Remembering Stonewall and The Marginalized Activists That Created a Movement
Photos: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images, New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images, Diana Davies/New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Illustration: Jennifer Playford
In remembrance of the Stonewall riots, which began on June 28, 1969, we’re looking back at the uprising’s 50th anniversary in 2019 while paying tribute to Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLarverie — three gay activists who all played their part in the night that started a movement.
Fifty years ago this summer, a bottle was thrown, a cop was punched and a movement was born. Police raided New York’s Stonewall Inn, as they had before, to break up same-sex couples dancing, which was illegal, and to check that everyone was wearing at least three pieces of gender appropriate clothing, in accordance with another statute at the time. And for some reason — maybe it was because the spirit of the ’60s had finally made it to this darkened mob-run tavern or maybe because icon Judy Garland had just recently been buried — this time, they said no.
“They” were specifically Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLarverie. Depending on whose story you listen to, one of them — possibly all of them — threw the bottle, brick or punch that got everyone suddenly thinking gay was okay and maybe the police — and everyone else — should just lay off.
Though the headline in the Times the next day only said “4 Policemen Hurt in ‘Village’ Raid,” it was an exciting night that turned into a two-day riot that turned into the global gay rights movement. By some metrics, it’s been the most successful rights struggle of the modern era.
But the story of what happened to Johnson, Rivera and DeLarverie is the Stonewall story we who have been the beneficiaries of their work don’t hear and the one that now, 50 years on, we have only just started paying attention to. Though Stonewall was one giant leap for the idea of gay, it was actually a pretty small step for people like the people who made it happen.
Unfortunately, it’s not a long story. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River a few days after the 23rd anniversary of what she did that night. Though she had a big wound on the back of her head and there were reports of her having been harassed by people using homophobic epithets the night before by the docks and another report of someone bragging in a bar a few days later about having killed a drag queen named Marsha, the death of one of the heroes of gay liberation, who was Black and non-binary, was ruled a suicide. There was no obituary in the New York Times (until last year as part of that paper’s “Overlooked” feature that corrects the fact that, since 1851, the obituaries had been dominated by white men). She was 46.
“The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off,” the Times quoted Rivera about the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in a 1995 interview. “Still, it was beautiful. I walked down 58th Street, and the young ones were calling, ‘Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did.’ After that, I went back on the shelf. It would be wonderful if the movement took care of its own. But don’t worry about Sylvia. I should be out of here in a week, and I should be fine.”
She wasn’t. A decade after Johnson’s death, having been banned from a gay community centre for pressing them aggressively to do more for homeless LGBTQ2+ teens, Sylvia Rivera, a non-binary Latinx with her own long history of homelessness, died of liver cancer at 50.
Black and butch and a lifelong fighter of fights and righter of wrongs, DeLarverie had a long life, dying at the age of 93 in 2014 in a Brooklyn old-age home, having been the subject of a story four years earlier that ran under the headline Gay Community’s Rosa Parks Faces Death, Impoverished and Alone.
If you look at the latter-day heroes and beneficiaries of gay rights — from David Geffen to Ellen DeGeneres, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne to Apple CEO Tim Cook — you’ll notice they’re mostly white, and they’re mostly cis, that is, presenting as the biological gender they were born with.
It’s a common problem with revolutions: they tend to be about ideas and roll rather roughshod over anyone who wasn’t already in a position of privilege. We acknowledge this about, say, the French Revolution, which seemed to be about the poor but was actually all about the bourgeoisie, and the Russian Revolution, which toppled a few rich people and replaced them with a bunch of new ones. But history tends to give a pass to Stonewall because it was a rights revolution and because everything seems to be going so well for the gays these days.
But the door those three unlocked that night has only ever really opened wide enough for skinny white people to get through.
It’s not like there haven’t been reminders of that inconvenient fact. Paris Is Burning, the epochal 1990 documentary about the Ballroom scene in New York City in the 1980s that alerted Madonna (and the world) to voguing, among other things, was, through its rainbow-coloured scrim of fabulousness, the story of non-binary people of colour barely surviving, and in the case of Venus Xtravaganza, a white transwoman, not surviving at all, being killed, presumably by a john, before filming was even finished. The story of most of the rest of the cast, a full 20 years after Stonewall, turned out the same as Rivera’s and Johnson’s.
Since Paris Is Burning, we’ve had Will & Grace and Queer Eye and Brokeback Mountain and RuPaul’s Drag Race and Call Me by Your Name and Queer Eye again and Will & Grace again (one of these things is not like the others but only one). Meanwhile, Pride parades have not only gotten bigger, they’ve joined the ranks of the Santa Claus parade and St. Patrick’s Day parade as city celebrations worldwide, where some people dress up, others carry banners and others round up the kids for a day’s entertainment. Those parades had become so standard, so accepted and so acceptable — heck, even cops and politicians with power were marching now — that people were shocked, none more than the gay white men, when Black Lives Matter really rather politely (all things considered) interrupted Toronto’s parade two years ago to make a point about intersectionality and good ally-ship. They pointed out, for instance, that those same police who were marching and smiling with the parade gays were still carding, arresting, beating and killing people of colour — including LGBTQ2+ people of colour — at fairly alarming rates, both in Canada and the U.S.
And the response from all the white folks who had so much to thank Black people like Johnson and Delarvie for? “The crowd of white queer folks were taunting us yelling ‘All lives matter’ repeatedly,” says Rodney Diverlus, co-founder of Black Lives Matter’s Toronto chapter. “It was the first time we ever heard that said. And to this day, the only two instances where I had that chanted back to us was that protest at Pride.”
This year, Edmonton’s Pride Society cancelled their Pride parade — on the 50th anniversary no less! — rather than deal with similar issues.
There is a logical fallacy that prompts people who belong to one oppressed group to feel like they are by definition not oppressive to members of any other oppressed group. This has, in the present and the past, resulted in homophobic Black Panther members, misogynist GBTQ2+ men, anti-trans cis women and Islamophobic Jews. But it is nowhere more pernicious, more damaging or more successful than the racism and anti-trans sentiment of the white cis LGBQ+ people who see themselves as the heirs of the heroism of Stonewall, the martyrdom of AIDS and the victories of decriminalization, open admission to the military, adoption and marriage.
The results of this are devastating on a daily basis. According to a 2013 study using U.S. census data, Black female couples are three times likelier than white lesbians to be impoverished, and Black men in same-sex couples were more than six times more likely to be poor than those prosperous white men who are often used as the symbol — pictured on gay cruises or in mortgage ads for banks — for how well the whole Stonewall thing worked out. Another sobering stat: the children of same-sex black male couples had the highest poverty rate — 52.3 per cent — of any children in the nation. In a 2001 study of Canadian two-spirit, gay, bisexual, and trans Aboriginal men, 80 out of 189 of them reported being HIV-positive. That’s 42 per cent.
If you care to look, the stats just keep coming. “Racism is well and alive within the LGBTQ community,” Harlan Pruden, a scholar and member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, told the Globe and Mail in 2017. “Often, our two-spirit people don’t feel included within the broader LGBT queer framework. Two-spirit is a different conversation.”
Stonewall and the era it has come to represent (there were two notable rebellions against cops in L.A. several years earlier, for instance, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis pre-date Stonewall by more than a decade, and homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada the day before the riot broke out on Christopher Street) did and continue to do a lot of good. But if you’re white and live your life as the gender your doctor and parents figured you were at birth, it is time to see the other side of Stonewall.
Sure, Rivera, Johnson and DeLarverie and others lost to history qualify for the gay in gay liberation, but the LGBTQ2+ communities need to start looking at them for all of what they were, including non-binary, including being people of colour and poor and under-housed, under-employed, and shift our focus this Pride Day and for Pride 51 and 52 and 60 and 75 and as long as it takes until everything that went down that night and everyone who brought it all down are celebrated, yes, remembered, certainly, but most important of all, listened to, their priorities, complaints, perspectives and needs taken as seriously as those white boys who brought the leaflets after the riot quieted down and went on to open bookstores and become artists and whatnot.
A funny footnote: though Sylvia Rivera got a street sign at the corner of Hudson and Christopher in 2005, just a couple of years too late for her to enjoy it, there is, as far as I’ve been able to tell, no Marsha P. Johnson Library or Stormé DeLarverie Parkette. But a white cop named Charles Cochrane, on the job with the NYPD since 1967 whose job it was to enforce those same laws that brought his co-workers into the Stonewall that night, came out as gay in 1981, helped found an organization of gay and lesbian cops a year later and had a street in Greenwich Village named after him in 2016, just under 500 metres away from the Stonewall National Monument, which itself makes no mention of Rivera, Johnson, DeLarverie or the debt owed to so many people who look like them.
Addendum: In the days between my writing this and it going to press, the city of New York announced that it would be commissioning a monument to Johnson and Rivera, to be placed somewhere in the Village by about 2021. The timing of the announcement, just a month before the 50th anniversary, preparations for which had been in the works in some cases for years, implies that though this is most definitely a welcome move, maybe even a sign of things to come, it is also a sign of how things have been for the past half century. Though they were there at the beginning of it all, they are still, all these long, triumphal years later, an afterthought.
On Friday, June 26, 2020, The Obama Foundation shared the video below commemorating the five year anniversary of “the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, President Obama’s eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed alongside eight of his parishoners at Mother Emanuel AME, and the lighting of the White House in rainbow colors in recognition of marriage equality.” The Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage across the United States of America.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2019 issue with the headline, “The Other Side of Stonewall” p. 48-50, 96.