By Kate Montelione-Cortazzo, Women’s Issues Committee Chair.
Edited by Emma Wenig. Graphic Design by Emma Wenig.
You may recognize the start of Pride month, celebrated around the world during the month of June, by the rainbows you see nearly everywhere you go. The rainbow flag, originally created by artist and activist Gilbert Baker as a symbol for gay pride, has since been utilized by major corporations to sell rainbow-themed merchandise for profit. While Pride month has become unanimous with rainbows, it certainly did not begin that way. Buried beneath a white-washed, commercialized rainbow, is the truth about Pride—it started as a riot.
Let’s travel back to the 1960s. The United States had recently emerged from World War II as a global superpower, ready to intervene in any international war that was deemed a threat to democracy. However, at home, democracy had come to a boiling point as oppressed groups fought systemic injustices. The early ‘60s saw the rise of the second wave of feminism, as writers and activists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem began to publicly expose normalized everyday sexism. Anti-war and anti-nuclear sentiment grew as The Cold War and The Vietnam War raged with seemingly no end in sight. The national conversation surrounding civil rights grew too loud to be ignored and the contributions of activists have echoed through the decades. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed, illegalizing discrimination on basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which sought to end discriminatory practices at polling places and nullify existing Jim Crow laws. In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, and in 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress.
In the early summer of 1969, soliciting same-sex relations was illegal in New York City. In the wake of necessity, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, etc.) people often congregated in secretive gay bars to avoid persecution. Until 1966, the New York State Liquor Authority shut down establishments patronized by known or suspected LGBTQIA+ people, citing that the meer gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.” Although these regulations were overturned, the nature of these bars, where individuals felt free to be themselves, gave way to illegal activities—holding hands, kissing, and/or dancing with someone of the same sex. This prompted frequent police harassment of gay bars.
In New York City, many gay bars, including the now infamous Stonewall Inn, were run by the Genovese crime family, who would bribe the local precinct to ignore known illegal activity. Without police presence, Stonewall Inn operated in less than savory conditions—it lacked running water behind the bar (needed to clean glasses) and a fire exit, the toilets often malfunctioned, and the mafia would blackmail wealthier patrons by threatening to expose their sexuality. Despite the circumstances, the Stonewall Inn remained a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ people. Entry fees were considerably cheap making it accessible to runaways and homeless youths; drag queens were welcome there, although they were shunned at other gay bars. Although Stonewall Inn did not have a liquor license and operated as a “bottle bar” (bring your own alcohol), it still served alcohol and still allowed one thing many gay bars had banned—dancing.
Corrupt police would often tip off the owners of mafia-owned gay bars ahead of a raid, however, in the early hours of June 28th, police raided the Stonewall Inn, without a tip off. Police entered the bar, acting physically aggressively towards customers, and arresting 13 people, employees and patrons, for bootlegged alcohol or violating New York state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute. Rather than disperse from the establishment, angered patrons and neighborhood residents remained, watching the scene unfold. Fed up with constant dicrimination and police harassment and brutality, onlookers began to act, throwing bottles, pennies, and cobblestones at police as they manhandled those arrested. Thus began a revolution that changed the LGBTQIA+ community for decades to come.
The Stonewall Inn was set on fire as police, prisoners, and a Village Voice writer were barricaded inside. While the fire department and a riot squad were called to put out the flame, rescue those inside, and disperse the crowd, protests continued nearby for the next five days.
The Stonewall riots gave way to the development of several LGBTQIA+ activist organizations as well as the Pride parade that takes place on Christopher Street in New York City every year, starting on the first anniversary of the riots. It’s crucial to consider the make-up of the population that comprised this riot—teenagers who were kicked out of or ran away from their homes because of their queerness, gays and lesbians who were unable to publicly declare their sexuality without being blacklisted, and people of color who experienced the oppressive intersections of homophobia, transphobia, and racism all at once.
One notable activist who emerged from the Stonewall riots was Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson was a young African American woman who identified as a “transvestite” (“transgender” was not an often-used term during her lifetime), gay, and a drag queen. She was a drag performer and sex worker who struggled with homelessness and mental illness. Johnson is often credited with throwing the first brick that began the Stonewall riot, however she maintained that she did not arrive at the scene until the bar was already on fire. When asked about the event in a 1989 interview, Johnson said, "We were... throwing over cars and screaming in the middle of the street 'cause we were so upset 'cause they closed that place… We were just saying, 'no more police brutality' and 'we had enough of police harassment in the Village and other places."
After the protests, Johnson organized with close friend, Sylvia Rivera, to form Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which aimed to provide housing to homeless and trans youth. Johnson helped to create the first LGBTQIA+ youth shelter in North America, the first U.S. organization led by trans women of color, and was a prevalent figure in AIDS activism up until her untimely death, when in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River. Her death was quickly ruled as suicide despite objections from those closest to her, who suspected foul play.
Why is it important to know the origins of Pride? Many details have been long swept beneath the rug in favor of an often white-washed and “peaceful” rainbow vernacular. The riot and subsequent protests at Stonewall Inn initiated the modern LGBTQIA+ rights movement, and was founded by queer people of color who were sick of police harassment and brutality. History repeats itself.
History.com Editors. “Stonewall Riots.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 31 May 2017, www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/the-stonewall-riots.
Keehnen, Owen, and Victor Salvo. “Marsha P. Johnson.” Legacy Project Chicago, legacyprojectchicago.org/person/marsha-p-johnson.
Maxouris, Christina. “Marsha P. Johnson, a Black Transgender Woman, Was a Central Figure in the Gay Liberation Movement.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 June 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/06/26/us/marsha-p-johnson-biography/index.html.
“Rainbow Flag: Origin Story.” Gillbert Baker, gilbertbaker.com/rainbow-flag-origin-story/.
“The Sixties . Timeline . Text Version.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/opb/thesixties/timeline/timeline_text.html.