The Stonewall Uprising and Intersectionality

By Aayudh Pramanik

Photo: Sharon McCutcheon

Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation” – Arundhati Roy. It’s an age old story really, the oppressed and the oppressors. The one sided, rather monochrome, dull and stringent understanding of a phenomenon, over simplifying it for the sake of complacency gains popularity and boom, one fine day it is on the mouths of every single person and it’s only a matter of time before it turns into documented doctrines and guidelines of socially acceptable behaviour.

Of course, there will be minds that are bound to think otherwise and experiment otherwise, only to discover that it feels rather liberating. A segregation is formed with blurred lines, word goes around, the power of the free press takes onto itself and out comes the socially out casted. Then starts the public humiliation, protests break out in sporadic instances and the next step is only a revolution. It is bound to happen. The revolution that I speak of here, in case of the LGBTQIA+ community, is the Stonewall Uprising.

You would want to know why it is called the Stonewall Uprising in the first place. The Stonewall Inn was bought by the Genovese crime family in 1966, cheaply renovated the “straight bar” and reopened it next year as a gay bar. It was a private bottle type of bar since it had no liquor license and required the patrons to carry their own liquor with themselves. The police precinct nearby had been bribed to ignore the activities ongoing within the club. However, Stonewall Inn soon became an important institution in Greenwich Village. Cheap, affordable, allowed dancing – one of the only gay bars left to do so – and welcomed drag queens who otherwise were subject to a rather hostile receipt.

Prior to planned police raids, they used to be tipped off by the corrupt police so that they could put away all the bootlegged alcohol and everything that would be punishable by law. The Inn was raided on the June of 28th, this time the bar having not been tipped. They sported warrants and seized numerous illicit bottles of alcohol and arrested 13 people including employees and people who were suspected of not conforming to the law enforced gender appropriate dressing module. The police went as far as to take suspects to the washroom to confirm their assigned sex.

As we have witnessed, time and again, uncalled for degradation, harassment and attacks never make the news or even get publicly acknowledged till the harassed retaliate. Case in point? The farmer’s protest against the farm laws in India and the Israel-Palestine conflict. None of them were spoken about, debated about or even thought about till the oppressed fought back. Same was the case with the Stonewall Riots. Having had enough with the incessant social opprobrium, brutal rousting – at a point a person was hit on the head by an officer while being forced into their police van which incited a violent response from the onlookers in the forms of throwing articles at them – within minutes the area was swarmed with infuriated community members and local residents in hundreds fuelling a full blown riot. Barricades were formed and the police and a few of the prisoners locked themselves within. Attempts were made to breach the barricades and set the Inn on fire. The protest was eventually placated by the riot squad and the flames extinguished but small aftershocks and sometimes riots with thousands of people continued for almost five days. The cause gained traction once the “Village Voice”’s account of the riots were published.

Although the riots were not directly responsible for sparking an intensive movement for LGBTQIA+ rights, it served as a catalyst for an entire new era of political activism as concerned the community. Moreover, it became a binding symbol of solidarity amongst several people from the LGBTQIA+ community. A parade took place on the one year anniversary of the riot from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in Manhattan and the official chant of the parade was coined as “Say it loud, gay is proud”. It was a founding stone in the building of protesting several years of overt and covert, subtle and blatant injustice against the LGBTQIA+ community along with a uniting force conflating the cause of feminist movements with opposing the oppression of several other marginalized communities.

The concept is termed as Intersectionality. Now, consider the following scenario: There is a white lesbian woman who experiences discrimination against her sexuality. It is the sole cause for multiple fall outs and a bad social image. There is non binary pansexual black person who also faces oppression, but on so many different levels. They lose job opportunities and are mistrusted as a capable person on multiple occasions. Their gender identity is a source of confusion for several people owing to the lack of education about this and is invalidated by several transphobes. They are misgendered continuously and their sexuality is also dismissed as a fake sexuality by ignorant people of their own community.

Their oppression sources from their race, gender identity as well as sexuality, while the other woman faces oppression sourcing from only her sexuality. In no circumstances can they ever be equal levels of oppression, quite clearly. Let us look at it from the opposite point of view. The white woman was more privileged than the other person. Accepting that everyone faces different levels of oppression and acknowledging that it comes from privilege in certain areas of life and identifying all the overlapping factors that lead to discrimination against an individual is what Intersectionality is. That is precisely why I mentioned feminist movements there.

So is born the legacy of the Stonewall Riots, consolidating protests as the only method of effective opposition against systemic oppression and serving as an internationally recognized linchpin of strength for the community.