“That was fighting for gay rights. People were killed,” RuPaul’s Drag Race star Derrick Berry claimed when asked to explain the significance of Stonewall in a 2017 Billboard interview. Fellow queen Willam Belli was quick to dryly correct her: “No one was killed at Stonewall.”
In the 50 years since “the shot glass heard ’round the world”—or was it a beer bottle? or a brick?—the events that took place in and around the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, have become the defining origin story of the modern global LGBTQ-rights movement. This uprising against police raids birthed the first Pride parade—the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in 1970—and has gone on to inspire LGBTQ communities across the world. “Stonewall” has become a metonym for queer struggle and resistance.
But even by the end of the 1980s, the events of those muggy nights on Christopher Street had already entered the realm of myth and speculation. Arguments over who started the riots have become an integral part of the Stonewall oral tradition, shifting significantly over time. Various factions of the LGBTQ community have promoted different aspects of the Stonewall story—sometimes to flatter their own politics, and often with little relationship to the historical data.
Should we be asking which data can we verify? Or should we be questioning how much veracity matters here at all? Maybe we should focus less on bullet-proofing the Stonewall story and more on learning its lessons.
The closest thing to a canonical Stonewall narrative goes something like this: Trans street queens of color, in particular Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were responsible for sparking the riot that launched a movement. But anti-trans activists have recently hit back against this claim, asserting that in fact it was a black butch lesbian drag king named Stormé Delarverie who was at the center of the struggle. Still another version maintains that white gay man Jackie Hormona started the riots, quickly joined by Marsha P. Johnson and later STAR member Zazu Nova—a narrative perhaps inspired the 2015 box-office bomb Stonewall.
Stormé himself (often identified with she/her pronouns, though venerated lesbian poet Eileen Myles noted in a recent Harper’s Bazaar interview that he preferred he/him) gave differing accounts throughout the decades, sometimes denying being at the center of the riots. At a Stonewall Rebellion Veterans Association symposium, he recalled, “The cops were parading patrons out of the front door of The Stonewall at about two o’ clock in the morning. I saw this one boy being taken out by three cops, only one in uniform. Three to one!… Right after that, a cop said to me: ‘Move faggot’, thinking that I was a Gay guy. I said, ‘I will not! And, don’t you dare touch me.’ With that, the cop shoved me and I instinctively punched him right in his face. He bled! He was then dropping to the ground—not me!”
In a 2010 New York Times interview near the end of his life, Stormé claimed two mutually contradictory versions of the story. While Stormé was clearly a participant in what happened at Stonewall, memory is a funny thing. It shifts and changes over time. Truth becomes less about fact and more about the emotional essence that remains with us.
And what of Sylvia Rivera? Rivera was notorious for embellishing her accounts of Stonewall, her story changing often dramatically between tellings. In one version, she was sleeping in a park when someone woke her up to tell her things were getting heated at Stonewall. In another, she was already at the bar celebrating Marsha P. Johnson’s birthday, though Johnson’s actual birthday was in August, not June. Sometimes she claimed Molotov cocktails and bricks were thrown at police.
Sylvia Rivera’s association with the police resistance at Stonewall could hardly be stronger in the public imagination, but recent scholarship suggests that she probably wasn’t there, at least not on the first night. David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (2004), could not find a single credible source that could verify Rivera’s involvement. In fact, he learned through her close friend and employer Randy Wicker that Rivera’s best friend Marsha P. Johnson had no memory of Rivera being there that night.
Stephan L. Cohen, author of The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York (2008), interviewed Rivera’s close friend of 30 years and fellow Stonewall veteran Bob Kohler who told him that Rivera had privately admitted to not having been involved in the riots.
Though she may not have been at the bar the night it all kicked off, Stonewall, as her friends Bebe Scarpianto and Rusty Moore wrote in her 2002 obituary in Transgender Tapestry magazine, “became the determining event of her life.” Rivera was a founding member of the activist groups that sprung up in the wake of the riots, including Gay Liberation Front, its splinter group Gay Activist Alliance, and her own group the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, through whom she worked with the Young Lords Party and got the approval of Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party. She may not have personally thrown the fabled first brick, but her hard work in the years immediately following Stonewall helped cement its place in history.
What we can say with some certainty is that black trans street queen Marsha P. Johnson was there that night. Early rumors had it that when the police started rounding people up, Johnson yelled, “I got my civil rights,” and threw a shot glass into a mirror, shattering it—the now-iconic shot glass “heard ’round the world.” Another account has Marsha outside the bar, hanging off a street lamp, from where she dropped a handbag containing a heavy object onto the hood of a cop car. This heavy object may well be the only brick found in any of the early accounts of Stonewall, as street-based sex workers at the time often carried them inside their bags as a defense against violent clients.
Both individual and collective memory changes over time, and without photography or videos of the first night of the Stonewall Riots, it’s difficult to pin down surefire facts about the night gay power fought back against the police. Contemporary newspaper accounts—including The New York Times, The Village Voice, and the New York Daily News, were written with such sneering contempt that they are of little use in sifting fact from fiction.
The conflicting accounts from Stonewall veterans, dismissive early media coverage, and the cultural outpouring (books, films) over the last 50 years, has led to significant LGBTQ infighting over ownership of the rebellion. Stonewall has become, in the words of preeminent LGBTQ historian Susan Styker, an arena in which “different identity groups go at each other, often quite vehemently, making historical claims that are ultimately objectively unverifiable, to wage contemporary struggles.”
These contemporary identity battles risk obscuring the more fundamental importance of Stonewall. The Stonewall Riots—or, as most veterans prefer to call them, the Stonewall Rebellion—were crucial precisely because they did not consist of one isolated person fighting back against police violence. The real lesson of Stonewall is that it took a racially diverse group of street queens, butch drag kings, and gay men to rise up against systemic persecution together. Unlike earlier important LGBTQ riots, such as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966, in which only smaller segments of the community were involved, Stonewall gained world-historical significance because it was the first time we all fought back shoulder to shoulder.
What we think we know about Stonewall might be, at least in part, a myth. But here’s the thing: Humans need myths. Myths are how we organize our world and understand our place within it. Considering the global backlash against LGBTQ rights—from the threat of the reintroduction of the death penalty in Brunei, to constant attacks on trans rights in the British press, to the Trump administration’s near daily-assaults on existing protections—we need the myth of Stonewall more than ever to teach us its fundamental message. That it takes not one hand to throw a brick, but 10, 20, 100 hands working together across difference to ignite a movement.