Stonewall: The Legacy

Today’s the day, everyone! Fifty years since the first night of the Stonewall uprising! Deciding what to write today was difficult, but I finally decided…. this is a pretty momentous occasion, especially for a queer history web site. So I’m going to talk about what sets Stonewall apart, and what lessons we learned 50 years ago that we can still be carrying with us today.

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People always like to say that Stonewall was the start of the gay rights movement but if you’ve been following us for a while, you know that’s not strictly true. There had been organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis fighting for gay rights for decades. We’d already had riots like Compton’s Cafeteria, the Black Cat Riot, and Cooper’s Do-nuts, we’d already had protests like the Annual Reminders and the Dewey’s Sit-In. The gay rights movement was pretty well in effect by 1969.

So what made Stonewall so important? Why is that the moment that changed everything? Because that’s the first time we stood up against the people oppressing us together. The LGBTQIA+ community, even now, is rife with division and it was then too. The divisions were different, but they were there. The community was broken up into the “butch” gays — the “respectable” straight-passing men who could blend into mainstream society; the queens — basically any more effeminate gay men could fit into this group which was also divided up by drag queens, transvestites (who, now, we’d mostly call transgender women), street queens, and “scare queens.” There were similar divisions between lesbians — butch and femme, passing or not. And in all of those groups, of course, there was a division between the white people and the people of color.

But on June 28, 1969 none of those divisions in the queer community mattered. The divisions were still there, but it didn’t matter. We had each other’s back. Stonewall was mostly full of butch gays — and mostly white gays at that, and the police were letting most people who weren’t in the “wrong clothes for their sex” go free — but they didn’t leave, they stayed outside and watched and drew in a crowd. The street queens weren’t in the bar at all, they would have been fine — but they were the ones who started fighting back. Because — for maybe the first time ever — it wasn’t only about self-preservation. And for five nights of rioting, we all had each other’s backs. That’s what changed — that’s why we’re able to look at Stonewall as the beginning of something.

To me, that’s why Stonewall was so powerful and important. It showed that, as long as we are looking out for each other and working together, that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

We’re not yet at the bright future every single one of the heroes of Stonewall we’ve talked about this month — and all of the ones we haven’t talked about yet — had envisioned for us. But I can promise, that is how we’ll get there. Working together, as a community.

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I know this was like hokey and sappy or whatever, but it’s over now. Go celebrate!

Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

920x920Alright, let’s talk about the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which took place in August of 1966 in San Francisco. At the time, transgender people were not welcome in gay bars because the police were able to use the presence of cross-dressing individuals as probable cause in order to raid a bar — and also because, let’s face it, there is *still* transphobia in the LGBTQ+ community. So instead of going to gay bars, the transgender community of San Francisco frequented one of Gene Compton’s Cafeterias, this one located at 101 Taylor Street. (The cafeteria there closed its doors in 1972.)

Before the riot, the police began to crack down on the presence of transgender people at the cafeteria. In response, the transgender community — as well as a lesbian organization called the Street Orphans (essentially a lesbian street gang) and a gay youth group called the Vanguard — put together a picket outside of Compton’s Cafeteria. This was possibly the first organized protest about the violence directed towards transgender people by the police.

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On the first night of the picket, the restaurant employees called the police as the protesters apparently had become loud and disruptive. The police arrived and attempted to arrest one of the transgender women protesting. She threw her coffee in his face. This was all it took — the peaceful protest instantly transformed into a riot. Although we as a community had moved past using donuts as weapons (as in the Cooper’s Donuts riot), we were not above using dishes and furniture. The plate glass windows of the restaurant were smashed, and the fighting moved into the street. A police car had all of its windows smashed, and a nearby newsstand was set on fire.

Although the riot dispersed, Compton’s Cafeteria refused to allow transgender people into the restaurant anymore. This led to another picket and their brand new windows being smashed again. Ultimately, the restaurant decided that it would be better to just close up shop at midnight instead of being open at all hours and have to refuse service to anyone. Probably a smart move if they, y’know, wanted to have glass windows.

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The date in August of the riot is unclear — the police records have apparently been lost and the entire event was wholly ignored by even the local media. Despite not knowing the exact date of the riot, a historical marker was placed at the location on June 22, 2006.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)