The history of the Stonewall’s riot remains largely forgotten—and unknown among young people. In the cultural imagination, it remains shrouded in myth. But the true Stonewall story can be taught.
It was just past 1:00 a.m. in New York City on Saturday, June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn. Patrons wouldn’t have been surprised when the officers arrived—LGBTQ-friendly bars were regularly raided. Ostensibly, these raids were to punish those selling liquor without a license or to arrest those “soliciting homosexual relations.” In reality, they were often used to justify the detention or humiliation of LGBTQ people.
We know that people gathered outside on Christopher Street, where those released from the Stonewall Inn met up with allies from the neighborhood and nearby bars. We know that the crowd (which at one point formed a “can-can” line directed toward officers) grew angry as police used brute force and billy clubs against lesbian and trans women showing the least bit of resistance. We know that early on, the crowd threw trash and coins―a nod to the payoffs that could sometimes be counted on to prevent such raids.
What graduated this tense standoff into several nights of violent uprising remains a point of contention. Coins and trash became bricks and flaming cocktails. Windows were shattered. And if the violence had ever truly been contained to just the police officers and those they were arresting, it soon wasn’t. We don’t know for certain who threw the first brick, the first Molotov cocktail or the first punch, but we do know this: The protesters at Stonewall weren’t just fighting back against this single act of violent injustice. They were standing up against a system of repeated oppression, humiliation and dehumanization.
The fight that took place on Christopher Street is often called a riot; other times, it’s labeled an uprising. No matter the word attached to what happened at Stonewall, this much is clear: It was a refusal to give in to law enforcement’s demands and go quietly.
Why This History Matters
On a micro level, the Stonewall raid represented an attack on LGBTQ people’s right to be themselves in public. It wasn’t the first. Genny Beemyn, the director of The Stonewall Center at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, explains that the queer community at the time faced regular police raids of their communal spaces. They couldn’t socialize openly.
“It was a community fighting back that had had enough of police brutality and being oppressed,” Beemyn says.
On a macro level, the raid represented the criminalization of queer identities. LGBTQ people were not just detained for going out in public. They were often imprisoned for what they did in private. It’s hard to understand the uprising’s intensity without fully appreciating those stakes.
Teaching Stonewall Beyond the “First Brick”
The story of the Stonewall Uprising is—in the cultural imagination—a story of bricks. And in celebrating the 50th anniversary of what many consider the origin of Pride events and the catalyst for the LGBTQ rights movement, people will talk about bricks. We will hear stories of the first brick thrown toward police. We will hear stories about who threw it. We will hear stories about how this brick incited a riot and, thus, changed history.
Many credit pioneering trans activist Marsha P. Johnson for throwing that first brick. But it’s not the only first that defines the story as we’ve chosen to remember it. Many believe that Stormé DeLarverie—a black, lesbian activist—is the famous thrower of the first punch; the one who turned to onlookers and demanded, “Why don’t you guys do something?!” Others credit trans activist Sylvia Rivera for throwing the first bottle or Molotov cocktail. And yet, Johnson herself clarified that she didn’t arrive at the riots until “the place was already on fire.” Rivera said she didn’t throw the first cocktail. Their words have been drowned out by their legend.
The story of the Stonewall Uprising is—in the cultural imagination—a story of bricks. Bricks thrown. Bricks unbroken. Bricks unburnt. The bar’s brick wall and two archway doors still stand despite the system that tried to dismantle them.
But outside of the two states where LGBTQ history is mandatory curriculum, that increased recognition hasn’t translated to K–12 schools, where Stonewall is rarely mentioned. Its history, among young people, remains largely unknown.
And even a monument cannot keep Stonewall’s more complicated story alive. Not every student will see the neon sign now proudly hanging in the bar’s window. Few will ever walk down Christopher Street, and even if they do, they will not find the Greenwich Village that Rivera, Johnson and DeLarverie knew. The broken glass, stray coins and trash have long since been swept from the street.
But an educator can help lead students there. They need not throw bricks; they only must lay them.
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