A country, united in grief, gathers to mourn the death of its citizens at the hands of terrorists, and proves to the world that they refuse to live in fear.
Black men and women, marching to draw attention to discriminatory voting laws, gather on a bridge and stare down white police officers armed with billy clubs and tear gas.
Hundreds of uniformed police officers, mourning the death of a fellow officer, turn their backs on an elected official they blame for inciting violence against one of their own.
Throughout history, we gather. From the Boston Tea party to the Arab spring, from sit-ins at lunch counters in the 1950s and 60s to the Occupy movement of today, from Stonewall, to Ferguson, to countless other protests big and small, men, women, and children join together—in protest, in solidarity, in mourning, in triumph—finding solace, strength, and solidarity in public union.
Mom’s last letter mentioned the importance of the Stonewall riots to the modern LGBT civil rights movement. In June of 1969, a group of gay men and women, led by several drag queens, decided that enough was enough after police carried out a routine raid on one of their favorite gay bars—the Stonewall Inn—in New York’s Greenwich Village. New York state law at the time required that citizens wear clothing “appropriate” to their gender, so after the couple hundred patrons were lined up and police checked their identification, several drag queens and women dressed in mens clothing were arrested and led outside to be taken away.
In his book The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996, Charles Kaiser details the events of that night. Kaiser quotes Deputy Police Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid, as saying, “ The homosexuals were usually very docile, quiet people. But this night was different.”
According to Storme DeLaverie, a cross-dressing lesbian (whom some credit as starting the riot when “the cop hit [her] and [she] hit him back”), “The police got the shock of their lives when those queens came out of the bar and pulled off their wigs and went after them. I knew sooner or later people were going to get the same attitude I had. They had just pushed once too often.”
On Christopher Street in front of the bar, trouble erupted. Tired of the sporadic raids and humiliation, customers reached a breaking point. Impromptu chants rang out. Bricks, beer bottles, and garbage cans were hurled by the protestors, and garbage cans were lit on fire. Hundreds of onlookers joined in, having been awoken by the early morning ruckus in the streets. While waiting for reinforcements, the police conducting the raid and arrests were forced to retreat back into the bar, fearing for their safety.
Protestors gathered for two more nights of protest. The poet Allen Ginsberg, present for the second night, thrilled “Gay Power! Isn’t that great!” and remarked that, “The guys [inside the now re-opened Stonewall Inn] were so beautiful. They’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.”
After Stonewall, the LGBT community began to work together as a cohesive unit, forming new activist organizations, starting newspapers devoted exclusively to issues of the gay community, and commemorating the riots that started it all with annual gay pride parades, first in New York city, and then, over the years, around the world.
Clearly, the Stonewall protests have served the LGBT community well. As direct action, it sparked a drive to change discriminatory laws and social norms that is still thriving today. As a symbol, the riots have served as an important cultural landmark, providing inspiration to members of the community—used to living quietly and secretly in the closet—to come out into the light.
For all I owe to Stonewall as a member of the LGBT community, I have a hard time attending those yearly commemorative events. The Pride Parade makes me feel slightly uncomfortable and foolish. Perhaps it’s just my introverted nature, but my passion for LGBT rights doesn’t translate easily into public demonstrations, replete with banner carrying, speeches, and chants. Had I been in New York City in June of 1969 (and not in my crib in Buffalo), I’m not sure I would have joined the throngs in the streets demanding justice. But I am so thankful that many did just that.
While I’m conflicted about joining the crowds, I’m not conflicted about joining the fight. There are several aspects of my life that are, at least in part, about protest. Supporting gay and lesbian led families hoping to adopt, helping a group of students start a Gay-Straight Alliance, or even just being an out gay high school teacher all have political, public, demonstrative qualities to them. They are not the banner waiving kind of protest, for sure, but they are done in community with others and are motivated by injustice. That, I believe, is the very nature of protest.
So, I’m the quiet protest type. What about you? This week, we are asking readers to respond with their own stories of protest—big, small, loud or quiet. We want to hear from you about public demonstrations where you took the bullhorn and rallied the crowd, and singular moments when nothing needed to be said to make your point. Tell us about how you felt, what motivated you to act, and what the impact of your action was on others in your community.
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