Updated: Jul 5
*Throughout this post, "gay" is used as the period-appropriate catchall term for what is now called the LGBTQ+ community.
While Stonewall is certainly significant and deserves the recognition it receives, throughout the 1960’s, various forms of rioting and resistance against anti-gay and anti-trans oppression occurred.
Let’s uncover some fast facts on three events preceding Stonewall, and then dive a little bit into the magic that is the Stonewall riots.
Black Nite Riots
Picture it: Brady Street, Milwaukee, August 5th, 1961. Unlike the Mafia-owned Stonewall, the Black Nite tavern did not just tolerate trans and gay people, it
welcomed them accepting people of all gender identities, expressions, and sexual orientations. Naturally, it was the city’s most popular gay haunt.
Transgender and gay people are just trying to live their best lives when agitators with an agenda had a different idea.
After losing a drinking game, four cis-heterosexual servicemen were dared to “check out” the club. They paid the Black Nite a visit, thinking they were going to start trouble. The bouncer refused them, and they returned with more people. While they did start it, they certainly didn’t finish it. Wielding insults and slurs, the servicemen met patrons who fought back with force, led primarily by Josie Carter, a Black, gender-non-conforming entertainer.
The servicemembers were hauled away by Milwaukee police, bloodied and bruised.
Josie is quoted as having said, "We didn't start anything, but we sure as hell finished it."
As of this writing, the Wisconsin Historical Society is set to place a plaque to honor the Black Nite, later this year.
August of 1966 may have been a normal day for most in San Francisco/s Tenderloin district,
but for the multi-ethnic, gender non-confirming, transgender and gay patrons of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, it was an evening of resistance.
It was normal for the staff of the cafeteria to call the local police on transgender customers for the crime of “female impersonation,” resulting in harassment and arrest. This day, however, the transgender and gay patrons of the cafeteria fiercely resisted the police, demanding freedom.
Sugar shakers, tables, and dinnerware were among the weapons in their arsenal.
As a result of this riot, the City of San Francisco was forced to address the issues plaguing the transgender community.
The beginning of trans-affirming social services are often attributed to this resistance.
Black Cat Tavern
In Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve, 1966, the Black Cat Tavern saw an uprising of sorts.
While not quite described as a riot, it was certainly resistance.
Police raids were common. That day, undercover operations resulted in arrests for crossdressing and showing same-sex affection, as patrons rung in the new year.
Undercover operations also resulted in patrons and staff getting beaten.
The manager, Lee Roy, was beaten badly enough to break her collarbone.
The bartender’s spleen was ruptured.
In response, 200 or so attendees, interestingly enough called Personal Rights in Defense and Education, or PRIDE, demonstrated outside the tavern where they were met with severe police force.The organizers, incredibly aware of the laws, were able to avoid arrests.
The result of this action formed both The Advocate and Metropolitan Community Church.
The Stonewall riots occurred June 28, 1969 and is the most popular, most well-known resistance against police brutality toward the transgender and gay community.
Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia and oftentimes, gay and transgender people would be photographed, with threats of their images being sold to newspapers, which would destroy their lives.
In order to get out of having the photograph published, they had to hand over money.
Police violence was common as well. Anyone crossdressing or engaging in same-sex affection could be subject to police harassment. On June 28, 1969, the transgender and gay patrons, of varying ages and backgrounds, stood up and fought back.
They threw bricks, shot glasses, and pennies. They ignited literal fires.
The honorary Mayor of Christopher Street, Marsha P. Johnson, told a riveting account of the resistance against police and it’s worth a listen! (Embed is below.) The result of these riots formed the Gay Liberation Front, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and more.
These are only four examples of resistance, but there are so many, both before and after Stonewall. These movements are complex and accounts vary, but they have one thing in common: the community stood up and fought back to protect themselves, each other, and their shared spaces. Many of the key players of these resistances were transgender women of color. If you are part of the transgender, lesbian, gay or queer community, you should join us for our self-defense series, with the next class focusing on fighting back against an active shooter or aggressor in one of our spaces. It’s better to get the skill and never need it than attempt to work through an emergency in the moment. You can also show your pride in the riots of our forefamily by purchasing a shirt in dedication. Guaranteed to be a conversation starter, this shirt can help promote education about our history–that some people want to censor–and the profit from the shirt goes to our work, so we can continue to promote events that bring our community joy, dignity, and connectedness.