Who were Marsha P. Johnson and Storme Delaverie? Why are they important? Another Pride-themed episode, for Pride month.
It’s the 50th anniversary of the origin of Pride, but a lot of people don’t seem to know what that means. So…
JOIN ME ON A JOURNEY THROUGH QUEER HISTORY
Normally I’m more than happy to tweak my stories a bit to make them more fun, and I’ve touched before on the tendency we all have to re-tell a story in a different way to make ourselves seem more like the hero, or to at least place blame elsewhere.
It’s part of what makes us human.
For example, I was chatting with a woman once who told me her daughter had been to prison because “She was arrested and they found a knife on her.” which was a bit shocking until later when I learned from someone else that the reason her daughter was arrested was because she’d stabbed someone, at which point it all fell into place.
The point is, the way we tell stories and the way they evolve to fit our internal narrative is part of what makes us human. If you had 100 people at a party and things got a bit messy and out of control, each and every person would have a different story about what happened. Based on what they saw, what they think they saw, mis-remembered things, stuff other people told them, and so on and so on. And normally that’s fine.
This week, however, I’m doing my best to bring you the story as it happened, which is more difficult than usual, as I wasn’t there. There’s also a movie about these events, but it’s mostly famous for being inaccurate at best; horrifically racist and transphobic at worst. So I’m ignoring that entirely, and I’ll do my best to tell you the facts as accurately as I can, from what I can find.
Which is quite difficult, because everyone who was around at the time has a story, and claims they were there that night. Hell, I’d claim I was there too, if I weren’t on the wrong continent and not born yet. Anyway. Big, messy night.
The Stonewall Riot was a turning point in queer history - the moment when modern gay culture stopped being clandestine, hidden and dirty and came out into the light. But we’ll come to that in a minute - first off, you need to know what things were like at the time.
So, it’s 1969 and across the world, it’s pretty much illegal everywhere to be gay. The ‘Sodomy laws’ as they were called were in force, and you could be arrested for kissing in the street, or just showing affection to another guy.
This is the same year we put a man on the moon, and the act of kissing your boyfriend in public could land you 6 months in prison, or a lot worse in other parts of the US. There had been a few riots in other places like LA and San Francisco over the previous decade, for the same reasons, but it was this one that stuck.
So it was illegal to be gay, essentially, and also to be a drag queen. Just take a moment to think about that - not only will kissing a boy get you landed in prison, so will wearing drag. Or, in the cases of lots of trans people, dressing appropriately for the gender you identify as.
A haven for those of us who fall into either of the camps (lol) mentioned above was the Stonewall Inn, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. It was apparently owned by the Mafia at the time, and got raided a LOT for being a known haunt of the queers. By all accounts, it wasn’t a particularly nice bar. The place was cheap, sleazy and the drinks were watered down. But still, it was a queer drinking hole, and even the shitty ones are better than nothing. So The police would come in, shut the place down, confiscate all the booze and arrest anyone they thought was looking at them funny.
It got to the point where they were raided so often that the management kept a secret stash of booze so that they could be all “Goodbye officer. Have they gone? Waheeey!”
So, this Saturday night in June 1969, after 1am when the party’s going strong and about 200 people are just having a nice time, drinking, dancing, doing their thing, the police raid the place.
8 police officers appear, kill the music, put the lights on and generally destroy the mood before lining everyone up and checking their IDs. Anyone who looked like they might be a woman would be taken into the back room with a female office to ‘check’ if they were or not.
Anyone in drag (which included women wearing less than 3 pieces of ‘female’ clothing), or anyone without their ID, would be arrested, and everyone else would be sent home.
So, as you can imagine, this would piss off the customers who would get enough hassle just in the streets every day, without the police charging in and dicking up one of the few safe spaces in the city. Remember this is the 60s, so there’s tonnes of racial tension and stress, too - queer people of colour had it much worse.
Which might have something to do with why Martha P Johnson, a prominent black trans woman, snapped, threw her shot glass into the mirror behind the bar and, amid the falling shards of glass shouted “I got my civil rights!”. This became known as the shot glass heard around the world. (See what they did there?)
Marsha later said that that wasn’t her, and that she wasn’t even there until later, which doesn’t help the whole “what actually happened” thing. We know someone threw a shot glass into the mirror. We know Marsha P. Johnson was a prominent figure in the New York LGBTQ rights movement, up to her murder in 1992. Personally, I’m happy to say it was her. Anyway.
People in the bar began to refuse to show their ID to the police, and refuse to go in the back to be ‘checked’. Those who did show their ID didn’t go home as soon as they were allowed out, they started to hang around in the street just outside the bar. As they gathered, more and more people joined them, maybe there was something in the air that night and people could feel something was up.
By the time the wagon arrived to take away those who were arrested or failed to co-operate with the police, there were a few hundred people standing outside the bar, just watching.
One of the first people to be dragged out of the bar in handcuffs was Storme DeLarverie, a butch lesbian who worked as a bouncer at the bar, during a scuffle with the police officers manhandling her and beating her with a baton, shouted to the watching crowd “Why don’t you guys do something?”
At least, she might have. Her story changed a lot over the years, sometimes it was her, other times it wasn’t. It was a butch lesbian, and it might have been her.
People started throwing pennies, stones, anything they could get their hands on. There are stories about bricks getting thrown, or maybe shoes, or maybe handbags. Again, it’s all a bit vague.
As the fights grew, the police inside the bar became trapped, and barricaded themselves in. Outside the police were beaten and chased away by the mob, and the wagon was overturned in the street.
Calling for backup, the Tactical Response Force - a sort of riot squad for the NYPD, turned up with armour and shields, and marched on the crowd of angry queers. The crowd responded by forming a kick line and singing “We are the Stonewall girls, we wear our hair in curls, we don’t wear underwear, we show our pubic hair”.
Think about that for a second - The riot police show up, and rather than leg it or do as they were told, this bunch of tired, harassed queers linked arms, high-kicked and sang. To me, that’s a beautiful image.
It’s also pretty not the most tactically sound, as it turns out, because this isn’t Broad Way - you can’t just sing at the bad guys until they give in. So the Tactical Response Force, who were in full riot gear, pretty much beat the crap out of them. The fighting went on until about 4am, by which time 13 people were arrested and everything in the Stonewall Inn was smashed - windows, mirrors, the payphone, the juke box. Either during the fights or by the police when they were trapped inside.
All through the following day, people - even some tourists - came to look at the smashed-up shell of the Stonewall Inn. Graffiti began to appear on the walls, proclaiming ‘gay power’ and ‘legalize gay bars’ and ‘proud to be gay’
That night the bar, or what was left of it, opened again, and thousands of people turned up, blocking the street. Eventually a lot of police came and the kick lines formed up again, being chased down the street by over 100 policemen at the height of it all. I heard one version of this story that talked about how the police would chase them around the block. The thing about that is, of course, that you might start off with one group of people chasing another group of people in a circle, but if the ones being chased are a considerably bigger group, sooner or later everything goes a bit Benny Hill and it’s not obvious who’s chasing who.
The police and the fighters kept this to-and-fro up over the next few nights, as more and more people turned up to see if what they’d heard was true. The police retaliated by turning up in bigger and biggger numbers to control the crowd, but the big gay genie was out of the bottle now.
The gay rights movement, which had been gathering steam over the past few decades, got a big boost from being featured in the news and such. Remember there’s no internet or anything like that, at the time. It was all word of mouth, and no-one gossips like a drag queen.
The following year, 1970, the LGBTQ community, and the Gay Rights groups that had been so boosted by these riots on Christopher Street, held marches in New York, San Francisco and LA to commemorate them. They marched quite quickly, by all accounts, since it was still illegal, and there was still a lot of work to do on the whole ‘public opinion’ side of things, but they did it nonetheless, under banners reading ‘Proud to be gay!’ and ‘Gay Pride!’ which is where the name comes from.
By that time, there were Gay Rights organisations in several cities across the USA, Canada, and Europe who all started holding marches locally around the same time, to comemmorate the night the patrons of The Stonewall Inn decided enough was enough and kickstarted the Gay Liberation Front.
It would be severely reductionist to say that the rights LGBTQ people have now only happened because of a fight at a bar in Manhattan, but it certainly had an impact, and nowadays it’s seen as one of the defining moments of our history.
And it’s worth remembering that, whatever you consider Gay Culture to be, and however you personally identify, it’s not thanks to some handsome, white, gender-conforming man throwing a stone because he could see a better future for everyone.
These people weren’t noble heroes, pure of spirit and deed, they were just people.
It’s thanks, at least in part, to a group of tired, harrassed queer people who had had enough, snapped and fought back against the grim misery of a world that insisted there was no room for them.
They didn’t bomb anyone, there were no attempted terror attacks or anything like that. Instead queer people of all colours and gender expressions turned to face the people punishing them for being different from everyone else, they stuck together, and when one of them got knocked down, the others picked her up and they kept fighting.
We’ll never know exactly what happened there that night. Big, messy night full of messy people just being people. Perhaps it was Martha P Johnson who threw that shot glass at the mirror, maybe that never happened. Maybe it was Storme who was the butch lesbian. Maybe not. Were there bricks thrown? Probably not. Stones? Maybe. Handbags? Seems unlikely. I don’t know many queens willing to give up a handbag that easily. Part of me hates that we’ll never know for sure. I find it incredibly frustrating.
But then I remember the name of this podcast, and maybe it’s ok. Because it was never just Martha, or Storme or any one other person. It was everyone, together. Because that’s what community is. That’s what family is. And that’s why, when we look out for each other, and put ourselves in harm’s way to help others, and really fucking fight for it, night after night, love wins.
I’ve said before that we don’t have Pride parades but marches - we’re protesting, not celebrating. In the same way, what happened at Stonewall in 1969 wasn’t a riot. It was a revolution.