Much like women’s history, much of LGBTQ+ history has simply not been well-documented. This month we celebrate Stonewall 50, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. I thought it would be a great time to revisit some important facts about Stonewall – and what you may not know.
The Stonewall Riot wasn’t just one night.
Though documented historical accounts of the riots agree that the violent police raid of the Stonewall Inn broke out in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, the riots gained momentum, with the crowd growing into the thousands, drawing out the battle on and off across five more nights.
The crowd wasn’t limited to just gays and lesbians.
While the Stonewall Riots are largely regarded as the start to the gay rights movement, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were instrumental catalysts in the uprising, were actually transgender women of color. Though there are many accounts of how the Stonewall Riots began, Johnson and Rivera were the first protesters to physically resist the police raid – in fact, Johnson is said to have thrown the first brick.
Sex workers’ rights were also born out of Stonewall.
Though the issue of sex workers’ rights is still a relatively modern debate, sex work was actually a survival tactic for many civil rights activists at the time. A vast number of LGBTQ+ youth were living on the streets of Greenwich Village after being kicked out of their homes, and the majority of them, including Johnson and Rivera, turned to sex work in order to survive.
The riots had nothing to do with the death of Judy Garland.
A long-standing myth that the Stonewall Riots were sparked by the death (and funeral on Madison Avenue and 83rd Street) of Judy Garland has been debunked by many in the community, including Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a reliable witness and protester who was in attendance for each of the six nights. While it is somewhat understandable that the death of an unmistakable gay icon like Judy Garland may have provoked enough outcry to bring about the violent riots, Stonewall was more so centered around trying to survive as an LGBTQ+ community in a contentious environment like New York City.
After 47 years, the Stonewall Inn and the LGBTQ+ community received its first national monument.
On June 24th, 2016, the first national monument in honor of the United States LGBTQ+ community was opened in Greenwich Village. President Barack Obama designated 7.7 acres along Christopher Street as an LGBTQ+ historic site, encompassing the Stonewall Inn, and the block bordering the Christopher Street Park, including the Park itself, where the 1992 Gay Liberation statue stands, consisting of four figures – two men and two women – positioned in natural, easy poses.
At the time of the riots, homosexuality was actually illegal.
Though LGBTQ+ equality remains a human rights issue to this day, it wasn’t long ago that homosexual sex was considered illegal, punishable by law, in a majority of states. It was also classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders up until 1973. Some states are behind on legislation, even now – 13 states in the U.S., as of 2014, still have anal penetration listed as an illegal act of sodomy: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma. On June 26th, 2003, the Supreme Court found the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law unconstitutional and established, for the first time, that LGBTQ+ citizens had just as many rights as heterosexual citizens. While the landmark Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas ruled these laws unconstitutional, therefore rendering them impossible to be enforced, the aforementioned states still have not repealed their anti-sodomy laws.
The Stonewall Inn was originally owned by the Mafia.
Given the hostility surrounding the gay community at the time, many popular gay bars and other establishments had their licenses suspended or revoked for “indecent conduct.” The New York Mafia saw a business opportunity in owning and operating establishments catering to the gay community. The Stonewall Inn was considered a sanctuary to many gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals in the community, and if individuals weren’t recognized or assumed to be gay through the peephole on the door, they would not be let in.
Most community members in the crowds during the Stonewall Riots are no longer alive.
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, now 71 years old, is among the very few still alive who participated in the riots. He explains that many of these rioters were gay or transgender youth living brutal lives on the streets, and if they did make it through the brutality of surviving in such marginalized conditions, they faced the AIDS crisis barely a decade later.
9. The Stonewall Inn had only one exit – the front door.
Since the Stonewall Inn was owned and operated by the Mafia, care was not taken to ensure health and fire codes. Before backup law enforcement arrived, rioters barricaded the police and other patrons in the bar as shouts turned into physical fights, including the throwing of bricks and other heavy objects at police officers.
10. The first gay pride march was a solemn, politically-driven demonstration in honor of the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
While this year’s Pride 50 NYC Parade will be celebrated as a festive, rainbow-strewn party, it started out as a simple commemoration of the brutality of the Stonewall Riots. Originally called Christopher Street Liberation Day, June 28th, 1970 marked the first celebration of LGBTQ+ pride, which now celebrates equality, dignity, community, visibility, and joyous emancipation.
11. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychoanalytic Association.
The APA considered homosexuality as “phobia,” “sexual deviation,” “sociopathic personalitydisturbance,” and “neurosis.” Transgender folks were simply regarded as another version of patients who needed to be cured of their homosexuality. This led to the diagnosis of homosexuality to be included as a “sexual deviation” in the 1968 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. After Stonewall, activists disrupted the 1970 conference of the American Psychiatric Association demanding they de-pathologize homosexuality by removing it from the DSM. It wasn’t until this week on June 20th, 2019 that the President of American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) made a formal apology for the many years of conversion therapy clinicians used to practice. At the annual conference, Lee Jaffe M.D. stated: “Regrettably, much of our past understanding of homosexuality as an illness can be attributed to the American psychoanalytic establishment. While our efforts in advocating for sexual and gender diversity since are worthy of pride, it is long past time to recognize and apologize for our role in the discrimination and trauma caused by our profession and say ‘we are sorry.’”
There’s now a new children’s book, for 5 to 8 year olds, titled: Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph.