FEATURE

Teaching Stonewall’s 50th Anniversary

Stonewall’s history remains largely forgotten—and unknown among young people. In the cultural imagination, it remains shrouded in myth. But the true Stonewall story can be taught. Here’s how—and why.
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

It was just past 1:00 a.m. in New York City on Saturday, June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn. Patrons wouldn’t have been surprised when the officers arrived—LGBTQ-friendly bars were regularly raided. Ostensibly, these raids were to punish those selling liquor without a license or to arrest those “soliciting homosexual relations.” In reality, they were often used to justify the detention or humiliation of LGBTQ people. 

Seymour Pine, the deputy police inspector who led the raid, told historian David Carter that police targeted transgender people and women dressed in men’s clothing. He recalled threatening to check their genitals in a back room. “We were satisfied,” he said, “in embarrassing them.”

Inside, police lined up the bar’s patrons and demanded IDs. They especially targeted gender- nonconforming people, detaining many of them and citing a statute that allowed for the arrest of people not wearing three articles of clothing “appropriate” to their sex assigned at birth.

Everything we know about what happened next comes from eye-witness accounts. 

We know that people gathered outside on Christopher Street, where those released from the Stonewall Inn met up with allies from the neighborhood and nearby bars. We know that the crowd (which at one point formed a “can-can” line directed toward officers) grew angry as police used brute force and billy clubs against lesbian and trans women showing the least bit of resistance. We know that early on, the crowd threw trash and coins―a nod to the payoffs that could sometimes be counted on to prevent such raids.

What graduated this tense standoff into several nights of violent uprising remains a point of contention. 

Coins and trash became bricks and flaming cocktails. Windows were shattered. And if the violence had ever truly been contained to just the police officers and those they were arresting, it soon wasn’t. We don’t know for certain who threw the first brick, the first Molotov cocktail or the first punch, but we do know this: The protesters at Stonewall weren’t just fighting back against this single act of violent injustice. They were standing up against a system of repeated oppression, humiliation and dehumanization. 

The fight that took place on Christopher Street is often called a riot; other times, it’s labeled an uprising. No matter the word attached to what happened at Stonewall, this much is clear: It was a refusal to give in to law enforcement’s demands and go quietly. 

There was camp and chaos, vaudeville and violence. Dark humor and in-your-face dancing quickly gave way to something police didn’t expect: a physical fight. Officers hit those who resisted arrest as they were handcuffed and marched from the bar, in full view of the crowd. Flying debris hit the officers. Eventually, the opposing forces converged. That night, and into the next Wednesday, LGBTQ people demanded the space they had carved out for themselves and threatened those who would take it from them. Those demands didn’t come without painful reminders as to who had been given the power to enact violence and to whom it was allowed to be done.

 

Why This History Matters

On a micro level, the Stonewall raid represented an attack on LGBTQ people’s right to be themselves in public. It wasn’t the first. Genny Beemyn, the director of The Stonewall Center at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, explains that the queer community at the time faced regular police raids of their communal spaces. They couldn’t socialize openly. 

“It was a community fighting back that had had enough of police brutality and being oppressed,” Beemyn says. 

On a macro level, the raid represented the criminalization of queer identities. LGBTQ people were not just detained for going out in public. They were often imprisoned for what they did in private. It’s hard to understand the uprising’s intensity without fully appreciating those stakes. 

“[Students] don’t really understand this history unless they know that, for homosexuality, you could serve time in jail from three months to life in prison, depending on the state, in the 1960s. Or be institutionalized,” explains Jason Baumann, who curated the New York Public Library’s exhibit honoring the Stonewall Uprising’s 50th anniversary. 

It underscores, he says, the fact that Stonewall and other fights of the 1960s weren’t just fights for social acceptance—they were fights for the right to live.

Years after the Stonewall Uprising, trans and homeless activist Sylvia Rivera remembered a face—a “drag queen” who was assaulted by police officers that night. 

“They just beat her into a bloody pulp,” Rivera told historian Eric Marcus. “There were a couple of [‘butch’ lesbians] they took out and threw in a car. ... It was inhumane, senseless bullshit. We were the lowest scum of the Earth at the time.”

Depending on who you ask, participating in the uprising was either terrifying or liberating—or both. Trans activist Miss Major Griffith-Gracy has referred to Stonewall as “three nights of absolute terror.” Rivera, meanwhile, said that “to be there was so beautiful.” When police raided the bar, there was fear and confusion. When police answered unrest with violence, there was pain. But there was also a righteous anger and, for many, a sense that, at last, the queer community was standing up for itself, respectability be damned.

The fight that took place on Christopher Street is often called a riot; other times, it’s an uprising. No matter the word attached to what happened at Stonewall, this much is clear: It was a refusal to give in to law enforcement’s demands and go quietly. 

The event was revolutionary in more ways than one. As Stonewall veteran Mark Segal points out, LGBTQ groups across the country rose “from the ashes of the Stonewall riots.” Organizations like the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Youth and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) stepped forward to create a community that mirrored the collective action and righteous demands of that night. 

“Pre-Stonewall, you have homophile organizations existing in a small number of cities, mostly underground people meeting in secret in people’s houses or church basements,” Beemyn explains. “And then post-Stonewall, you have this explosion of community and campus gay liberation fronts.” 

Unfortunately, this very real effect of the uprising often feeds the most prevailing myth that surrounds Stonewall: that June 28, 1969, marks the beginning of LGBTQ activism as we know it. Even the Obama administration’s announcement about the dedication of the Stonewall National Monument in 2016 said that the uprising “sparked the modern LGBT civil rights movement.” 

That dedication came two days short of a year after Obergefell v. Hodges made marriage equality the law of the land. To many, these late June anniversaries felt like two bookends to a clean narrative of LGBTQ activism. That narrative largely centered the activism of cisgender, white, gay men who became the face of a Supreme Court case and a retrofitted film about Stonewall.

But that narrative is false. The story of revolutionary LGBTQ activism begins well before Stonewall, and its cast of key characters includes people of color, gender-nonconforming people and women. As we mark the uprising’s 50th anniversary this June, the legacy of that intersectional movement lives on. Queer people of color continue to organize around the mistreatment of trans people by law enforcement; they advocate for homeless queer youth and those detained while seeking asylum; they recognize that even still, in New York City, their right to exist with pride is often hindered by businesses and police—so why cooperate?

And that story of Stonewall—not past or prologue, but an uprising informed by its predecessors and relevant to its descendants—belongs in the classroom. 

 

Correcting a False Narrative: It Didn’t Start at Stonewall

A year after the Stonewall Uprising, demonstrations across the country set the stage for events we now know as Pride. Part protest, part celebration, these events often take place in June and declare out loud the existence of LGBTQ people. The tactics used during the uprising partly inspired a new wave of activist groups. 

That’s why it’s easy to fall into the narrative that Stonewall was a first step. But educators can counter this myth by teaching that the fight for LGBTQ rights began well before Stonewall―and continues to this day. Stonewall wasn’t a beginning. It was a culmination. 

“That’s one of the things I want people to come away with knowing,” Baumann says. 

Understanding the Stonewall Uprising, Baumann explains, hinges on knowing what preceded it: a growing demand for civil rights. He suggests that the fight for LGBTQ civil rights is best framed within the context of other civil rights movements of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Stonewall coincides with those movements growing more revolutionary—and more popular.

Before, during and after Stonewall, activists in New York City were fighting against a system that criminalized their love lives and outward expression.  

As early as the 1950s, groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis were opposing job discrimination. Queer people at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria, Philadelphia’s Dewey’s Restaurant and Los Angeles’ Black Cat tavern all protested to demand access to public accommodations and freedom from police harassment.

These earlier organizing efforts are what allowed Stonewall to be effective, Baumann says. Educators can’t tell the true story of Stonewall without them. Partly because of them, “the political community in New York was developed enough that they could seize upon that moment and turn it into a political event with historical and political consequences.”

Those consequences are visible 50 years later. In contemporary fights for free expression at work, access to public facilities and bathrooms, and better treatment in detention facilities, the spirit of Stonewall and its predecessors lingers. 

This is especially true if you take a closer look at the movement’s oft-forgotten activists—and those who look like them today.

 

Correcting a False Narrative: Seeing Beyond the Cis, White Lens

Whether it’s the story of Stonewall or the fight for marriage equality, the popular narrative of LGBTQ liberation often centers a familiar protagonist: the polished, “respectable,” gay, cis, white man. There’s a reason for this.

Shortly after the summer of ’69, some of the Stonewall Uprising’s veterans were unceremoniously pushed aside. Activists with privilege and power—often white, cis, gay men and lesbians—centered their role in the movement, while a trans woman of color like Rivera had to fight for stage time at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. 

But trans activists and activists of color shouldn’t have to fight for time in classroom retellings of history. Trans and gender-nonconforming people played vital roles in these early fights for social justice. Educators can help correct narratives that exclude them by recognizing the intersectional history of the fight for LGBTQ liberation, including Stonewall.

Many of the era’s queer activists, including unsung heroes such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya, were on the front lines of several liberation movements. Trans activist Sylvia Rivera said that, prior to LGBTQ activism, she was involved in anti-war and black liberation movements. “My revolutionary blood was going,” she said. And she wasn’t alone.

“Trans people didn’t just suddenly emerge at Stonewall or didn’t suddenly emerge out of whole cloth on college campuses this century,” Beemyn says. “You can’t understand the visibility of trans people today without recognizing that there was a history built on that.” 

It’s critical that educators get this history right. According to the national school climate survey released by the LGBTQ education organization GLSEN in 2018, only 19.8 percent of students had been taught a positive representation of LGBTQ people or history in the past year. More than 60 percent didn’t hear about LGBTQ issues at all.  “I think you need to know you have a history in order to feel that you have a community,” Beemyn says.

“I think having that—knowing that history—helps people to better appreciate themselves and see themselves as tied to the world and having a place.” 

Listen as Beemyn explores the lives and experiences of gender-nonconforming people throughout U.S. history on an episode of the Teaching Tolerance podcast Queer America.

While this history of activism predates Stonewall, the role of trans activists and people of color in the uprising can’t be denied. “It’s very clear,” Jason Baumann says, “that transgender, gender-nonconforming and also people of color were on the forefront of that conflict.” 

“What I hope doesn’t get lost is the importance played by trans people, particularly trans people of color in the movement,” Genny Beemyn says, “because they got shut out of it. They got pushed out. By the early ’70s, the movement had become much more mainstreamed and whitened. ... It’s important to recognize that heritage.”

But recognizing this also means confronting an uncomfortable truth: Much of the gay rights movement would abandon the needs and demands of queer people of color and trans people. 

Joanna Williams—a campaign manager for the software company GetThru who has also worked with progressive initiatives—points out that Stonewall veterans like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson still experienced homelessness and food insecurity after the uprising. 

“You have this huge monumental riot in the U.S. and afterwards, you still don’t have a home, you still don’t have a commission,” Williams says. “Your role is essentially forgotten.” 

It’s a contradiction Williams recognizes today. 

A black millennial who identifies as lesbian, she remembers the way white, gay people talked about the Supreme Court’s wisdom in 2013, when it ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. Just the day before, the court had gutted the Voting Rights Act. But many white members of the LGBTQ community celebrated the court while people of color—including queer people of color—mourned the loss of hard-won rights. 

“In the U.S., there’s always this balancing act that you’re navigating,” Williams says. “You’re walking this legal battle as a black person or a person of color, and you’re also fighting this legal battle as a queer person.” 

But she believes teaching through an intersectional lens can help students better understand and critically evaluate this balancing act. 

“If teachers are truly trying to be intersectional in their teaching about these folks and this movement, they have to get into discussions around erasure,” Williams says. “If they are able to teach that and give students that kind of background, I think students are going to walk out of the classroom with a richer understanding.” 

And it’s not just understanding that students take away. Teaching this intersectional history also helps students see themselves as changemakers.

“That is obviously something that can inspire a lot of resilience and fortitude within them,” Williams explains. “When they’re taking on causes of their own, they’re moving with the spirit of the people who came before them. It’s hard to channel that energy and that spirit if you think you’re the first one or the only one.” 

Fifty years ago, that spirit moved through a crowd on Christopher Street. Those who felt it knew they weren’t the first to resist injustice. And they knew they weren’t alone. Connecting to that story is a rare gift that educators can offer students who rarely see themselves in their history books. Correcting the narrative offers even more students a community, predecessors and purpose. 

Telling the more inclusive story of Stonewall and the LGBTQ rights movement offers queer students of color and trans students a chance to see people like themselves demand the recognition of their humanity and their right to live. To see their strength, their resolve and their resistance. To see their hand in creating change.

And to see that for the first time—as Sylvia Rivera once said—is so beautiful.

Teaching Stonewall Beyond the “First Brick”

The story of the Stonewall Uprising is—in the cultural imagination—a story of bricks. And in celebrating the 50th anniversary of what many consider the origin of Pride events and the catalyst for the LGBTQ rights movement, people will talk about bricks. We will hear stories of the first brick thrown toward police. We will hear stories about who threw it. We will hear stories about how this brick incited a riot and, thus, changed history. 

 

Many credit pioneering trans activist Marsha P. Johnson for throwing that first brick. But it’s not the only first that defines the story as we’ve chosen to remember it. Many believe that Stormé DeLarverie—a black, lesbian activist—is the famous thrower of the first punch; the one who turned to onlookers and demanded, “Why don’t you guys do something?!” Others credit trans activist Sylvia Rivera for throwing the first bottle or Molotov cocktail. And yet, Johnson herself clarified that she didn’t arrive at the riots until “the place was already on fire.” Rivera said she didn’t throw the first cocktail. Their words have been drowned out by their legend.

 

Despite those contradictions of testimony and lore, the fixation on firsts, individuals and myths in the Stonewall story is understandable. The New York Public Library’s Jason Baumann says these narratives exist, in part, because of an understandable desire for the way we talk about Stonewall to be “a paradigm” of what the LGBTQ movement should aspire to today: an inclusive celebration of the vital role of queer people of color.

 

Johnson, Rivera, DeLarverie—these are incredibly important women whose activism demanded a more inclusive LGBTQ movement. Their place in the Stonewall story (sometimes the only story of LGBTQ activism ever told) acts as shorthand for why they shouldn’t be forgotten. DeLarverie, for example, was hit with a billy club for requesting less rough handling by police. She kicked, screamed and pushed back, some people estimate, for up to 10 minutes. Her fight tells us something about her—and about the time. It’s no coincidence that a masculine-presenting black woman would be treated this way in 1969; it’s no coincidence that reporters would refer to her “nasty temper” rather than her righteous anger. But distilling the activism of trans and queer people of color to these singular events can actually do a disservice to their legacies. 

 

The story of Stonewall is more complicated than that. So is the collective work and contribution  of these women. And those more complicated stories belong in the classroom. They belong in our historical memory. They belong to the trans people, gender-nonconforming people and people of color who stood long before the riots and who remain authentically themselves despite resistance from within and beyond the LGBTQ community.

 

“This focus on the ‘first’ punch/brick/Molotov cocktail is intended to refute revisionist histories that undermine the labor of transgender women and lesbians of color within the LGBTQ+ community,” wrote trans poet and educator Chrysanthemum Tran in an essay for Them. “But in our attempts to counter revisionism by uplifting the work and impact of LGBTQ+ women of color, we create and normalize false histories that fail to accurately recognize their legacies and those of countless others who jeopardized their lives to resist the police.” 

 

Scholar Genny Beemyn agrees, citing the power of a united front that defined Stonewall’s lasting legacy. “I don’t think we should focus on individuals because, really, it was a community,” says Beemyn. “I think focusing on some of that is more valuable than trying to trace who did what at the actual event itself.”  

 

The story of the Stonewall Uprising is—in the cultural imagination—a story of bricks. Bricks thrown. Bricks unbroken. Bricks unburnt. The bar’s brick wall and two archway doors still stand despite the system that tried to dismantle them. 

 

But outside of the two states where LGBTQ history is mandatory curriculum, that increased recognition hasn’t translated to K–12 schools, where Stonewall is rarely mentioned. Its history, among young people, remains largely unknown.

 

And even a monument cannot keep Stonewall’s more complicated story alive. Not every student will see the neon sign now proudly hanging in the bar’s window. Few will ever walk down Christopher Street, and even if they do, they will not find the Greenwich Village that Rivera, Johnson and DeLarverie knew. The broken glass, stray coins and trash have long since been swept from the street. 

 

But an educator can help lead students there. They need not throw bricks; they only must lay them. 

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.