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Stonewall Activists: Black Queer History They Didn’t Teach You In School



Before 1963, every state had laws criminalizing sodomy. Across the U.S., LGBTQ people faced penalites anywhere from three months in prison to 60 years simply for private sexual conduct that was deemed ‘lewd.’ LGBTQ immigrants could be denied entrance to the U.S. or deported if their identity was revealed as well. As often seen with oppressive legislation, these laws disproportionately affected BIPOC within the LGBTQ community.


The Stonewall Riots were a series of conflicts between members of the LGBTQ community and NYPD in June 1969. Through the 1960s, the LGBTQ community faced legislation that criminilaized their identities. Stonewall was the boiling point for the legal oppression acted out in police brutality against the LGBTQ community that resuted in large activism efforts from the LGBTQ community, often referrred to as the Gay Liberation movement.


By 1969, The Stonewall Inn was a staple to the LGBTQ community in Greenwhich Village. Stonewall was home to some of the most marginalized people in the LGBTQ community that were often turned away by other ‘gay friendly’ bars at the time. The bar was also run by the mafia because cross-dressing and public LGBTQ behavior was still illegal.


In the early morning of June 28, the NYPD showed up to raid the bar with around 200 patrons inside. The standard raid procedures at LGBTQ bars would go as follows: check the identification of everyone present & take those suspected of cross dressing to another room where a female officer would ‘verify their gender’. During the raid, patrons were vetted and those who wouldn’t be arrested, were released outside the bar and formed a crowd with people passing by.


One woman (whose identity has never been confirmed, but was reported to be Stormé DeLarverie) fought with four police officers and was hit on the head. She encouraged the crowd to come to their aid and helped spark the Stonewall uprising. The crowd began fighting back against the police who had barricaded themselves and those under arrest inside the bar. Among the crowd of reportedly 500 people, black transgender women were by all accounts the first to fight back.


The fighting with police continued into the next few nights as the LGBTQ community stood their ground and refused to be subject to such oppression, harassment, and violence any longer at the hands of police. One witness reports: 

“There was a certain beauty in the aftermath of the riot… It was obvious, at least to me, that a lot of people really were gay and, you know, this was our street.”


Another commented: “From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets.”


The Stonewall uprising acted as a catalyst for the ‘Gay Liberation’ movement that followed. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed, the first LGBTQ group to use gay instead of choosing an obscure name. GLF borrowed tactics from and aligned themselves with black and anti war demonstrators with the idea that they “could work to restructure american society.” The Gay Activists Alliance was also formed along with several LGBTQ newspapers.


Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman, was among those fighting at Stonewall and later went on to work as an activist alongside Sylvia Rivera, a Hispanic trans woman, to help those most marginalized within the LGBTQ community.


Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera co-founded STAR: Street Transvestite (later Transgender) Action Revolitionaries. They were active on the radical political scene and fought for the inclusion of drag queens and other gender non-conforming people in the Gay Liberation movement. In 1972, Johnson and Rivera also established the STAR house which was a shelter for LGBTQ street kids. Johnson worked to provide food, clothing, emotional support, and a sense of family for the LGBTQ youth in Greenwich Village.


We celebrate Pride in remembrance of Stonewall, but we only have pride because of Stonewall. We owe thanks to black trans women because they fought for our rights we enjoy today.

Amy Storti

Wells '21

Wells College Class of 2021 English Literature Major