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.

220px-Stonewall_riots

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Cooper’s Do-nuts

Pretty much everyone knows about Stonewall, but the LGBTQ+ community has been rioting since a lot longer than 1969. Let’s talk about the Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot.

Picture it: It’s the end of the 1950’s. It’s a simpler time — but things are changing. Despite that fact, minorities — especially LGBTQ+ people — are still cowering in fear from police and never fighting back.

And boy are they fearful in Los Angeles. William H. Parker became the chief of the LAPD in 1950, and decided to make stamping out sexual perversion his number one priority. Arrests for homosexuality increased by more than 85% in the following decade. Because the police tended to target transgender people — who often stood out more — most LA gay bars had tried to stop the police from raiding them by banning anyone who’s perceived gender wasn’t in line with the sex on their driver’s license. That’s right — gay bars with no drag queens! Boring.

CooperDonuts-from-TheExilesNow, on Main Street there was a 24 hour donut shop called Cooper’s Do-nuts. (Yeah, they hyphenated the word “donut” and yeah, I’m annoyed about it. Even though I’m sure it’s grammatically correct.) I haven’t been able to find the exact address which is a total shame because I really want to know what’s there now. During the day, it was a popular hangout for cops — but when the sun went down, it became a hangout for people who had nowhere else to go at night: mainly transgender people and sex workers.

CityofNightRechyOne night in May of 1959 a few cops came by — or possibly stayed late, I’m not really clear on that — and decided to check everyone’s IDs to make sure their perceived gender matched their legal gender. One man present was a young gay man named John Rechy who would later include this incident in his novel City of Night. The police arrested two gay male sex workers, two drag queens, and a “young man just cruising”. One of those five people objected to having all five of them shoved into the back of one police car — and that was the spark that set it off.

The other customers of the donut shop went out into the street — hurling anything they could get their hands on at the police. Coffee cups, napkins, paper plates, donuts — yeah, donuts can be a weapon if you’re queer — and just general trash. The police escaped and came back with reinforcements. They shut down Main Street, but the protesters didn’t care — by this point the crowd had grown; they were simultaneously rioting and dancing in the street. Though the police made a lot of arrests, the street was still shut down for the better part of the day until the crowd dispersed.

This was the first time the LGBTQ+ community in the United States rioted. As we all know, it wouldn’t be the last.

(*Heavily* adapted from this Facebook post.)