Stonewall at 50: A Roundtable

Today on the blog, we mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots with a series of short essays by activists, writers, and scholars whose lives and work have been shaped by the events of June 1969 and their aftermath. This year, the scale of celebration and commemoration in New York is larger than ever — more than 4 million people are expected to attend this weekend’s festivities, and an estimated 115,000 people will be marching at Pride. In the city, more than two dozen different exhibitions that engage with LGBTQ art, history, and activism are on view, and two recently published anthologies, The Stonewall Reader and The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History, invite 2019 readers to interpret the events at Stonewall by revisiting sources from the time.

Alongside this wealth of celebration and commemoration, there is also tension and unrest. Social and legal gains for LGBTQ people have been numerous since 1969; the declassification of homosexuality and gender variance as mental illnesses, the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide, and the growth in employment and housing protections for LGBTQ people are all the fruits of decades of activism. At the same time, these benefits have reached members of the community unevenly and have deepened existing rifts and fueled increasingly urgent debates about how to set priorities, how to allocate resources, and how to shape the discourse around LGBTQ rights.

The Stonewall Uprising and the way it is remembered is intrinsic to this tension. We variously mark the anniversary with celebration of how far we’ve come and with urgent reminders of how far we’ve yet to go. At the Gotham blog, we’ve chosen to embrace the debate and offer a cross-section of it here, rather than attempting to assert a single, settled interpretation of what Stonewall means in 2019. There are eight million stories in the naked city; today we offer nine of them. — Katie Uva, ed.


Queers, Cops, and CUNY

By Matt Brim

Fifty years later, Stonewall means queer-cop education. In June 2019, more queers will come face-to-face with more police officers than at any time in human history when New York City hosts World Pride. A record 4.5 million people, many of them LGBTQ, are expected to participate in pride week, and wherever they turn they are sure to see and be seen by members of the largest municipal police force in the U.S., the NYPD, with its 36,000 officers.

Queer-cop interactions will loom large over NYC’s WorldPride, but not only because of the sheer size of the two principal groups involved. There is also a deeper historical connection, for this year’s WorldPride celebrates the 50thanniversary of the Stonewall uprising of June 1969. Those famous three days of riots are unmistakably defined by queer-cop confrontations, and photos of police batons caught mid swing have helped define this key moment in the struggle for queer liberation. Harassed, beaten, and arrested by police — typical treatment at the time — queers fought back, led by a who’s who of the uber-marginalized: transwomen, butch lesbians, queers of color, street kids, and faggoty gay men. Gender-conforming (“homonormative,” in today’s parlance) gay men and lesbians came out into the streets as well, inspired by the underclass of queers who first realized the collective power of their campy, angry resistance.

Now, fifty years later, I teach about Stonewall in my queer studies classes at the College of Staten Island (CSI), a desperately underfunded public college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. CUNY students are some of the poorest college students in the nation, and 80% percent of CUNY undergraduates are people of color. The class and race demographics explain why New York State sees fit to pack students into crowded classrooms, staffed primarily with grossly underpaid adjunct instructors, on campuses that are falling apart. When I teach queer studies courses at CSI, the common threads that run through my classes are, therefore, social class and race as much as gender and sexuality. Once New York City’s “free university,” CUNY — the largest urban university system in the U.S. at nearly 250,000 students — is now home to a greater concentration of poor queer students and poor queer students of color than anywhere else in higher education today.

CUNY is also home to many students who hope to join the NYPD, which requires applicants to complete 60 credits of college education (the equivalent of an associate’s degree). CUNY colleges, and in particular the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, the many community colleges, and CSI (given Staten Island’s prevalent police culture) serve these future officers. In my queer studies courses, New York City’s poor queer/of color underclasses and its future police officers sometimes sit side by side, a function of their burdensome work schedules and curricular diversity requirements. Of course, many future cops are gay or lesbian, black or brown, and poor.

The upcoming NYC WorldPride, by drawing our attention to the queer-cop confrontations of Stonewall, makes urgent the question of how CUNY ought to educate today’s versions of the people in the black and white photos from June 1969. Clearly, queer studies professors must teach CUNY students about the past and present histories of police violence against transgender people, queers of color, and gay and lesbian underclasses. Unlike the hyper-privileged, exorbitantly expensive, elite colleges where queer studies supposedly lives its best life, at CUNY we must teach these histories with significant numbers of poor queers/of color and future cops actually in front of us in the classroom. And that requires the radical pedagogy of teaching the history of Stonewall not to those who are, necessarily, doomed to repeat it but to those who possibly could.

College of Staten Island, CUNY.

College of Staten Island, CUNY.

Matt Brim is Associate Professor of Queer Studies at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. He is the author of James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination and co-editor of Imagining Queer Methods. His next book, Poor Queer Studies, will be published by Duke University Press in spring 2020.


Doing Better and Showing Up

By Jewel Cadet

Jewel Cadet lives in solidarity with her Black Trans Sisters. On the back of this sign lists the names and ages of Black Trans Women who have been murdered. The average life expectancy for Black Trans Women is 30 years old.

Jewel Cadet lives in solidarity with her Black Trans Sisters. On the back of this sign lists the names and ages of Black Trans Women who have been murdered. The average life expectancy for Black Trans Women is 30 years old.

Fifty years later, Stonewall means Black Trans Women are being murdered and the world doesn’t give a damn. As we celebrate World Pride in New York City, capitalism rears its ugly head as corporations put rainbows on everything they can — the exploitation of a community that many don’t care about any other time of the year. All of a sudden clothing campaigns emerge to incorporate something about how they are accepting to the LGBTQ community. I wonder how many of these clothing campaigns have Black Trans Women in leadership, making decisions. Running shit. All the while, as these corporations increase their revenue, Black Trans Women are being murdered all across the country. The very same community who helped shape what Pride is today.

So as we wave our rainbow flags and rock our rainbow attire, are we truly remembering what really happened on June 28th, 1969?

Pride is a result of riots. A result of the Black and Brown Queer and Trans Community coming together to resist the harassment of police who raided their sacred spaces in the name of homophobia, femmephobia, transphobia, racism, anti-blackness and classism. This drives my activism as I too, fight against all of those things and have a mission to abolish the police and create spaces for Black Trans People.

Are we truly remembering that the NYPD assaulted and harassed patrons as they were partying in a place they felt they could be free? Fifty years later, Police officers still dominate spaces. With their miles-long barricades and their massive uniformed presence in the name of “keeping people safe,” they are the reminder of the cause of the Stonewall Riots. Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and other Black Trans Women and Trans Women of Color resisted being policed. They fought back so that we wouldn’t have to. I can only imagine the disgust they would have if they were here today to see how policed Pride has become. I know this couldn’t have been their vision of being out and proud; to live freely in their truth. Police presence is not freedom or safety.

As we remember those who made Pride happen are we honoring the Black Trans Women who are still here? When I think of the recent murders of Black Trans Women this year alone, I’m upset and disheartened to say the least. I think about who is to blame. Yes, it’s the Cis Black Men who pull the trigger. It’s also on us as a society. We too pull the trigger every time we don’t speak up when they are misgendered. We too pull the trigger when we don’t advocate for their fair and equal access to safe and affirming housing, healthcare and employment. We too pull the trigger when we don’t do all that we can to see Black Trans Women as human and worthy of life.

Fifty years later is a time to look back and pay honor and tribute. It’s a time to reflect on the ways that we need to do better and show up more for the very people who made Pride possible.

Jewel Cadet is the Associate Director of Programs at the Center for Anti-Violence Education and formerly served as the Chapter Co-Chair of Black Youth Project 100’s NYC Chapter and as a member of the BlackOut Collective. A Black Queer woman, raised by a Haitian single mother in East New York, she identifies as a Ratchet Revolutionary who fights for the freedom and rights of all black people with an emphasis on the Black Queer and Trans community. She is the creator and founder of “A Ratchet Realm” a liberated party space that centers Black Queer & Trans folks through music, dance and sexual freedom. She can be found on Instagram @Jewel_thegem.


Pride Where There Is Justice

By Melinda Chateauvert

Fifty years later, Stonewall means we need to riot again for Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major. Transwomen of color—folks who were sex workers, drugs users, hustlers and their friends—rioted against police violence in June 1969. They rioted for the same reason that black and brown folks had been rioting throughout the 1960s: they wanted to abolish the armed government goon squads that policed communities of color using harassment, false imprisonment, graft, sexual assault, beatings, imprisonment and terror. The white “establishment types” who took over Christopher Street on the following nights had other plans. Over the protests of Rivera and other transwomen, the heteronormative “homophile rights” agenda became the face of lesbian and gay activism in the 1970s and beyond.

Transwomen of color didn’t just walk away, however. They couldn’t. Instead, they organized the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), inspired by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. Like the community programs run by those black and brown revolutionary groups, they opened a shelter for homeless runaway kids operated under the principle of harm reduction. No one was put out for hustling or using drugs; they were asked to look after each other and keep folks safe (which also meant “Don’t let the cops or the social workers in!”) To pay for it, Rivera, Johnson and other STAR members continued to do what they had always done; they hustled. Sometimes one of them would disappear for a few nights, maybe even a week, but that was because the police routinely arrested them for soliciting or drug possession.

In 2019, police violence and civic vigilantism against transwomen of color is still the chief concern yet gay and lesbian rights leaders have remained rather silent. Even as a few transwomen become more visible in mainstream media, the arrests, detentions, deportations, disappearances and deaths of transwomen of color seems to increase every year. State laws against “cross-dressing” have been abolished, but “loitering while trans” remains suspicious. “Stop and frisk” policies lead to charges of prostitution against transwomen of color when police find three or more condoms in their possession. Years of activism forced the New York Police Department to change the way officers treat transgender citizens, yet transwomen of color continue to be harassed and imprisoned. In this month of World Pride, Layleen Polanco, a Latinx transwoman, died at Rikers; she was imprisoned because she could not afford bail.

On this anniversary, “riot” for Sylvia and Marsha P., for Miss Major, Flawless Sabrina, and Layleen Polanco. Loiter and trick and hustle to fund the activism of transwomen of color. Light candles for murdered and missing transwomen of color. Write letters to imprisoned queers of color. If you must, go to that big rainbow party in the streets, and remember there can only be Pride where there is Justice.

Photo credit: Roan Boucher (via Etsy) Trans Justice Funding Project, 2009.

Photo credit: Roan Boucher (via Etsy) Trans Justice Funding Project, 2009.

Melinda Chateauvert, Ph.D, is the author of Sex Workers Unite! A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013) who lives in New Orleans and Washington, DC. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @whorestorian


Stonewall, LGBTQ Activism, and Historiography

By Rachel Corbman

Fifty years later, Stonewall means vastly different things, depending on how the history of LGBTQ activism is told. As a historian, I am always interested in the process through which ideas about the past are produced and disseminated. However, rarely has the politics of representing a singular event from the past consumed as much of my attention as the 1969 Stonewall uprising on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary. This year, I helped curate Stonewall 50 at the New-York Historical Society as an Andrew W. Mellon predoctoral fellow in women’s history. I also taught an undergraduate course on Stonewall 50: LGBTQ History, Public History, Memory at Stony Brook University.

More so than any other event in US history, Stonewall is routinely used to periodize the history of LGBTQ activism. Specifically, the Stonewall uprising is often understood as the key catalyst for a broader mass movement for gay liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gay liberation is in turn routinely demarcated from earlier forms of “Pre-Stonewall” LGBTQ activism and community building, such as the homophile movement or butch/femme bar culture. Freed from these longer histories, Stonewall is sometimes imagined as ushering in not just gay liberation but the ongoing “fight for LGBT rights in the United States,” to quote from Wikipedia’s consensus account of this history. Thus, in attempting to represent Stonewall, we grapple not just with the facts of the event itself, but also with the ways in which Stonewall is used to narrate a longer and more complicated social movement history.

Stonewall 50 Course Flyer, 2019.

Stonewall 50 Course Flyer, 2019.

In Stonewall 50: LGBTQ History, Public History, Memory,” my students and I thought about the different ways Stonewall is used to explain the history of LGBTQ activism. At times, Stonewall is positioned as the first chapter in a progressive march towards LGBTQ equality and acceptance, with marriage equality looming particularly large in this account. The interactive timeline on Heritage of Pride’s website for World Pride, for example, draws a direct line of continuity from the mythologized “first brick” at Stonewall to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015.

However, many contemporary queer activists and culture makers contest this account. For example, in their campaign to bar police participation in San Francisco pride, the queer activist collective Gay Shame emphasizes the origins of Stonewall as a riot against “repeat police raids, harassment and overall criminalization of poor and marginalized queer people.” In this retelling, Stonewall is again positioned as the direct ancestor of our present moment. However, rather than setting the stage for marriage equality, Stonewall is instead celebrated as an act of collective action that anticipated anti-statist and anti-carceral queer organizing in the present.

These histories do very different political work. However, both accounts rely on the assumption that a coherent political vision undergirded the spontaneous violent resistance at Stonewall, and position particular political actors or projects as the rightful heirs to this history. For me, Stonewall 50 has served as an opportunity to reckon with the historical meanings that have accumulated around this event and to interrogate the continued potency of our attachments to Stonewall.

Rachel Corbman received a Ph.D. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Stony Brook University. She is currently an Andrew W. Mellon predoctoral fellow in women’s history at the New-York Historical Society and a Humanities New York fellow.


In Pursuit of Perversity

By Jeffrey Escoffier

Jeffrey Escoffier (left) and DuMont Howard (right) in 1976, currently on display at the New York Public Library, Love and Resistance, 2019

Jeffrey Escoffier (left) and DuMont Howard (right) in 1976, currently on display at the New York Public Library, Love and Resistance, 2019

Fifty years later, Stonewall means sexual freedom to me; that is, the ability to engage in erotic activities — in the broadest sense — with whomever and however you choose. In June 1969 the Stonewall riots seemed like the culmination of a decade of crisscrossing political and cultural movements starting sometime in the early sixties: the sexual revolution, black civil rights, the Beat generation, rock and roll, the anti-war movement, the counter-culture, the rise of the New Left, women’s liberation — by 1969 gay liberation seemed like an obvious next step. I’d been waiting for homosexual liberation ever since I’d read Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization six years earlier.

I was 26 when Stonewall took place, but I’d been having sex with guys ever since I was 16 — which I had always kept secret. I don’t remember ever using the term ‘gay’ to apply to myself. Queer or homosexual were the terms I used. James Baldwin and Arthur Rimbaud were my role models, but neither one of them publicly acknowledged their homosexuality. Stonewall changed all that.

In the fall of 1969, I was moving to Philadelphia to go to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. I decided I would go as a completely out gay man. Once there I joined the newly formed Gay Activist Alliance, was elected as its president, started a magazine called the Gay Alternative, and though I was there to study some combination of economic history and the history of science, I began to explore “gay and lesbian” history — which in one form or another I’ve done ever since.

Looking back at it all now, at the age of 76, I find myself still preoccupied, above all, with sex and sexual freedom. In its initial days, the movement was a sexual liberation movement. We believed that we were fighting to liberate the ‘homosexual’ in every one of us, not just those of us who thought of ourselves as homosexuals, gay men or lesbians. I still feel that that is important. Now it’s clear that liberation from narrow ideas of gender is part of this process.

Over the years, the development of a community — actually communities— was vitally important. But at times communities could be constraining and promote norms that were excessively narrow, that reverted to traditional hetero-centric norms or were even oppressive. But the pursuit of “perversity” — that historical dynamic of a polymorphic sexual economy that allows us to find diverse objects of desire — would frequently come into conflict with those norms of community. Perversity always offered a fresh way to explore our desires across genders, generations, social boundaries of various kinds, ethnicities and races. We participated in a great perverse experiment that allowed us to create complicated relationships that let us to develop new constellations of desire, friendship and intimacy — involving lovers, friends, casual sexual partners, unrequited loves, and former lovers.

The great experiment continues. LGBTQ names a continuum with no endpoint.

Jeffrey Escoffier is the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity (Verso, 2018) and Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore (Running Press, 2008), as well as the editor of Sexual Revolution (Thunder’s Mouth, 2003). He is on the faculty of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.


Continuing the Fight

By Bianey Garcia

Fifty years later, Stonewall means la lucha continua. My name is Bianey Garcia. I'm an immigrant trans woman from Mexico, and the legacy of Stonewall for me is huge. Even though I wasn't born when the LGBTQ movement started, I'm proud that my sisters Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson were there, and these two amazing women took part in initiating the movement.

La lucha continua, because trans women living in the 21st century still suffer discrimination from the police, in employment, and in housing. Trans people who do survival sex work on the streets continue to be assaulted and murdered, and the police act like we aren't human beings. Fifty years have passed but an oppressive society is still putting us at risk of dying.

The fight that Marsha and Sylvia fought and that I continue isn't for us, but for future generations, so that they can have the opportunity to live in a world without Transphobia.

Mi lucha is your lucha and if we're not together we will be killed one by one.

Many continue to criticize the lives of transgender people but they don't see that we are part of the world. That we exist.

I'm calling you all to organize, organize, organize until we decriminalize sex work and we END the stigma. Now, as a trans woman of color and organizer at Make the Road NY we are fighting to decriminalize sex work in New York State and City with the coalition Decrim NY. We are also taking part in a campaign called Backers of Hate to stop the corporations that are financing detention centers in the USA. In May 2018, a transgender woman who died in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency appeared to have been physically abused before her death from dehydration, along with complications from H.I.V., according to an independent autopsy. Detention centers are killing members of our TGNCIQ communities

Let's prove to the whole world that trans women are more than just sexual objects. That we are strong people, with a legacy of triumph and achievements.

Bianey Garcia speaking at a protest in Queens.

Bianey Garcia speaking at a protest in Queens.

Bianey Garcia is a community organizer at Make the Road New York, a non-profit organization providing services and advocacy for Latinx and working-class communities.


An Ongoing Struggle

By Curtis Harris-Davia

Fifty years later, the Stonewall Riots are a reminder to me of the struggle for our equality. I was in high school when they occurred and as a young closeted gay Native man on the reservation, I was excited to see that people had decided to stand up.

I believe that because of Stonewall, the LGBT/Two Spirit communities have built identities that are based on pride, determination and strength. The Two Spirit community is in the process of reclaiming our rightful identities within many of our Native American nations and tribes. We have many different histories as Two Spirit people and those of us today who are involved in pursuing recognition of our standing within our communities are organizing events, gatherings and groups across Turtle Island. The Two Spirit/LGBT Native American communities are leading the way in areas such as HIV education, innovative theater and art, progressive education on the reservation and as leaders of many Native American organizations. We continue to gain visibility among Native American communities and by doing so will provide the opportunity for young LGBT/Two Spirit Native people to experience the liberation that we enjoy because of Stonewall.

I founded the first LGBT Native American group, WeWah and BarCheeAmpe, in 1990. It was during this time that the term Two Spirit was starting to gain greater acceptance as a term for Native American LGBT people. My intent in creating the organization was to have a safe place for meeting, socializing and organizing. The group’s biggest goal was to represent LGBT Native Americans in the New York City Pride March which we did in 1990, 1991 and 1992. In 1992, we were allowed to lead the March in recognition of the quincentennial of the landing of Columbus. The organization later evolved into the Northeast Two Spirit Society and today a group has descended called Two Spirit Indigenous People’s Task Force, which will be hosting a conference on HIV and Two Spirit people and will be marching in the NYC Pride March.

Today as I reflect back on what the riots mean to me, I feel that they were the point where we as LGBT/Two Spirit people decided that we had had enough of the injustice and we stood up and said “enough is enough.”

WeWah and BarCheeAmpe, the first LGBT group in NYC, 1990.

WeWah and BarCheeAmpe, the first LGBT group in NYC, 1990.

Curtis Harris-Davia is an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Nation and currently serves as the Executive Director of the American Indian Community House. He is also one of the co-founders of the Two Spirit Indigenous People’s Task force of New York City.


What Stonewall Represents — And Doesn’t

By Pauline Park

Fifty years later, Stonewall means many things to me. The Stonewall Rebellion was not the beginning of the modern LGBT movement but it was the catalyst for organizing on a large scale. The challenge when assessing the Stonewall Uprising is that it has become so iconic that fact has become larded with fiction and the three days that changed the course of our community’s history have become obscured by myth making and hijacked by corporate commodification; it is important that we avoid making the mistake of projecting the particular identity formations and political debates of 2019 back onto the events of 1969. So, for example, the speculation over which individual(s) started the riots and the precise role of transgendered women of color divert our attention from the fact that we all deserve human rights simply by virtue of our (common) humanity. Those who are interested in understanding the riots should read David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the 2005 book that remains the only full-length documented examination of the uprising. But those interested in advancing LGBT rights should not predicate their activism on the particularities of the riots, however inspiring they may be as an iconic moment of resistance.

Pauline Park speaking at Seoul Pride, 2015.

Pauline Park speaking at Seoul Pride, 2015.

As Americans, we should also be careful not to impose narratives onto LGBT people in other countries and cultures based on the particularities of the events in Greenwich Village in June 1969. Instead, let us take the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots as an opportunity to articulate a broad-based agenda of social justice and social change informed but not limited by the particular circumstances of the riots and their aftermath — a progressive feminist agenda that is not tied to any political party or elected official(s) or candidate(s) — and one that connects struggles across race, class and (dis)ability as well as sexuality and gender (identity), informed by an intersectional analysis that takes into account all of these structural oppressions without creating a hierarchy of value among them. The goal must be nothing less than the transformation of society’s understanding of sexuality and gender which must necessarily mean challenging and dismantling the sex/gender binary that is at the root of our oppression as queer people, whether we identify as men, women, or non-binary. The LGBT movement must also tackle issues that the gay (mostly white) political establishment has heretofore refused to address, including the complicity of elected officials endorsed by many LGBT organizations and some LGBT organizations themselves in Apartheid Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine as well as the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants under previous administrations as well as the current one. The spirit of Stonewall must also move US-based activists to connect with those abroad while avoiding the subtle cultural imperialism of a ‘gay diffusion model’ based on US-specific circumstances and experiences. Finally, we must connect LGBT rights concretely to the most pressing issue of our time, the acceleration of global warming and the threat that climate change poses for the very survival of the planet.

Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House. She led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002, participated in the first U.S. LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine, and was the keynote speaker at the Queer Korea Festival/Seoul Pride Parade in 2015.


Remembering the Lesbians

By Polly Thistlethwaite

Fifty years later, Stonewall means we honor the lesbians in the House of Detention for Women. In June 1969, the New York City House of Detention for Women stood next to the Jefferson Market Courthouse, just two blocks from Christopher St., shouting distance from the Stonewall Inn.

Interior of the Women's House of Detention, published in Anna M. Kross, "Progress Through Crisis, 1954-1965." New York City Department of Corrections Report.

Interior of the Women's House of Detention, published in Anna M. Kross, "Progress Through Crisis, 1954-1965." New York City Department of Corrections Report.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Joan Nestle passed the ‘House of D’ on frequent trips to the Sea Colony. On "hot summer weekend nights… I stood and watched and listened to the pleas of lovers, butch women shouting up to the narrow-slitted windows, to hands waving handkerchiefs, to bodiless voices of love and despair, “Momi, the kids are okay…” Nestle continues, “Here, my sense of a New York lesbian history began, not a closeted one, but right there on the streets. Tourists... stopped and wondered at the spectacle of public women lovers in the midst of negotiating a hard patch in their lives, but neither stares or rude laughter interrupted this ritual of necessary and naked communication.[1]

Audre Lorde, too, points to the House of Detention as the epicenter of 1960s Greenwich Village. “Information and endearments flew up and down, the conversants apparently oblivious to the ears of the passersby as they discussed the availability of lawyers, the length of stay, family, conditions, and the undying quality of true love. The Women's House of Detention, right smack in the middle of the Village, always felt like one up for our side — a defiant pocket of female resistance, ever-present as a reminder of possibility, as well as punishment.[2]

The Village’s Mafia-run queer bars were tucked behind darkened windows and closed doors of its winding streets. The House of D was an 11-story art deco stone structure that towered over Village rooftops. Billed when it opened in 1932 as a ‘school for citizenship’ with hospital wards, vocational training, and sinks, toilets, and windows in the cells, claims to its reform mission had faded by the 1960s.

Lesbians caught up in frequent bar raids, charged with prostitution or drug use, or cornered by the mob or the police who controlled queer turf, well understood that entrance to the House of Detention meant brutal, repeated cavity searches (‘exams’ deployed to demean and to control), vermin-infested cells, filthy beds, overcrowded spaces, inedible food, and countless humiliations.

Village residents deplored the commotion and clamor around the House of D. The Encyclopedia of New York City describes the “strong opposition from the surrounding neighborhood for the shouts of inmates, which could be widely heard.[3]” Mrs. Mary Landis, a long-term resident of West 9th St., said “It was terrible, the screaming and yelling that went on through the windows of that place... And not only could you hear them scream at each other in the most profane way; they’d also scream profanities down at people walking in the streets. And they’d throw things out of the window, lighted matches, for instance... the people gathered outside the jail any time, any hour of the day, were a terrible bunch. Pimps and prostitutes and homosexuals. And you’d hear them screaming up to the girls in the jail as though they were in their own back yards, instead of on a public thoroughfare.[4]

Women were held for violations unavoidable in 1960s New York queer life. Standing in a queer bar or on a street corner could land a woman in jail. So could a stop-and-frisk if police claimed not to find three required pieces of gender-conforming clothing.

Inside the House of D lesbians stood their ground as boldly as they did outside. Confined in the ‘skyscraper prison,’ inmates and their visitors dominated the streets with their voices, their gestures, and with their shouted intimacies. They drew their loved ones to them on the street. Affections flew back and forth in a courageous, unapologetic performance. What was normally whispered had here to be roared. Stolen privacy led to a public, flaunted queerness that required bold defense in hostile territory outside. Confinement did not contain lesbian ferocity.

The House of D spawned defiant outlaws, inside and outside. The accidental orators at the windows in the House of D, both those imprisoned and those exposed outside, were queer docents of Greenwich Village. The lesbian visibility movement was born of confinement.

Chris Babick told Stonewall chronicler David Carter “that whole week [of the Stonewall Riots] the women were screaming, cheering us on...The whole jail, it seemed like, was alive with people, with activity, because the streets were alive with activity. Everything vibrated.” Doric Wilson told Carter that the Saturday night of the riots, he ‘saw red sparks falling from on high, through the night air, as in a gentle rainfall… The prisoners were setting toilet paper on fire and dropping it from their cell windows to show their support for the rioters.[5]

Carter’s witnesses reported about the initial raid that “the cops were roughing up the lesbians” and that the butch dykes were among the first to fight back. Carter recounts that the crowd cheered one butch who fought with police who beat her, cuffed her, and threw her repeatedly into a police car she twice escaped. Reacting to many points of outrage, the rioters seethed “when the lesbians were thrown in.[6]” Every lesbian arrested at Stonewall, if she did not escape, churned through police booking and ended up a couple blocks away in the House of Detention.

Where were the lesbians in the Stonewall Riots?

Lesbians may not have been roaming the Village streets in the numbers their gay and trans comrades were. But there were hundreds of dykes in the House of Detention for Women during the Stonewall Riots. The lesbians of Stonewall were arrested. They were in jail. They were not silenced or hidden or still. They were the nerve center of the Riots, the critical mass, the motor spiriting the resistance. They were shouting from the windows. They were raining fire onto the streets. They were floating sparks up into the sky.

The House of D symbolized righteous struggle and resistance to queers who streamed to Greenwich Village. The lesbians imprisoned in the Women’s House of Detention were the audio, visual, and metaphysical engine of the Stonewall Riots.

The House of Detention was razed in 1974 after high profile movement activists jailed there drew media attention to its tortuous conditions. The Jefferson Market Courthouse building has become a New York Public Library branch. Next to it, where the prison stood, is a community garden tended by a committee of local residents.

Polly Thistlethwaite is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center Library, CUNY. She volunteered at the Lesbian Herstory Archives 1986–1997.

Notes

[1] Nestle, Joan. Women’s House of Detention, 1931-1974. Outhistory.org. 2008

[2] Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. (Crossing Press, 1982) 206.

[3] Flood, Nancy. Women’s House of Detention. In Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995), 1270.

[4] Harris, Sara. Hell-Hole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women. (New York: Dutton, 1967), 40-41.

[5] Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s, 2005), 188.

[6] Carter, 153.