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The Legend of the Stonewall Inn:
What Does It Mean?

By Bob Minor
Minor Details

I know that the excitement that began in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969 outside a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall Inn really isn't the historical beginning of the movement for LGBT rights.

The 1950's saw the founding of organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis, ONE, Inc., and the Mattachine Society. In the fifties, 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 Stonewall Inn

But the civil disturbances that came to be called the "Stonewall Riots" appeal to me symbolically the way the Battle of Bunker Hill or Paul Revere's late night ride symbolize the beginnings of the American Revolution. It makes one proud to identify with a legacy which says "Enough is enough," or, as Popeye would put it, "That's all I can stands 'cuz I can't stands no more."

Was it disorderly? You bet.

The order of things was bigoted, harassing, and deadly. When people oppose the order of things, the keepers of the status quo accuse them of disorderly conduct. And to be "orderly" is not a neutral act. It promotes the skewed values and "normal" discrimination of current structures.

Was it messy? It sure was.

Real healing makes messes. It's not for neat freaks or the anal-retentive. It's not for those who want to look good in the eyes of those who set the dominant, sick agenda and who reward those who support it.

Was it perfect? I doubt it. And I hope not.

Much has been lost in the struggle for freedom by those who wait for things to 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 such leaders were in the bars that night, they didn't want to stand out. They may even have criticized these radicals as ignorant rabble.

Related Stories from the GayToday Archive:
Remembering the Stonewall Era

Stonewall by Martin Duberman (Book Review by Jack Nichols)

GAA and the Birth of Gay Liberation by Arthur Evans

GayToday's History Project

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Did it take place in the boardroom, the theater, or a 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 a drag queen's bar. Only a certain number of drag queens were allowed in at a time and only if they were known by the owners.

Was it led by gay leaders who drank expensive wine, read best-selling books, 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. The symbol of our liberation is not the cultured and coiffed but the least understood and the down on their luck, the people looked down upon by others as lazy, dirty, and "low class."

But that's not how the combatants saw the scene. Ray "Sylvia Lee" Rivera, who remembers she was dressed fabulously that night, recalls that to be there in the midst of the mess and disorder of the Stonewall revolution was "beautiful and exciting:"

Sylvia Rivera (right) here with fellow activist and GayToday's editor, Jack Nichols "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, Trans Liberation, 1998, p. 109)

There are people who don't find drag shows entertaining, but to have the symbol of gay liberation as the resistance of drag queens and street people reminds us of what is important. It's not the ability to fit in, to rest in comfort, and to gain the approval of the powers that be. It's the prophetic disturbance caused by the outcasts of society. And Stonewall also symbolizes our connection to other human issues they represent: poverty, gender oppression, and racism.

Was it non-violent? Hardly. For one committed to non-violence, it's hard to face that fact.

That the United States was born in violence and symbolizes its birth violently, probably contributes to the violent nature of our country. At least, those images are used to justify our emphasis on the symbols, mythology, and responses of war and our war-based economic machine.

I'd like to believe that we could change things non-violently -- though not passively. I also understand that when people have been oppressed long enough, and when other attempts to get society to focus attention on their need for humane treatment have not even raised interest, then the volume of the cry for relief increases, and the methods used escalate and break out into direct confrontation.

And when I hear leadership collude with the structures by saying, "Just calm down and relax. Don't get worked up over it," I know that such leadership is out of touch with the sufferings of its people.

So when I recently read the Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans, Rich Tafel, argue that there is no need for the federal government to enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to band employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, I knew that he is a well-off, white male who is out of touch with the majority of LGBT people.

Tafel has aligned with people who put their hope in salvation by the corporate-run order. He's aligned with politicians who prefer to deny the existence and humanity of street people and discrimination of all sorts, people who support government regulation and control only when it benefits them. Why should government tell employers to end discrimination when well-off gay people already feel free from it?

Tafel's statements are not of the same tradition as the Stonewall combatants. He seems not to understand what human liberation is about. But then, he's not one who would have been in the fight at Stonewall that night.
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D. is the author of Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human (HumanityWorks!, 2001) and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He was a member of the Values Panel for the Kansas City Star's nationally award winning "Raising Kansas City Project" which was concerned with the values we teach the next generation. He may be reached at

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