June 17, 2022

The First Pride Was a Riot

In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in all states, except Illinois. Police raids on gay bars were fairly common. Establishments could get shut down for having gay employees, or even serving gay patrons. Most of the gay bars in New York City were run by the Mafia, who saw profit in catering to clientele that were shunned elsewhere, and blackmailing wealthier patrons into keeping their secret. Bribing the police usually ensured that these Mafia-owned businesses would get a heads up before a raid. 

Stonewall was one of these gays bar in Greenwich Village, NY. The Stonewall Inn, also called Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn, was a unique establishment. It still allowed dancing, and doubled as the nightly shelter for runways and the unhoused gay youth due to its cheap entry fee. It also welcomed drag queens. 

In 2022, you can’t think about LGBTQ+ culture without drag queens. Just look at the multiple-season runs and international adaptations of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Today, you can find drag queens hosting banquets and brunches—you’ll even find them reading books to groups of children in libraries. Very few LGBTQ+ bars can even run a successful business without a weekly drag show. 

In 1969, that wasn’t the case. Drag queens and trans people were not welcome in many public spaces and were often the targets of violence. Essentially, there were only gays and lesbians in 1969. I mean, not really, but the evolution from “homosexual acts in gay bars” to becoming the LGBTQ+ community has been a process in and of itself. Even today, there are still issues of resistance around accepting bisexual and trans people within the greater community—but back to 1969.

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the police conducted an unannounced raid on the Stonewall Inn. The bar’s employees, along with its attending patrons made up of drag queens, were rounded up for arrest (in New York, “masquerading” as the opposite sex was considered a crime). Accounts vary, but it has been generally accepted that the riot kicked off when the police assaulted Stormé DeLarverie, a black lesbian dressed in masculine attire. Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who were all trans women of color, are largely credited as being major figures in the ensuing riot, along with the “street kids” who viewed the Stonewall as their last safe haven. Violence and rioting would continue for the next four hours, with squadrons of riot cops finally breaking up the protest. 

That night, the Stonewall Inn reopened with chanting and protests. Police would again be called to action, beating and tear-gassing the protestors until they dispersed.

From June 29th until July 1st, the Stonewall Inn would serve as a gathering place for activists to share information and begin the building of a community—one that would become the pioneer leading the Gay Rights Movement. On the first anniversary of the riot came the first official Pride Parade. Known as the “Christopher Street Liberation March,” the parade began its march up 6th Avenue, with thousands joining along the way to stretch over 15 blocks in New York City. 

We have made so much progress since 1969. Today, there are Pride Parades hosted in every major—and not so major—city in the world. They’re filled with floats, balloons, marching bands, community groups, corporate employee groups, music and, yes, even police. You can’t walk into most stores without seeing displays, attire, and regalia celebrating the LGBTQ+ community. Some people wonder if we still even need Pride, or if it has all just been taken over by the corporations. 

Despite the gaiety (pun intended), Pride still serves a serious purpose. Despite how ubiquitous and celebratory, it carries a message of work to be done:

  • We’re still fighting for recognition, representation, and rights for trans people (especially trans people of color who suffer violence, homelessness, and unemployment disproportionately).
  • In 18 states and 5 territories, there are no legal protections for LGBTQ+ people in housing. When it comes to public accommodations, that number goes up to 21 states. It was only in 2020 that the Supreme Court put protections in place against being fired from a job.
  • 40% of the 4.2 million youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+, in part due to lack of family acceptance. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) youth are at even greater risk.  
  • 22 states and 4 territories have no legal protections for youth against “conversion therapy.”

So yes, for all those reasons and more, we still need Pride.

There are still LGBTQ+ youth in areas of our country who feel that they are wrong for being themselves, hear messages of discrimination, or need images of representation. They need to see the joy that comes with living their most authentic lives. They need to know that some people are still working to fight discrimination. They need to see that it does get better. 

And they need to know that without those brave drag queens and trans women of color, we would not be where we are today. 

I’ve been living in San Francisco for about four months. Very often I’ll find myself walking around Castro—the gayest neighborhood in the gayest city in the world—and I’ll have an overwhelming desire to call my 18-year-old self, just to tell him where I am. What I’m doing. I know I’ll feel that urge even more strongly when I attend my first San Francisco Pride Parade. 

He’d be so proud. 

- Peter J. Mostachetti, Director of Organization, Learning & Inclusion