In 1999 I wrote an article, “Stonewall at Thirty,” where I discussed the Stonewall Uprising and what the event meant for us 30 years later. In 2004 I wrote another column, “Stonewall at Thirty-Five,” which was basically a rehash of the 1999 piece. I also wrote about Stonewall for an encyclopedia, “Youth, Education, and Sexualities,” edited by James T. Sears (2005), not one of my best efforts. Though I still think of Stonewall as the most important event in LGBTQ history, its meaning has changed as we changed over the years, both as individuals and as part of an LGBTQ community. What used to be a truly subversive event — queers resisting police oppression — has become banal; a way to sell products or services or an excuse to throw a party.
Fifty years ago, I was a 16-year old high school student in Miami; and I did not learn about Stonewall until I read my first gay newspaper two years later. Today, almost every high school student in America knows about Stonewall. What was once unmentionable is now part of our country’s political and social history.
Former President Barack Obama brought Stonewall, and the LGBTQ movement that it represents, up to the level of the feminist and civil rights movements when it named it along with the Seneca Falls Convention (1848) and the Selma March (1965) as a major event in the history of American freedom. (The fact that all three events start with an “s” helped.) History books that once would have ignored the Stonewall Uprising and the LGBTQ movement now mention both, if briefly.
In 2011 PBS first broadcast Stonewall Uprising as part of its “American Experience” series, giving the event its seal of approval. Then in 2016 the Stonewall Inn and its surroundings became a National Monument. All this happened during the Obama years, a period of history when, to use the title of a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “we were eight years in power.” Donald Trump and his evangelical base would never allow a Stonewall National Monument, though the fact that there are no fossil fuels below Greenwich Village means that the monument will continue to exist, at least for now.
Though the memory of Stonewall brings the LGBTQ community together once a year, if only to party, the event continues to create controversy within our community. Even the make-up of the Stonewall rioters leads to many arguments: were they young, mostly-white, gay men or young, mostly-black or brown, transgender women? In a way I think the debate is a healthy one, if only because it finally gives a Stonewall veteran like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy the recognition that she deserves. On the other hand, arguing the presence of this or that person or group can get tedious, like the debate on what transgender Latinx activist Sylvia Rivera was actually doing on June, 28, 1969: challenging the cops outside the Stonewall Inn or passed out on a nearby bench. I think the distinguishing mark of the Stonewall rioters was mostly economic and not racial or gender. These people — women or men, transgender or cisgender, Black or Latinx or white — hung out at the Stonewall because they had nowhere else to go, unlike the well-off gays who were enjoying the weekend on the West Side or on Fire Island.
Though the Stonewall Uprising was by no means the start of the LGBTQ movement, it happened at the right place and the right time: in Greenwich Village at the tail end of a tumultuous decade. Stonewall only happened because of Selma and the Seneca Falls Convention (and their aftermath). Events like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco (1966) or the Black Cat Riot in Los Angeles (1967) did not get the attention that Stonewall did. It helped that activists like the late Craig Rodwell saw the Stonewall Uprising as a useful tool and worked to make its anniversary a symbol of queer resistance and community. All in all, we should continue to honor Stonewall for what it was and what it represents, though always remembering those who made Stonewall possible. If Stonewall never existed, another event would surely take its place.