, mythology, and responses of war and our war-dependent economic machine. American’s like to think about their history in terms of glorious, righteous wars.
Of course, we’d like to believe that all positive change is non-violent — certainly it’s not passive. Yet, when any people have been oppressed long enough, and other attempts to get society to focus attention on their need for humane treatment have incited no interest, then the volume of their cry for relief increases, and the methods used escalate and break out in direct confrontation.
When we hear privileged LGBTQI leadership collude with the structures by saying, “Just calm down and relax. Don’t get worked up over it,” then we know that such leadership is out of touch with the sufferings of LGBTQI people. We also know they’re not leaders who would have been caught up in the reality of Stonewall.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.