A Stonewall Visitor Center Will Celebrate L.G.B.T.Q. History

Who threw the first brick at Stonewall? “Some say it was Stormé DeLarverie.” “Marsha P. Johnson.” “Sylvia Rivera.” It’s a question that calls attention to overlooked L.G.B.T. elders, but also — “Jason Mraz threw the first brick at Stonewall? [laughter] “Judy Garland threw the first brick.” “Scarlett Johansson.” It’s become an inside joke about queer icons and straight allyship. Fifty years after the police raided the Stonewall Inn and its patrons mounted a resistance on the street outside, I still didn’t know the answer to this question: Who threw the first brick at Stonewall? What I did know is that I had heard this story over and over again. The gay rights movement was born in 1969 at a beloved gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Riot began when a drag queen, bereft by the death of Judy Garland, threw a brick at a police officer. The riot culminated in a Rockettes-style kickline of drag queens facing down tactical police in riot gear. It’s a beautiful story, but it’s not exactly true. So, I gathered some people who were at Stonewall in 1969, some historians who had spent years studying L.G.B.T. history and some contemporary queer writers to ask them, what’s wrong with this account of Stonewall? They helped me break it down, bit by bit. “It didn’t begin at Stonewall.” “Before Stonewall, we had the Daughters of Bilitis. We had the Mattachine Society.” “There was the sip-in at Julius’s.” “And the movement in the world dates back to 1897 in Berlin, with the founding of Magnus Hirschfeld’s organization, which was the first gay rights group.” So if gay rights didn’t begin at Stonewall, why was Stonewall important? “Because it led to the creation of the gay liberation movement.” “Gay Liberation Front was born out of the ashes of Stonewall. Gay Liberation Front is literally why we have everything we have today.” “They planned a march on the first anniversary of Stonewall.” “And people forget that there were three pride parades. I was at the one in Los Angeles in 1970. We had a big jar of Vaseline on a float. It was a really in-your-face float.” Oh, wow. Now here’s a fundamental question about Stonewall. Was it a riot? [protesters chanting] “What we did is we were cheering and dancing in the street. That’s not a riot.” “It was just a loud and bawdy fun group of guys until it turned into a riot.” “It is called a riot, an uprising, a rebellion.” “I like the word rebellion. Not overthrow-the-government rebellion, rebellion from within.” Next, was the Stonewall bar as idyllic as some media portrays it to have been? “The Stonewall Inn was a safe haven for the queer community —” “But it was a dump.” “It was a hellhole.” “Dirty. Rundown. Mafia-run.” “A Mafia sleazy bar, and they watered down drinks.” “Watered-down drinks.” “There was a much better bar called the Cherry Lane.” “The Tenth of Always.” “Cookie’s.” So the Stonewall Inn was neither New York’s only gay bar nor an especially beloved institution. Now, let’s talk about that drag queen who started it all. “They said that she threw the first shot glass at Stonewall, and it was the shot glass heard around the world.” “One of the persistent myths about Stonewall is that Marsha threw the first cocktail glass. Marsha herself said in an interview that I did with Marsha, I didn’t get there until 2.” “I was uptown and I didn’t get downtown till about 2 o’clock — because when I got downtown, the place was already on fire and it was a raid already.” Marsha P. Johnson’s friend and fellow activist, Sylvia Rivera, is also sometimes credited with starting Stonewall. “Sylvia Rivera is known for throwing the first bottle at the Stonewall Riots.” Sylvia Rivera herself said in 2001 — “I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail, but I always liked to correct it. I threw the second one. I did not throw the first one.” [laughter] First of all, that comment was probably tongue-in-cheek. Second of all, it’s not certain that Molotov cocktails were thrown at all. Regardless of what Rivera and Johnson did at Stonewall, their impact on the trans and gay movements can’t be overstated. “When I see people saying Marshall and Sylvia were the ones who threw the first bricks, I want to remember them in a way that feels honest because their legacies extend far beyond that night.” However, there was a gender-nonconforming person that several witnesses credit with catalyzing Stonewall. “She was very butch and she was tough. And the police were being rough with her and she was really fighting back.” “We have four independent accounts who said that this woman’s fight with the police is what tipped the scales and set it all off.” “She called out to the crowd, ‘What are you doing?’ Why are you just standing there? Why don’t you do something?’” Some people say that woman was Stormé DeLarverie, a lesbian who worked as a bouncer at the time. DeLarverie sometimes took credit and sometimes denied her role, but so far, there’s been no conclusive proof of who exactly that butch woman at Stonewall was. And now, ladies and gentlemen — “Judy Garland.” “Yeah.” Judy Garland’s funeral took place at Campbell’s Funeral Home on the afternoon before the events at Stonewall. “The patrons of the Stonewall used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight back.” But were the two events related? “The worst question that people ask about Stonewall is whether it was caused by the death of Judy Garland.” “If one looks at the accounts published in 1969, there’s only one account that mentions Stonewall and Judy Garland, and that was written by a right-wing columnist to mock the movement.” “You’re trivializing our anger and oppression of 2,000 years to a singer.” “So I went to Judy Garland’s funeral and a lot of Stonewall queens did.” “Oh, it was like Noah’s Ark — all of Judy’s fans. God bless Judy Garland, but no, she was not the cause of the Stonewall Riot.” “[expletive] no.” So now, let’s talk about that brick. One of the most derided representations of the first brick came from the 2015 movie “Stonewall.” “Gay power!” “All anyone wants to talk about is who the first brick.” “Who threw the first brick?” “They were claiming, I threw the first brick.” “First off, it asks, were bricks thrown?” “Where were those bricks found?” “Apparently, there was a construction site that had a pile of bricks.” “I heard that last week.” “Did they show you a picture of that construction site?” “It’s possible they were pulling rocks from the street. I haven’t determined where that would’ve been, unless it was in the park. If there’s a tree pit, they’re usually lined with something.” “Around this tree, there were these stones. I pulled up the stones. I know I threw stones. I don’t know if I threw a brick. I doubt it. I think I was a stones man.” So objects were thrown that may or may not have been bricks, but amidst all this chaos in the streets, did they really form a kickline while facing down police in riot gear? “No, there was not a kickline at Stonewall. There were many kicklines at Stonewall.” “And I’ll be glad to give you the lyrics.” “It was done to the tune of the ‘Howdy Doody’ theme.” “You’re right, it is.” All right. So, we’ve worked out a framework for what happened at Stonewall that many people can maybe mostly agree on. But why does this even matter? Why are we nitpicking this to death? Because when we talk about what happened at Stonewall 50 years ago, we’re also talking about issues the L.G.B.T. community is still wrestling with today — namely transphobia and racism. “There’s one graphic I’m thinking about in particular: ‘Trans men of color throwing bricks at cops gave me the right to get married.’ I think a lot of people cling onto these narratives because trans women of color are often already sidelined.” “I mean, there were some individual people of color. But it was not a group of trans people of color who started the rioting. If people start telling stories not as they were, but as they would like them to be, that procedure can be used by anybody for any purpose. So I think that we need to be consistent in the truth.” “If we are demanding that our history be respected, then we have to respect it ourselves. You have to apply the same criteria to our history that it be worthwhile, that it be accurate, that it be well-researched. We should recognize our warts as well as our flowers, as it were.” “I mean, I think historical erasure is real. How do we tell a history of something when our lives aren’t in archives? Speculative fiction and historically informed fiction, to me, are ways to answer that question. And it doesn’t have to be true to be meaningful.” “Stonewall was a messy evening. L.G.B.T. histories are very messy. I think naming that doesn’t take away from the importance of what happened.” “I don’t think anyone threw the first brick at Stonewall.” “And at this point, I don’t care who threw the first brick.” “Oh, I don’t think it matters.” “And it doesn’t matter.” “Like, it doesn’t matter. It’s O.K. that we don’t know.” “If it wasn’t a brick, it was a rock. If it wasn’t a rock, it was a purse. If it wasn’t a purse, it was a shoe. If it wasn’t a shoe, it was a glass. If it wasn’t a glass, it was a dirty look. It was all of those things. It wasn’t just that day, it was days before and it was many years after.” It’s 50 years later and we still can’t agree on exactly what happened that night. But that’s all right. Stonewall was about people reclaiming their own narratives from those that told them they were sick, or pitiful or didn’t even exist. Part of telling your own story means living openly and partying at parades. But it also means contending with other people’s versions of that story, even if theirs doesn’t match perfectly with yours. As Chrysanthemum Tran said, that can be messy and that’s O.K. — I love a messy party.