Stone Wall Riots and Intersectionality 

This article was written by Cory Collins for Teaching Tolerance. We do not own any content in this article. Click here to read the original article.

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It was just past 1:00 a.m. in New York City on Saturday, June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn. Patrons wouldn’t have been surprised when the officers arrived—LGBTQ-friendly bars were regularly raided. Ostensibly, these raids were to punish those selling liquor without a license or to arrest those “soliciting homosexual relations.” In reality, they were often used to justify the detention or humiliation of LGBTQ people. 

We know that people gathered outside on Christopher Street, where those released from the Stonewall Inn met up with allies from the neighborhood and nearby bars. We know that the crowd (which at one point formed a “can-can” line directed toward officers) grew angry as police used brute force and billy clubs against lesbian and trans women showing the least bit of resistance. We know that early on, the crowd threw trash and coins―a nod to the payoffs that could sometimes be counted on to prevent such raids.

What graduated this tense standoff into several nights of violent uprising remains a point of contention. 

Coins and trash became bricks and flaming cocktails. Windows were shattered. And if the violence had ever truly been contained to just the police officers and those they were arresting, it soon wasn’t. We don’t know for certain who threw the first brick, the first Molotov cocktail or the first punch, but we do know this: The protesters at Stonewall weren’t just fighting back against this single act of violent injustice. They were standing up against a system of repeated oppression, humiliation and dehumanization. 

 

Correcting a False Narrative: Seeing Beyond the Cis, White Lens

Whether it’s the story of Stonewall or the fight for marriage equality, the popular narrative of LGBTQ liberation often centers a familiar protagonist: the polished, “respectable,” gay, cis, white man. There’s a reason for this.

Shortly after the summer of ’69, some of the Stonewall Uprising’s veterans were unceremoniously pushed aside. Activists with privilege and power—often white, cis, gay men and lesbians—centered their role in the movement, while a trans woman of color like [Sylvia] Rivera had to fight for stage time at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. 

But trans activists and activists of color shouldn’t have to fight for time in classroom retellings of history. Trans and gender-nonconforming people played vital roles in these early fights for social justice. Educators can help correct narratives that exclude them by recognizing the intersectional history of the fight for LGBTQ liberation, including Stonewall.

Many of the era’s queer activists, including unsung heroes such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya, were on the front lines of several liberation movements. Trans activist Sylvia Rivera said that, prior to LGBTQ activism, she was involved in anti-war and black liberation movements. “My revolutionary blood was going,” she said. And she wasn’t alone.

While this history of activism predates Stonewall, the role of trans activists and people of color in the uprising can’t be denied. “It’s very clear,” Jason Baumann says, “that transgender, gender-nonconforming and also people of color were on the forefront of that conflict.” 

[The director of The Stonewall Center at University of Massachusetts-Amherst Genny Beemyn says] “what I hope doesn’t get lost is the importance played by trans people, particularly trans people of color in the movement, because they got shut out of it. They got pushed out. By the early ’70s, the movement had become much more mainstreamed and whitened. ... It’s important to recognize that heritage.”

But recognizing this also means confronting an uncomfortable truth: Much of the gay rights movement would abandon the needs and demands of queer people of color and trans people. 

Telling the more inclusive story of Stonewall and the LGBTQ rights movement offers queer students of color and trans students a chance to see people like themselves demand the recognition of their humanity and their right to live. To see their strength, their resolve and their resistance. To see their hand in creating change.

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Checkpoint!

What fueled the Stonewall riots?

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Checkpoint!

How did centering the LGBTQ+ liberation movement around white people affect queer people of color?

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Checkpoint!

What is the correlation between intersectionality and the LGBTQ+ community?

Learn More

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Further Readings

What is Intersectionality? | Queer 101 

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Teacher Resources