I want to talk about Stonewall today. I want to talk about movements for social change — not just queer, but atheist, and feminist, and black activist, and disabled activist, and just about every other movement for social change I can think of. And I want to talk about the conflict that has gone on in every one of these movements I know about: the conflict between accomodationists and confrontationalists, between people who want to make change by polite, patient diplomacy, and people who want to make change through passionate confrontation.
And I want to point something out:
The Gay Pride parade is a celebration of a riot.
The Stonewall riots began on June 28, 1969, when a bunch of New York bar queens and dykes who had been pushed around by the police all night got fed up and pushed back. Pushed back hard. Pushed back with bottles and rocks, garbage cans and bricks. Pushed back with a riot. A series of riots, in fact: riots that lasted for days.
And that riot is generally considered to have sparked the modern LGBT rights movement.
Now, to some extent, that’s a misunderstanding of history. There had been gay activism and organizing well before Stonewall: the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the homophile movement in Europe in the early 20th century, etc. There had even been some direct confrontations and riots. But it is undeniably true that the Stonewall riots sparked something, around the country and around the world. Before Stonewall, there had been some quiet organizing and a handful of uprisings. After Stonewall, the out, proud, visible, marching- in- the- streets gay rights movement suddenly went into overdrive.
There’s a story — it may be an urban legend, I can’t find an attribution for it, but it doesn’t actually matter — about a plan to put up a monument to Stonewall in Greenwich Village. A prominent gay politico was asked what he thought would be an appropriate monument… and he answered, “A drag queen with a brick in his hand.”
Drag queens with bricks in their hands. That is what we’re celebrating.
I don’t say this to denigrate polite, diplomatic activism. To the contrary: I strongly believe that any successful social change movement needs both diplomats and hard-liners. Without the quiet work that the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society and such had been doing for years, the LGBT movement would have had a much harder time getting off the ground. I believe that diplomacy and confrontation are stronger together, and work together in a synergy that is far more powerful than either would be alone. It’s like playing good cop/ bad cop.
I’m just saying this:
When we celebrate LGBT Pride — whether we’re queer or straight, whether we’re marching in the stroller brigade or dancing half- naked on a bar float, whether we’re wearing a rainbow feather boa or a polo shirt, whether we’re sporting a T-shirt that says “Straight but Not Narrow” or “Nobody Knows I’m Gay” — we are commemorating the anniversary of a riot.
And it’s important that we not forget that.
Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism