Reflecting on lessons from Stonewall

Reflecting on lessons from Stonewall

Years after the Stonewall uprising, I finally understood concepts like respectability politics and intersectionality.


Marsha P. Johnson, in headband, and an unidentified woman, attend the second annual Stonewall anniversary march in New York City, June 21, 1971.

Marsha P. Johnson, in headband, and an unidentified woman, attend the second annual Stonewall anniversary march in New York City, June 21, 1971. (© 1971 Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

© 1971 Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

I became aware of who I am in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1950s. Outside of adult bookstores in Boston, the only place I could find the word “lesbian” in print was in an abnormal psychology book in the reserved section of the reference room of the library. Years went by before I had the confidence to ask a librarian to fetch that book for me. I am a 71-year-old mostly cisgender white woman of Western European descent: a member of the Stonewall Generation.

In Jane Fleishman’s new book, The Stonewall Generation: LGBTQ Elders on Sex, Activism, and Aging ( Skinner House, 2020), she asks her interviewees, “Where were you on June 28, 1969?” That weekend I was in upstate New York, flailing around with summer college classes, patching academic holes in my sophomore year transcript, and drinking my way through my 20th birthday. The New York Timesheadlines read “4 Policemen Hurt In ‘Village’ Raid.” They reported that 400 young men threw things at police who were raiding “a bar well known for its homosexual clientele.” I had no interest in boys, police, or seedy Greenwich Village bars. But I did have a sense that all this was important.

One friend dismissively said the queens were rampaging because Judy Garland had died. That felt off to me, though I still had no language for what was happening.

By the end of July, after devouring articles from The Village Voice and The Rat Subterranean News, I was prowling around Manhattan’s lesbian bars. Something about that raid on the Stonewall opened a sense of possibility. In the 1950s and ’60s, the existing homophile organizations supported action and political presence on a platform of normalcy. The American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as deviant: a disorder. The Daughters of Bilitis, gathered as an alternative to the bar culture, and the Mattachine Society wanted us to dress like our parents, politely ask for our civil rights, and not make waves to prove we were normal. To the best of my knowledge, looking back, both of those organizations were for white people. That, too, was part of appearing “normal.” That way of organizing felt alien to me. June 28, 1969, I was swathed in educational privilege. I was learning how to ignore the Black and Brown folks pushing back at Stonewall. Still, I was drawn in by the possibilities I saw emerging.

Having read The Stonewall Generation, and looking back on where I was the summer of 1969, I’d like to ask a question I think is relevant for looking forward: “Who are the people from whom you can turn away?”

I was carefully trained to be repulsed by the drag queens, trans women, gay boys, and weary sex workers who gathered on Christopher Street for a late-night watered-down drink at the Stonewall Inn. If I did encounter them, I was taught to turn away, lest the taint of association diminish my own stature and safety. Predatory capitalism and rape culture made it clear I would turn a blind eye on the suffering of folks deemed inferior to me, or I could expect rape and violence to bring me back into line.

While language has shifted considerably over the past fifty-one years, the structures of systemic oppression have not budged.

What changed for me was exposure. I saw people and events through those news stories that I had never seen before through the restrictive lenses of my privilege. People from whom I could previously turn away were now center stage. They were leaders, making everything happen.

Stonewall was my first clear lesson in respectability politics. Within a year or two after Stonewall, all the organizing for emergent groups like the Gay Liberation Front was peopled by white people, mostly led by college-educated white men. The “movement” had to look “respectable” in order to gain political clout—“respectable” being code for white and privileged. The Gay Liberation Front bleated on for years about how marginalized gay folks were and how we weren’t gonna take it anymore, meanwhile summarily shutting out the very people who rebelled on Christopher Street that night. Black and Brown drag queens, folx who might identify as trans women today, the marginalized within the marginalized were shunted to the sides. Marsha P. Johnson, a leader of the Stonewall rebellion, was excluded from the early Pride marches. The so-called revolution was only for those who could pass as dominant in the white supremacist soup of gay culture.

Then came the letters. Homophile became Gay; then Gay and Lesbian; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual; and, over many, many years, LGBTQ; and still it grows. As we lurched toward awareness for all the individuals who had been rendered invisible by heteronormative, white supremacist culture, the letters piled up and the marginalized began to be seen. But how would all this presence organize itself? By 1989, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw brought the word “intersectionality” out from the precise confines of its legal definitions and, for me, it became a template for organizing all my inchoate grappling with what happened on and after June 28, 1969.

In my 20s, I had no language for the affinity I felt for the drag queens and sex workers, who were Black, Brown, and resplendently confrontational. Blinded by my privilege, I was utterly confused. I could see the revolutionaries being shunted to the sides of the emerging gay liberation movement, but I had no language to name what I saw. Only years later did I find understanding in concepts like respectability politics and intersectionality. That is how Stonewall touched my life.

My Unitarian Universalist faith guides me to turn away from no one. I am learning to unpack my privilege; learning to decenter whiteness and follow Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leadership. All that started for me after Stonewall.

Oppressed people will always spark the refining fires of social change. Stonewall showed me how privileged folks colonize that rage to prevent change. It also has shown me how the privileged can partner to effect actual systemic change when they follow the leadership of the oppressed. And it showed me this: Black Lives Matter.