The Stonewall Riots of 1969 and their annual commemoration, in the form of Pride Parades, are arguably the most well-known queer rights events of the 20th century. But what makes Stonewall unique compared to similar demonstrations of the same decade, and what factors combined to ensure its commemoration continued over 40 years later?
I would argue the unique combination of an oppressive environment, a memorable resistance to that oppression, and community access to resources for future commemoration of the event, all worked together for the Stonewall Riots in a way that had not been replicated before. Two previous events demonstrate the importance of an environment oppressive enough to spark a memorable resistance from deviant minorities.
In the New Year’s Ball Raid of San Francisco in 1965, the largely assimilationist Homophile movement organized a New Year’s party which local police attempted to harass and raid (Gibson, 2014; Armstrong & Crage, 2006). However, because the organizations behind the event had important social resources with law enforcement, lawyers, media, and other mainstream institutions, both the oppression and the resistance to it were relatively mild and, thus, not very memorable even to its own participants (Armstrong & Crage, 2006).
A year later, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots of 1966 in the same city, would be violently oppressive and the resistance equally matched. The participants were largely queer people of color, trans women, sex workers, and other doubly-deviant minorities, who were treated drastically different by police compared to the respectable Homophile movement of the New Year’s Ball (Gibson, 2014; Armstrong & Crage, 2006). Although this event was explosive enough to potentially become memorable, because the privileged members of the community did not identify with the participants, no resources were provided; not even media coverage from the Homophile movement itself (Armstrong & Crage, 2006).
The Stonewall Riots in New York City of 1969 were a unique combination then; memorable and explosive resistance to oppression, with the identification and support of respectable Homophile community members. Although the participants of the original riot itself looked remarkably similar to those of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, doubly-deviant and therefore not respectable, several factors ensured a wider range of people would come to identify with Stonewall (Armstrong & Crage, 2006). Because of the bar’s location, Greenwich Village, the event was quickly noticed by the respectable and marginalized alike, as they frequently comingled in the high-pedestrian area. In addition, the initial riot itself was immediately followed by several days of demonstrations, with increased Homophile participation. This also included the Homophile’s media connections witnessing the event, which ensured it became known around the country, even if the initial mainstream coverage was less than favorable (Armstrong & Crage, 2006).
However, merely having a memorable event does not ensure commemoration. As we can see in the years following the Stonewall Riots, the Homophile movement’s identification with the Stonewall Riots, and efforts to allocate resources to commemorate it, ensured the success of Pride Parades to this day. Although arguably, at the cost of hijacking the radical roots which made the Riots memorable (Armstrong & Crage, 2006). For one, the New Yorker Homophiles had already had some practice with their “Annual Reminders” of July the 4th with mild success, a yearly demonstration against discrimination, so the idea of annual commemoration was already within the local discourse (Armstrong & Crage, 2006). Because the Homophile movement had access to an inter-organization network as well as national media coverage, they became the public “face” of the Stonewall Riots rather than the marginalized instigators themselves. This arguably made the initial reaction to the Riots, as well as its following commemoration, more palatable to heterosexual society and its mainstream institutions (Armstrong & Crage, 2006).
In fact, a comparison to the first Pride Parades of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, shows exactly what a difference respectability can make. Although the idea of commemorating Stonewall the following year was supported by the Homophile organizations of New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco’s Homophile community did not support it initially (Armstrong & Crage, 2006). As a result, the Pride Parades of NYC and LA had the legal, political, and marketing resources of their local Homophile organizations at their disposal, which ensured the commemoration was both successful and legally sanctioned, and covered somewhat favorably with heterosexual media. Compare this with San Francisco, where the commemoration was only supported by marginalized members of the community. Participation was mediocre, and police were able to quickly disperse the demonstration due to the participants’ considerably reduced resources (Armstrong & Crage, 2006).
The irony would seem to be that marginalized and doubly-deviant participants are needed to spark a memorable demonstration, but must also be quickly swept aside for a more respectable public image if mainstream commemoration is to be successful. This trend of respectability has continued with Pride Parades every year, with some cities facing controversy as they attempt to ban the more radical participants and elements in order to appeal to mainstream institutions, such as the police and government officials, which the original Riots were a reaction against. Arguably this is to ensure the commemoration remains as accessible as possible regardless of politics, but this also means many of the original instigators of the Stonewall Riots would not be able or perhaps even wish to participate in its current annual commemorations. Few have been pushed far enough to throw bricks at cops, but everyone wants to throw beads in a parade.
The combination of marginalized instigators with respectable commemorators created a gritty underdog story with a clean public face, which was accessible to a broad range of people. Arguably this ensured the Stonewall Riots’ memorability, but at what cost? If the commemoration moves further away from the radical roots of the event itself, at what point does it stop becoming a commemoration and take on a life of its own? Will Pride Parades continue to be a vehicle for gay respectability politics, or can they still return to their queer radical origins? It is likely to continue to come down to who has the most resources, and what message they want to project.
Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Suzanna M. Crage. 2006. “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth.” American Sociological Review 71(1): 724-751.
Gibson, Michelle A., Jonathan Alexander, and Deborah T. Meem. 2014. Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBT Studies. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers. 49-60.