The 1960s were a time of activism and protest. Along with the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, there was also a wider counter-cultural movement which rejected societal norms. Some early peaceful attempts at integration of gay people into wider society had little impact.
One night in June changed everything.
The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in Greenwich Village in New York City owned by the Mafia. It became popular with gays and lesbians as one of the only places they could go and openly be themselves. Police raids and mass arrests were common as homosexuality and cross dressing were illegal in the 1960s in New York.
On the night of June 28th 1969, the bar was raided by the police again, and crowds gathered as the police began to drag people out of the bar into police vans. Someone (later identified as Stormé DeLarverie) cried out to the crowd “Why don’t you guys do something?”. Tensions rose and a series of riots and violent demonstrations followed for days.
“The name Stormé DeLarverie may not ring a bell, but it should”
— After Ellen
Over the years, many people present at the Stonewall Inn that night identified Stormé DeLarverie as the ‘Stonewall Lesbian’, and in 2008 she confirmed that it was her. She needed 14 stitches in her face after the beating. Some have called Stormé the ‘Gay community’s Rosa Parks’ for her actions on that night; actions that she never sought to take credit for.
Stormé was born in the 1920s in New Orleans. Her father was a wealthy white man who employed her African-American mother. She faced bullying and harassment throughout her youth because of her mixed race heritage. She was part of a famous drag performance group, The Jewel Box Revue, and continued to serve the lesbian community as a volunteer on patrol keeping lesbian venues safe. She did this until she was 85 years old before retiring. Stormé passed away in May 2014 in Brooklyn.
Despite not being an example of peaceful protest, the Stonewall riots are widely considered as the spark that ignited the gay liberation movement, and acted as a wake up call for the peaceful activism that followed.
Stonewall may have highlighted the violence imposed upon the lives of LGBTQ+ people, but it also showed the deep divisions within the community itself.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were at Stonewall and some of the first to throw objects at the police. They were both fierce advocates for equality, helping organise new queer advocacy groups, including the Gay Liberation Front and what became Pride, in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots.
However, both were frustrated that much of the movement focused on the liberation of gay men. Aa a result Johnson and Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to help the young trans community in NYC.
Alienation from the movement continued and in 1973 Sylvia was removed from the programme at New York Pride because she identified as a trans woman. Under attack from the crowd, she fought her way to the stage and gave a defiant speech, calling out the very community she was trying to help – who were now the one she was having to fight against. Both continued the struggle during their lives, often in the face of violence, oppression and personal struggles.