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PRIDE WAS A RIOT, NOT A RAINBOW: THE KEY LEADERS OF THE 1969 STONEWALL UPRISING

<em>The Stonewall Inn New York City<em>

After what seems like a lifetime of uncertainty, doubt, fear, and loneliness, post-pandemic Pride celebrations are sure to be amplified for years to come. Today, Pride is a beautiful and outward expression of love, acceptance, and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community marked by lively parades and an overabundance of rainbow paraphernalia. However, this was not always the case. Festivities aside, it is important to consider the origins of Pride and pay homage to the prominent figures that sparked a revolution at Stonewall who paved the way for queer communities for generations to come.

For much of the 1960s and prior decades, the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community faced harsh discrimination from outsiders, especially law enforcement figures. In conversation with Gloria Teal of PBS, David Carter, the author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, noted that “early activists in the gay rights movement said that gay people were triply condemned. They were condemned by the law as being criminals, by religion as being sinners, and by medicine as being mentally ill.”

Gay bars, clubs, and other communal spaces became safe havens for queer people to escape until these spots too were plagued with violence at the hands of police. Tensions rose as law enforcement officers found excuses to harass gay people. Kissing, consuming alcohol, and hanging around spots that were dubbed “queer-friendly” could land a person in harm’s way. Similar accounts also suggest that officers would use “old, unrelated laws” to justify their violent actions against queer people. For instance, drag exists today as a celebrated form of gender expression. However, in earlier days, individuals who dressed in drag or identified as transgender were arrested for “cross-dressing.”

Members of the community grew increasingly tired of the prejudice and decided to fight back. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, was raided by undercover police officers who used excessive force against bar patrons and employees. Days of protests, demonstrations, and violent clashes with police outside the bar and surrounding areas around Christopher Street ensued. It was the spark that lit a dramatic change in tone for the gay rights movement. While much speculation exists over who “threw out the first punch” at Stonewall, these trailblazers were key leaders in the fight for gay liberation, and it is important to note that their work did not begin or end with Stonewall.

Marsha P. Johnson

 

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It’s hard to hear about the Stonewall uprising without mention of Marsha P. Johnson. Originally from Elizabeth, New Jersey, Johnson established herself as an “activist, self-identified drag queen, performer, and survivor.” After moving to New York City in the mid-’60s. Johnson became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, a resistance group formed immediately after the Stonewall bar raid, and co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) initiative, providing aid to transgender youth experiencing homelessness in the city. Her selfless nature and ferocious fight for queer people and people of color are recognized and honored today. Following her untimely death in 1992, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was founded to keep Marsha’s message and spirit alive. The institute’s work focuses on advocating for the rights of black transgender individuals.

Sylvia Rivera

 

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Sylvia Rivera was a transgender Latina woman, activist, community worker, and close friend to Marsha P. Johnson. She too was an integral part of bringing the STAR initiative to life and is said to have been at the frontlines of the Stonewall riots. According to Womenshistory.org, Rivera claims to have thrown the second Molotov cocktail at police that night, and “for six nights, the 17-year-old Rivera refused to go home or sleep, saying ‘I’m not missing a minute of this- it’s the revolution!'” She also felt that initial gay rights movements were not entirely inclusive of transgender individuals, and fought hard to be a voice for marginalized communities. Rivera tragically passed away at the age of 50 from liver cancer. However, her legacy lives on through the Silvia Rivera Law Project, which works to “guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence.”

Stormé DeLarverie

 

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Butch lesbian and activist, Stormé DeLarverie is responsible for co-founding the first racially inclusive drag touring company Jewel Box Revue at a time when the majority of drag revenues were run by straight, white men who were not always queer-friendly. Her work is synonymous with creating one of the first real communities for queer men, women, and people of color. DeLarverie was also present the first night of the Stonewall riots and is said to have been shoved by an officer whom she then punched in the face. Other officers attacked her, even allegedly hitting her head with a baton. Chaos ensued following the violent scuffle at Stonewall, and DeLarverie was later dubbed the “Rosa Parks” of the gay community for her role in igniting the riots.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

 

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A trans activist, community leader, and veteran of the Stonewall Riots, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a true warrior. At 80 years old, she continues her vehement fight for trans rights and visibility, although the road hasn’t always been easy. Having spent 5 years incarcerated in the ’70s, Miss Major draws on her encounters with the prison industrial complex as a black trans woman, and “credits her radical political stance on issues like abolition and Black liberation to those experiences,” according to Them. In 2005 she became the executive director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project, advocating for incarcerated trans victims of police brutality, poverty, racism, and gender discrimination. She has also founded the House of GG (Griffin-Gracy Educational Retreat & Historical Center) in order to “create safe and transformative spaces where members of our community can heal- physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually- from the trauma arising from generations of transphobia, racism, sexism, poverty, ableism, and violence, and nurturing them into tomorrow’s leaders.” To learn more about Miss Major Griffin-Gracy’s story, check out the documentary Major!

 

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