Stonewall: The Reality that Inspires

In October we observe, among other things, Gay and Lesbian History Month. And in the past weeks a new movie about an iconic event in that history hit the theaters. 

    Director Roland Emmerich’s film Stonewall, a fictional story based upon real events of the Stonewall uprising in 1969, drew criticism as soon as its trailer appeared as “whitewashing” because it portrays white men led by Jeremy Irvine’s character, Danny, as central characters in inciting the fight against police brutality in those early morning hours of June 28, 1969. Online petitions multiplied, one saying: “Do not support a film that erases out history. Do not watch Stonewall.” 

  Though the events of those early morning hours in June 1969 outside a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall Inn are often called the “beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement,” we know that’s historically inaccurate. 

  Organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis, ONE, Inc., and the Mattachine Society were founded back in the 1950s. In that decade, gay people also began to turn to the courts to fight for the right to receive gay magazines in the mail or to congregate in bars without police harassment. 

    The civil disturbances that came to be called the “Stonewall Riots” are more symbolic, the way the Battle of Bunker Hill or Paul Revere’s late night ride symbolize the beginnings of the American Revolution. They were LGBT people saying: “Enough is enough,” or, as Popeye would put it, “That’s all I can stands ‘cuz I can’t stands no more.” 

    Was that night at Stonewall disorderly? You bet. 

    The order of things was bigoted, harassing, and deadly. And when people oppose the order of things, the keepers of the status quo accuse them of disorderly conduct. 

    To be “orderly” is never a neutral, non-political act. It promotes the skewed values and “normal” discrimination of the current structures. 

    Was it messy? Definitely. 

    Real healing makes messes. Democracy itself is messy. It’s not for neat freaks or the anal-retentive. It’s not for those who want to look good in the eyes of people who set the dominant, sick agenda and who reward anyone who supports it. 

    Was it done perfectly? I doubt it and would hope not. 

    We lose much in the struggle for freedom when leaders wait until it can be done perfectly. It was a hot, muggy night of spontaneous resistance, the kind that explodes out of a long-lasting, wearing, burden of oppression that the larger community refuses to acknowledge. 

    Was it led by gay leaders who worried about what straight people would think of them if they didn’t remain moderate, middle-of-the-road, “straight-acting,” and nice? Of course not. 

    If any worried mainline gay leaders were in the bars that night, they didn’t want to stand out. They probably criticized these revolutionaries as ignorant rabble. 

    Did it take place in a boardroom, theater, concert hall, dinner party, or fine, well-mannered social club? Are you kidding? 

    The Stonewall Inn (next door to the present New York bar by that name) was a shabby dive that served watered-down drinks in glasses that were questionably sanitary. It wasn’t really even a drag queen’s bar. Only a certain number of drag queens were allowed in at a time and only if the owners knew them. 

    Was it led by gay leaders who drank expensive wine, read style magazines, could afford to attend expensive fundraisers, hob-knobbed with politicians, and invested wisely? No. 

    As if to throw the whole issue of LGBT classism in our faces, it was led by drag queens and street people, many of color. This symbol of LGBT liberation isn’t about the cultured, coiffed, and privileged but the least understood and the down on their luck. They were looked down upon by others as lazy, dirty, and “low class.” 

    But that’s not how the real combatants saw the scene. The late transgender person, Ray “Sylvia Lee” Rivera, who remembered she was dressed fabulously that night, recalled that to be there in the midst of the disorder of the Stonewall revolution was “beautiful and exciting”:

    “I’m glad I was in the Stonewall riot. I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought, ‘My god, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here.’ ... I just knew that we would fight back. I just didn’t know it would be that night. I’m proud of myself as being there that night. If I had lost that moment, I would have been kinda hurt because that’s when I saw the world change for me and my people.” (In Leslie Feinberg’s, Trans Liberation, 1998, 109)

    To have the symbol of LGBT liberation as the resistance of drag queens and street people of color reminds us what’s important. It’s not the ability to fit in, rest in privilege, and gain the approval of the powers that be. 

    It’s the prophetic disturbance by the outcasts of society. Stonewall thereby symbolizes our connection to the other human issues it represents: poverty, gender oppression, and racism. 

   Was it non-violent? Hardly. For someone committed to non-violence, that’s a hard fact to face. 

    But the United States was born in violence and symbolizes its birth violently, which probably contributes to the violent nature of our country. Our leaders use violent images to justify American emphasis on the symbols, mythology, and responses of war and our war-dependent economic machine. 

    We’d like to believe that all positive change is non-violent — certainly it’s not passive. Yet, when any people have been oppressed long enough, and other attempts to get society to focus attention on their need for humane treatment have incited no interest, then the volume of their cry for relief increases, and the methods used escalate and break out in direct confrontation. 

    When we hear privileged LGBT leadership collude with the structures by saying, “Just calm down and relax. Don’t get worked up over it,” then we know that such leadership is out of touch with the sufferings of LGBT people. We also know they’re not leaders who would have been caught up in the reality of Stonewall.


Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at

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