How the Stonewall Riots Worked


Controversy Over Stonewall's Legacy
The Stonewall Inn was declared a national monument in 2016. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There is a lot of disagreement over the proceedings of the Stonewall riots. Some of the debate and conflicting claims are focused on who was involved, including the identity of the lesbian who fought the cops, or the person who threw the first brick that landed on a cop car and inflamed the crowd.

More important are disagreements over what groups were involved. The people involved in the riots were LGBTQ in every sense: gay men, lesbians, transgender women, effeminate men, etc. Black, Hispanic and white people took part in the riots, forming a diverse crowd. By many accounts, the people who suffered from police harassment the most (lesbians, transgender women and cross-dressing men, along with LGBTQ street kids) were at the forefront of the riots. These groups often feel that the Stonewall story has been falsely depicted as an event focused on masculine, gay white men. "Similar to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, there was a much broader social movement context in which the Stonewall riots took place. That broader movement context often gets erased with an overly simplistic retelling of individual or even collective acts of resistance," says Freeman.

Since 1969, several documentaries and two fictionalized feature films — both called "Stonewall," from 1995 and 2015 — have been made about the Stonewall riots. Neither critics nor moviegoers liked either of the movies very much, with most complaints centering on lack of historical accuracy and failure to show the importance of transgender people and people of color.

The Stonewall Inn is still a privately owned bar. In 2016, the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park and some nearby streets were designated a National Monument by President Barack Obama — the first dedicated to gay rights. The annual New York City Pride March still ends on Christopher Street every year on the anniversary of the riots.

Author's Note: How the Stonewall Riots Worked

I didn't know the details of the Stonewall riots when I started researching this, so it was fascinating to discover not only what a compelling story it is, but also how complex both the riots and their long-term outcome really are. My favorite part of studying history is untangling the various conditions and factors that lead to major events, and the riots are a perfect example. It's also nice to write about something that ultimately feels like a positive story — no one was killed in the riots, and they led (eventually, gradually, requiring a lot of work by a lot of people) to more rights in the U.S. for LGBTQ people.

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