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Revisiting Stonewall

By Liliana Navelgas, Staff Contributor

One summer night in 1969, a cloud descended over the vibrant LGBTQ+ community in New York City. Actress and singer Judy Garland, elevated to preternatural stature by her predominantly gay male fanbase, had died. Many grieved not only for the woman but for the zeitgeist that she embodied; the “friends of Dorothy” stood vigil at her funeral procession, thronging the streets of the Upper East Side. The inevitable question, of course, was what would come next. The ‘Swinging Sixties’, as Britain had christened the decade, embodied and answered this question at the same time, all along its lifespan. The Beatles released their first single, Dr. Martin Luther King led a march to Washington, humanity laid foot on the moon. Change was more bedrock than wind, underpinning even the most ostensibly mundane affairs of everyday life, even something as quotidian as getting a drink on a Friday night.

It was a melange of people that gathered at mafia-owned Stonewall Inn, from the boisterous youths of Manhattan’s Christopher Street to the closeted gentry. Although the venue was unsanitary and the drinks were lackluster, Stonewall Inn transcended itself and became symbolic of a marginalized group’s claim to life and pleasure. It addressed a similar hunger that jazz clubs did during the Harlem Renaissance decades before. As a result, in the twilight hours of June 28, 1969, when the NYPD raided the bar and arrested those who were perceived to be inappropriate in gender expression, the patrons of Stonewall Inn did not stay put. In an apocryphal account, Storme DeLarverie, a Black, butch, lesbian woman whose head was still bleeding from a police officer hitting her with a baton, issued this exhortation in handcuffs: “Why don’t you guys do something?” And do something they did. From June 28 to July 3, the NYPD skirmished with a formidable assembly of drag queens, trans people (including Marsha P. Johnson), sex workers, and even tourists. That following morning, on July 4, 1969, early LGBTQ+ organizations such as the Mattachine Society attempted to continue their tradition of peaceful, inoffensive protest in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. But Stonewall had made it indelibly clear that the days of diplomacy were over; the oppressed and the silenced laid pleasantry to rest, and its mourners were few. The bedrock of change had once again irrevocably shaken the world.

Many say that the events at Stonewall Inn were a community’s outcry of grief following the aforementioned Judy Garland’s death, but many also say that this interpretation trivializes the matter. However, the truth is that these events are inextricable from each other and interlink in uncountable ways. It may be possible that Storme DeLarverie did not throw the first brick or that Judy Garland’s death did not set the mood for the Stonewall uprising, but it is also possible that these things are true. Ultimately, so much is unknowable. This is because many queer voices did not gain a platform even after Stonewall, and the ones that did are not all in consensus. Marsha P. Johnson denied the presence of Sylvia Rivera at the uprising, and Storme DeLarverie herself rejected the interpretation of the events as a riot. What is certain is that Stonewall was a backlash to an egregious abuse of power, perpetrated both by the police force and the corrupt business interests that owned the inn. It began a new era on the tail end of a revolutionary decade. Uprisings such as Stonewall are the reason why young, queer, trans voices such as myself even have the luxury of a platform decades later. They are the reason why this publication can exist. It would be a fool’s game and an act of blind privilege to forswear rebellion, to say that it is senseless and achieves no purpose. When something is so profoundly wrong, when injustice is marrow deep, rebellion is essential. It is righteous. In special consideration of Pride month, as well as the recent protests, let us remember the people who did not get their share of justice. Let us remember how much and how deeply they matter. Let us remember them until their memory is an eternal guiding light, glaring and searing for as long as society’s ills remain unrectified. Happy Pride. Black Lives Matter.

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