How Stonewall Became Stonewall

Why are we remembering the Stonewall Uprising 50 years on? Brian explores the long term impact of the riots with our guests Edmund White, Lillian Faderman, Christopher Mitchell and David Carter.


Just Outside Full by Juan Mares

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Speaker 2: Today the name Stonewall is attached to gay rights groups around the world. Lillian Faderman.

Lillian F.: I think Stonewall deserves to be remembered in that it was this very dramatic incident that triggered important things that followed such as the Gay Liberation Front that was formed just a week or so after Stonewall. The parades all over the country formed initially to honor Stonewall, but now hundreds of thousands of people show up to those parades and in the beginning they did it in the name of Stonewall. I think it needs to be remembered as this icon that ignited the organization of these various groups that went on to do other important things. There’s a direct line, I think, between Stonewall and the Gay Liberation Front in the beginning and then out of the gay liberation front, a group called the Gay Activists Alliance that did nothing but fight for gay rights as it was called in the early 1970s.

Lillian F.: And then the establishment of all these mainstreaming organizations that knew how to fight in the courts, such as Lambda Legal and the National Gay Rights Lobby knew how to fight in Washington. Would those groups have been established had it not been for the trigger of Stonewall? Very possibly, but I think that Stonewall rushed them into being because it was this huge explosion or in the words of this gay wit in 1969, immediately after the riots, this hairpin drop heard around the world.

Speaker 2: So how did the riot of June 1969 become such a turning point in the story of LGBTQ politics? Christopher Mitchell.

Christopher M.: There is this organizational cascade after Stonewall. Gay Liberation Front organizations are founded across the country and through a combination of media and word of mouth, there is this kind of immediate moment of national organizing. And it’s not coordinated. And it kind of spontaneous but it all seems to be inspired either directly by or indirectly by the events at Stonewall in late June 1969. And so that’s significant. It was almost immediately seen as this major turning point event and that’s why you have the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee organizing within a few months to try to commemorate the event.

Christopher M.: And I think that they knew that if they didn’t keep that momentum rolling, and if they didn’t mark the event in some kind of way, it would just end up being like the other uprisings that had occurred in New York City but also around the area. I mean kind of a riot at a donut shop in LA and maybe a donut shop in Philadelphia. I mean but it happens in places where gay people hang out. Usually, diners, late night donut shops kind of places. And then bars, gay bars.

Christopher M.: What is it that makes Stonewall stick out? Well it’s kind of the right combination of events and people. And also the fact that it’s really big, and it lasts a long time. It was an event that really disrupted the Village and it didn’t stop. Most other events stop within a few hours. The riot, the first night, went on for hours, and hours, and hours. Then people came back and did it the next night, and then a third night.

Christopher M.: So when something like that happens, when it’s sustained, you kind of think it’s tapping into some kind of energy. It’s tapping into a kind of potential for political action based on the preconditions that exist.

Speaker 2: Stonewall has become a storied event. Now seen as a turning point in American History. In his second inaugural speech, President Obama even spoke of the significance Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. And there’s no doubt that in terms of gay self perception, Stonewall was transformative. Edmund White.

Edmund White: I mean now we’re used to saying things like gay community and acting as though gay people constitute a minority like Puerto Ricans or Jews or whatever. But in those days people didn’t think that way, it was gays were considered a sickness, and it was either a crime, or a sin, or a sickness, but those are the only three possibilities. And even gay people themselves subscribed to that. Many of us were in therapy trying to go straight, though we weren’t really attracted to members of the opposite sex.

Edmund White: Before Stonewall, so much of their energy went into being gay, into justifying their existence to their friends, or to themselves in disguising the truth of their life from their workmates and from their family. I mean, like, for instance, I would make up stories at work about my various girlfriends because I wanted to confide in my colleagues the way anybody else would, but I couldn’t tell them that it was men I was talking about, I had to pretend it was women.

Edmund White: So all that kind of falsity and double dealing, well it was abolished in a way by gay liberation, and in my case, I began to be able to write and publish books about gays, and I’ve written 25 books probably that mostly are about gay men’s lives. And so it made a huge change for me because I had submitted books, rather tormented books before Stonewall, and they’d always been rejected, including rejected by other gay men who were editors, and years later they would say to me, “Oh, I really like that book of yours, but I didn’t dare speak out for it because my colleagues would have known I was gay.” But after Stonewall, a bunch of us began to publish books with gay content.

Speaker 2: Though Stonewall is seen as the moment which united the gay community, it also revealed tensions between reformers and revolutionaries, men and women, conservative gays and drag queens, and between the generations. Christopher Mitchell.

Christopher M.: Groups that emerge after Stonewall are maybe unified for a minute or maybe they’re unified enough to put on a protest or a parade, but they’re not really unified enough to kind of construct a singular agenda so to speak. And if you look at some of the footage from the end of the marches in the early 1970s you’ll see activists fighting onstage. The most famous one is Sylvia Rivera being thrown off the stage trying to talk about trans rights and prisoners’ rights. And I think that’s in the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day protest.

Christopher M.: There is still a lot of conflicts between cis-gender people in the community and trans people in the community. There’s lots and lots of conflicts between lesbians and gay men over space and over representation, and those divisions were true and real in the 1970s and they’re just as true and real now. And Stonewall didn’t fix any of that.

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A History of Stonewall Lesson Set

Download the lesson set.

In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, police officers raided The Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in New York City. These types of raids occurred regularly and without incident at other gay bars and nightclubs in the city. However, on this night, patrons of the bar stayed outside and protested the police interference into their lives. Though this moment was not well-covered by the national media, it became a turning point in the fight for equal rights in the gay community. Many historians credit this demonstration as the spark that launched many different LGBTQ groups to form and start a more coordinated movement for equality. It also represents another challenge to the social and political status quo of the 1960s.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, focus the legacy of the uprising at Stonewall Inn. Because of the personal nature of many of the accounts presented, encourage students to focus on the events from a historical lens.