Lies, Myths, and Stonewall



Stonewall riot photo

Gays clashing with police during the Stonewall Riots

Eyewitnesses often can’t agree on events that happened yesterday, let alone 50 years ago—like the Stonewall Riots. Inevitably, some nations, interest groups, and individuals attempt to shape the narrative to promote their own agendas. They glorify their achievements, gloss over their misdeeds, and disparage or even omit the real achievements of others. When I attended public school in New York, I was fed a history that exalted the Founders, various U.S. presidents, and a handful of other white men, as though they had done everything worthwhile that ever happened here. I was taught that all progress had been a gift from those leaders, and we were told next to nothing about Black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, the women’s movement, and the labor movement.

A similar process has been happening with regard to the gay movement during and after Stonewall. (I say “gay movement” rather than LGBT because that’s what we called ourselves in those years.) Here is what I know and remember about Stonewall:

The riots started on Saturday night, June 28, 1969. I was passing by at the time, saw a young white man throwing something at the cops, and assumed it was an anti-war demonstration. I had been in other anti-war demos, but that night I had out-of-town guests with me and was taking them home, so didn’t join in. However, I recently spoke to Mark Segal, one of my comrades from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), who had participated in the riots himself. He said there were no leaders, just people rebelling in individual ways—throwing things, breaking windows, setting fires to trash cans, whatever. No one was taking more of a leader role than anyone else. Newspaper accounts at the time, and historians who interviewed hundreds of people, report that the rioters were mostly young white gay men. One of the bar owners stated that the bar patrons were “98% male.” The bar was not welcoming to drag queens, lesbians, or non-whites, so they rarely patronized it.

Within one week after the Stonewall riot, a few of us—gay men and lesbians—formed GLF. Exactly one month afterward, we held a protest march in Greenwich Village. According to undercover police, around 400 people attended. The enormous progress in LGBT rights since those days, including same sex marriage, came about as a result of actions by GLF and many successive organizations.

Now let’s look at the mythology:

It started almost immediately. A mocking article in the Village Voice suggested that riots could be attributed to gays mourning Judy Garland’s death. As though we had no other reason to be angry—not police cruelty, not harassment, not shaming or violence or the threat of violence, not the constant public abuse heaped on us by articles like that one. Yet that lie has persisted for years.

After the gay movement began to make progress, to even become fashionable, hundreds or even thousands of people stepped up to claim that they had been at Stonewall, had even thrown the first brick. (There were no loose bricks in the neighborhood at the time.) As has been said, if all those claimants had been present, they would’ve filled Yankee Stadium. One lesbian feminist wrote in her published memoir that she and I were having a drink in the bar that night when the riot broke out. I can only think that her memory is playing tricks on her. The first time I set foot in the Stonewall was in 2015, during the push to declare it a national monument. I was surprised at how small the place was.

Eventually the gay movement became LGBT, and then LGBTQ+. Now it seems, however, that a subset of the trans movement has appropriated the history, along with various leftists who want to be seen as allies. About a year ago, Democracy Now! reported that the riots were led by “transwomen of color.” This is so far from actual events that I wrote to them trying to correct the misinformation but never heard back.

The way the legend goes these days is that two transwomen, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, led the Stonewall rebellion. More than that, they organized the gay movement after the riots. New York City is now erecting a statue in their honor. This year I was asked to speak for GLF at the rally prior to the big Pride parade in New York this year. While waiting my turn, I heard a speaker intone Sylvia and Marsha’s names as though invoking deities. Each time the crowd roared.

Here’s what I know and remember about Rivera and Johnson: First, they called themselves transvestites, not transgender. Few people, if any, identified as transgender in those days. They identified themselves as male or female at different times. Then, as Johnson herself said afterwards, she didn’t arrive at the Stonewall that evening until 2:00 am, long after the rebellion had started. Rivera was uptown all evening and never participated in the riots. I remember, myself, that immediately afterward they were not leaders of or even participants in the movement for gay rights. Neither of them became involved in GLF until September 1970, when they took part in an action by our organization and the Student Homophile League at New York University.

Once in GLF, Rivera and Johnson formed Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Rivera kicked her heroin habit. They opened the STAR House for homeless street transvestites, people whom no one would hire and who had no way to make a living except as prostitutes. STAR helped the street transvestites work toward getting off drugs. If they were arrested, Rivera or Johnson would go to Riker’s Island to help bail them out and make sure they were safe. Later, during the last 10 years of her life, Rivera went to work at the Metropolitan Community Church and ran a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson deserve to be remembered for the years of courageous and compassionate work that they actually did. Elevating them to sainthood erases their humanity, and pretending that they were the leaders of the Stonewall rebellion and the gay liberation movement erases their real history and everyone else’s actions as well.

More importantly, elevating any activist to sainthood encourages people to worship a hero, to passively wait for someone larger than life to swoop down from the skies and rescue them. The work of the LGBT movement was done by thousands of people, before and after Stonewall. And each one of you, readers, has a gift to share, a contribution to make toward a better future for us all. Don’t sit home lighting candles to imaginary saints. Go out and do what needs to be done.

11 Responses to Lies, Myths, and Stonewall

  1. Bill Monaghan July 21, 2019 at 8:54 pm #

    Good article. Good to hear from someone who were there and very much aware of the conditions that gays, lesbians and transvestites we’re living with. Thanks

  2. Pam Olund July 21, 2019 at 9:29 pm #

    Thank you Martha for writing this article. I have studied Gay history extensively and I have dug deep to find information and first hand accounts of that night the actions that preceded and followed it. When I first developed a love of our history there was no mention of half the people who now claim to have been game changers.
    I went to a talk given by someone who claimed to be a Stonewall survivor last year.
    This person was claiming basically to have done things that I know he didn’t do. The crowd was young and eating up his story which I’m sure he read from one of the history books published in the last few years by someone who did not do their research.
    Our community has a hard enough time having our history recorded and remembered so shame on these few interest groups who are trying to rewrite history for their cause.
    I am so truly grateful for you Martha and the others like you who really were upfront and involved in making a better future for all of us. ❤️

  3. Allen Young July 22, 2019 at 6:21 am #

    I loved this article, endorse it as factual based on my own experience and my own personal political work in 1970-71 alongside the author, Martha Shelley, as well as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Ray Rivera.

  4. BillieNoNo July 22, 2019 at 3:56 pm #

    In 2015 (and now), the Stonewall Bar is small…it’s less than half the size of the 1969 version of the Stonewall.

  5. Nancy Myron July 22, 2019 at 9:38 pm #

    Thanks so much, Martha. Wish you, Allen, Mark, Karla, Michela, Sue S.] et al would put something definative together. We will not live forever and we need to ‘nail’ the true history of those days…
    else it’s up for grabs…..just like the corporate takeover of the original March. Thanks.

    • Martha Shelley July 22, 2019 at 9:47 pm #

      I forwarded your post to the people you named, and a few others. We’ll see what the response is.

  6. Ellen Greenlaw July 22, 2019 at 10:17 pm #

    Thank you Martha. Nothing like an account from somebody who was there.
    Welcome to Portland and Oregon. Keep speaking out. Delight to hear you

  7. Marc Schnapp July 22, 2019 at 10:22 pm #

    I like how you tied up the essay. Without hammering away at the tendency of history to be told as the legacy of special people, you sketch how the legend of the Stonewall rebellion has been conjured up within our own lifetimes. Each telling of that legend picks up new elements as the strata of each successive decade form and harden into received wisdom. It’s so much more difficult to narrate the particularities of a movement’s history when one merely describes social conditions and prevailing belief systems. Heroic figures add so much color. So whether it’s the mythology behind holy books or the retelling of that night in June, the temptation is to create an elaborate bedtime story lulling us to slowly close our eyes and drift into a blissful dreamlike state.

  8. marcos July 24, 2019 at 8:28 am #

    The Lesbian and Gay movement was by no measure coordinated by the professionals. It was an anarchistic atomized emergence over a period of three decades by people who took risks to come out to friends, family, coworkers and communities. This coming out, walking in power, was the antithesis of contemporary neoliberal identity politics that fixates on victimhood and vulnerability.

    Many who subscribe to neoliberal identity politics and intersectionality fashion a mythology of exclusive brave trans leadership at Stonewall, yet cast today’s trans people as delicate woodland creatures, infantilized to the point where appeals to guilt induced charity appears to be the political path forward.

    Just as nobody is entitled to strangers validating their schtick, no matter what their schtick is, nobody is entitled to strangers validating their recasting of history with different people in order to fashion up a soothing, validating mythology.

  9. Anthony English July 25, 2019 at 9:10 pm #

    One thing you should mention in your article is what Mark Segal (who has been talking about this for some time now) has been saying about that night (since he was actually in the bar when it was raided). That the majority of those that actually stayed when the riot broke out were trans women (especially black and Hispanic), the femme guys and the guys like him that had nowhere to go and nothing to lose by staying and fighting back, while the predominantly white middle class guys ran for the hills

    • Martha Shelley July 25, 2019 at 10:02 pm #

      I haven’t heard that from Mark. What he said to me was something rather different, and I’ll check with him again. In any case, the few photos I’ve seen that were taken at the time showed predominantly young white men fighting back or being herded by cops, with one black drag queen among them. And the one I saw throwing something at a cop was a young white guy. There is a photo of several young black men on the scene, but it was taken a few nights afterward.

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