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.