Burning the Closet

By Scarlett Coughlan

When I hear the word ‘Pride’, the first image that comes to mind is of London, streets filled to the brim with members of the LGBTQ+ community and our allies, drunk on love and tinnies, painting the town rainbow. But Pride started far away from here—about 3,500 miles, actually—in New York. It was 28th June 1969 and, after yet another police raid at the Stonewall Inn, the gays had had enough. They fought back. They showed the officers—and America—that the ‘fags’ weren’t going to be pushed around anymore. 

It’s commonly thought that the Stonewall Uprising was the start of the ‘gay power’ movement. It wasn’t. The homophile movement began in the 1950s. In 1963, the US saw the movement’s first picket line. It took place at the Whitehall Street induction centre. There was a total sum of 12 people. In the coming years, organisations continued to be formed, newsletters were written, conferences were held; there were both sit-ins and sip-ins, defying the laws that made it illegal to serve homosexuals alcohol until 1966. Stonewall, however, was the catalyst for the future of gay rights. It was the first time that all factions of the community united to say ‘fuck you’ to those who saw them as perverts, as mentally-ill, or, simply, as Others.

The Stonewall Inn was a dive-style bar, nestled away on Christopher Street. It was then owned by the mafia and, in true mafia style, had no alcohol license. It had two rooms, a long bar on one side, and a single jukebox which blared tunes until the early hours of the morning. Being far from an opulent venue, its vibrance emanated from the colourful characters who frequented it; they flirted and frolicked the nights away, sipping on watered-down drinks, safe from the world outside… for the most part. Occasionally, the local police department sent officers for inspections. It is thought that these ‘inspections’ were merely a pretence, a demonstration to higher powers that they were doing their job, whilst accepting pay-offs from the mafia to leave them, and their unlicensed joint, alone (ah, good old corrupt police… at least they’re consistent). 

On this particular week, however, the police had been harassing the Stonewall more than usual and, in the early hours of Saturday morning, it wasn’t the local cops who rocked up for one of their ‘inspections’. This time, the officers barged their way in with an arrest warrant, on the grounds of the illegal sale of alcohol. They checked IDs, releasing everyone but queens, minors, and patrons into the street one by one. A congregation formed outside the inn as people waited for their friends to emerge. Baton-wielding police were called to disperse the crowd and fights broke out between Stonewall-goers and the officers. Soon, members of the crowd began flinging pennies at the cops, whilst they scuttled inside for cover. One coin, thrown by Dave Van Ronk, hit one particular officer in the head. Outraged, he grabbed the man, pulling him inside and pummelling him to within an inch of his life. In response, some of the queens in the crowd gathered garbage bins, setting them alight and tossing them through the window of the inn. In an interview, Eric Marcus, a client of the Stonewall, tells activist and founder of the Gay Activist Alliance, Morty Manford, how these bins were thrown directly into the cloak-room of the bar—the ‘closet’ if you will—in which the police had detained the queens during the raid. They burned down the closet; and out from the ashes came the new ‘gay power’ movement. 

Despite the violence—the extremity of which is often said to be largely exaggerated—, the mood outside the Stonewall that night is reported to have been ‘jovial’. Amongst the mob were queens, chanting things such as: ‘We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls / We wear no underwear / To show our pubic hair’, and somebody placed a dress on the statue of General Phil Sheridan that stood in the middle of the square to which the Stonewall was adjacent. It seems that the mob, especially the queens, were exalting in finally finding the power to stand up to the law which offered them no protection. 

Eventually, the mob was dispersed by the police but, the next day, and the day after that, there were ‘gay power’ protests on Christopher Street and in the surrounding areas. One of the most common chants was: ‘Gay is Good’, a take on ‘Black is Beautiful’, a mantra used during the Civil Rights Movement. The scale and persistence of the Stonewall Uprising caused vast media coverage, making it the biggest gay riot in history. One rioter, who was detained during the protests, reports hearing one cop say to another: ‘I like n*gger riots better because there’s more action, but you can’t beat up a fairy. They ain’t mean like blacks; they’re sick. But you can’t hit a sick man’. Not only does this statement highlight the, then, general consensus regarding the LGBTQ+ community (the idea that ‘fags’ were mentally ill), but it also highlights the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in paving the way for that of the LGBTQ+ community. It is often said that these protests, along with the campaigning of the feminists, showed the ability to define oneself. They demonstrated the power of the people. They showed that black people, women, and now gays did not have to be second-rate citizens. History is often whitewashed but, at the Stonewall Uprising, there were people of all races, genders, and sexualities (N.B. there were fewer cis-women than trans women, and fewer trans women than cis-men due to the client base at the Stonewall). Some of the most prominent rioters were BME and transgender, the most famous of which being Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Our flag is not just red; it is not just green; it is all the colours of the rainbow. It is for all types of people, as it can only fly because of all types of people. 

After the Stonewall Uprising, it was proposed that Christopher Street Liberation Day—what we now know as ‘Pride’—be celebrated on the last Sunday of June each year. This proposition was passed by the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations. In June 1970, members of all different gay organisations, as well as unaffiliated persons, formed a crowd of between 5,000 to 10,000 people, who marched through Manhattan in the name of ‘gay power’. This milestone for gay rights has been commemorated each year as a reminder that Gay is Good. Stonewall veterans, thank you for burning the closet.

Resource – The Stonewall Reader

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