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The Many Faces of Stonewall

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Anyone who knows anything about LGBT history has heard of the Stonewall Riots.  Often cited as the start of the gay rights revolution and the first time LGBT people fought back against the oppressive governmental systems. In fact, some say Stonewall is to the LGBT movement what Rosa Parks is to the Civil Rights movement.  In 2004, author David Carter published a book about Stonewall, called Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.

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The book was actually heavily researched right here in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, and if you look closely, you'll find images taken from our very own digital archives among the evidence of the events that took place.

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This image from the book is taken from the Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen archive in the Digital Collections.

This incredibly detailed book has recently been turned into a film called Stonewall Uprising, now playing at the NYC Film Forum on W. Houston.

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The film not only chronicles the 3-day riot via first-person narrative, re-enactment, video and photos, it also outlines the events and climate which lead up to the occurrence of the event.  Using news footage, clips from "educational" films of the time and testimonials from LGBT people, their allies and even a police officer involved in the raids, Stonewall Uprising offers a poignant perspective of the riots impetus.

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 The movie and book both made me think about the role that trans and gender-variant folks played in the riots themselves and the aftermath. In particular, Martin Duberman's book, Stonewall, offers the story of Sylvia (Ray) Rivera, a street transvestite and the founder of STAR- Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

Rivera claims that it was in face a fellow transvestite who started the riots when, after being shoved by a cop towards a paddy wagon, started throwing punches.  Other accounts report it was a cross-dressing lesbian who, while being led into the paddy wagon, went to the other side of it and began rocking it.  While the accounts vary, there is no doubt that, regardless of who started it, people from all places on the gender-bending spectrum were a huge part of the events that preceded.

Because of the law that stated that all bar patrons must be wearing at least three articles of clothing belonging to their biological gender, drag queens and kings were often the victims of arrests and harassment by the police during raids. Account after account detail the ways trans people used their wits, strength, and non-gender conforming articles of clothing to fight back against the police and reclaim their space on Christopher Street.

As the Tactical Patrol Force bore down on the crowd, a group of queens formed a chorus line, arms clasped around one another, kicking their heels in the air singing at the top of their lungs. "We are the Stonewall girls. We wear our hair in curls..." Individual queens shocked the cops arresting them by offering sexual advances, using the stunned silence of the police reactions as opportunities to escape.  Martin Boyce, a eighteen-year old queen saw a heeled and nyloned leg shoot out the back of a paddy wagon into the chest of a cop who was thrown backwards into the street.

For a group previously pigeonholed as weak and un-aggressive, the people of all orientations and identifications that evening decided to take a stand and fight back.  As Silvia Rivera comments, "I wanted to do every destructive thing I could think of the get back at those who had hurt us over the years.  letting loose, fighting back, was the only way to get across to straight society and the cops that we weren't going to take their fucking bullshit anymore."

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Diana Davies. Stonewall Inn, 1969.

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