The Stonewall riots marked the beginnings of change for the gay and lesbian communities in America. It is considered one of the most important events in the gay liberation movement and the beginning of the fight for LGBT rights in America. However, 52 years after the first day of the riots, everyone from historical experts to first-hand witnesses differs on the events that occurred at the Stonewall Inn on June 28. Remember when Derrick Barry of RuPaul’s Drag Race claimed people were killed at the riots?
While the clip became a funny viral meme, Barry’s incorrect statement emphasized the lack of knowledge people have about what happened at Stonewall, and perhaps, this exact lack of understanding is attributed to the varying accounts of what actually happened that fateful June day.
One of the most famous novels about the riots is Martin Duberman’s Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America. This novel follows the lives of six activists and their personal involvement in the gay liberation movement. Each of these six individuals comes from different walks of life: the interviewees are both people of color and white; they are poor and privileged; they identify as gay or lesbian; they are cis-gender and transgender. And while Duberman’s novel accurately portrays how the riots and the LGBTQ movement affected different people, even Duberman can agree that “[t]hey often have very different takes on what went down” that night.
A major theory states that the bar owners failed to pay off the police that night, so when the police eventually did come, they were angry at not only the gay community but at those who didn’t cough up the money. Now, police raids were extremely common, especially in gay bars. They often harassed individuals, forcing them to “prove” that their gender identity matched that of their ID cards. However, the aggression at which the police entered the Stonewall Inn that night perhaps attributed to the building tension that led to almost a week of rioting. Not only this but the Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia at the time. Another theory suggests that the owners purposefully called the police in retaliation for…whatever the gay community was doing that was bothering them. Everyone knows that the Mafia theoretically has a lot of power, so why not turn an eye towards another group that is participating in illegal activities to keep the limelight off of themselves? The main point is that although police raids were expected in gay bars, their appearance just after midnight was not routine. So what tipped them off?
In an interview with Time, Duberman, who believes that the bar failed to pay off police, calls the day “one of those apparent accidents of history.” He presses that the 1960s in America were tumultuous, to begin with. These riots came at the end of a decade that also saw the beginnings of the feminist movement, the start of the Black Civil Rights movement, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. All of this occurred in the midst of America’s questionable participation in the Vietnam War. Some speculate that on the night of the raid, emotions were running high for the gay community already because actress Judy Garland’s funeral was held the day prior. Garland, known for her musical roles in MGM films, became a gay idol (though she, herself, did not identify as such). It is speculated that the coincidental raid became too much for the gay community to handle, so they decided to fight back.
While the confusion around the riots has stayed over fifty years past the original occurrence, there is no question that the Stonewall riots served as a permanent catalyst for the gay rights movement. The Supreme Court has denied all bans on gay marriage, making it legal in all fifty states in 2015. Bill Clinton’s problematic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed by Barak Obama’s administration. Gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals have run (and won) spots in various levels of the US government.
While these are outstanding wins for the LGBTQIA+ community, America still has its shortcomings regarding gay rights. Gay men who actively have sex are still limited on donating blood due to outdated assumptions and biases regarding HIV and hepatitis B. LGBTQIA+ couples still have a more difficult time than heterosexual couples when adopting children. They face bullying, sexual harassment, and death just because of who they are. The Stonewall riots were a monumental time in gay rights history, but it is, in the end, only the beginning.