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The greatest of hypocrisies: Gays condemn black riots over racism, forget our movement started with one

They attacked cops, after hitting them with personal items, resisting arrest and escaping detainment. They hurled bottles and other debris through the air. One cop’s eye was badly cut. Police officers were forced to barricade themselves inside a business to protect them from the unruly mob, which in turn uprooted a parking meter trying to break down the locked door and then tried to burn the business down while the cops were inside — a business many considered their “home.” They set garbage cans on fire. They marched through the streets blocking traffic and stopping cars and busses full of people, intimidating passengers — including a newly wedded couple — into supporting their cause. They overturned one car and used it as a barricade against a police phalanx. They set another car on fire. They smashed the windows of at least one police cruiser. They damaged other stores in the area and there were even some reports of looting, though protesters would blame that on outside agitators unassociated with their cause. A mob of as many as 1,000 threatened to burn down the offices of the local newspaper. 

No, that’s not Ferguson after the failed non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson. No, it’s not New York City after the failed non-indictment of officers involved in the killing of Eric Garner. No, it’s not any of the other disruptive protests that occurred in the aftermaths of both of these systemic failures of justice.

It’s the Stonewall Riots — when LGBT people took to the streets, lashed out at police and waged an all-out affront against police authority, a quintessential, dictionary case of “riot.”

This photo appeared on the front page of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969. It's apparently the only photo taken during the first night of the Stonewall Riots. In it, street kids, including homeless youth who made the park across the street from Stonewall home, are shown getting into a fight with police.

This photo appeared on the front page of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969. It’s apparently the only photo taken during the first night of the Stonewall Riots. In it, street kids, including homeless youth who made the park across the street from Stonewall home, are shown getting into a fight with police.

But some gays are hypocrites: They condemn the rioting in the aftermath of extreme miscarriages of justice for black people, all the while ignoring the fact they gather once a year to openly celebrate and commemorate a riot — a violent outburst that served as the so-called birth of their movement.

Either that, or they’re completely, utterly ignorant of their own history.

“Pride celebrates equality,” they’ll tell you, fully unaware of the history and meaning of Stonewall.

“LGBT people have gotten further with non-violence than violence,” they’ll add, fully unable to comprehend that the violent riot is what initiated the most widespread, coordinated and peaceful organizing the LGBT community had ever seen — resulting in an explosion of new chapters of activist groups across the country and the very first Christopher Street Liberation Day Marches, the historic beginnings of our modern-day Pride parades and celebrations.

A photo of the Stonewall Inn, showing the Mattachine's sign in the aftermath of the riots. By photographer Diana Davies, archived in the New York Public Library.

A photo of the Stonewall Inn, showing the Mattachine’s sign in the aftermath of the riots. By photographer Diana Davies, archived in the New York Public Library.

But these types of finger-wagging, naysaying gays can take some comfort and solace in knowing they’ve always been in good company:

“We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village” — Mattachine

That was the handwritten sign left on the front of the burned out Stonewall Inn sometime after the first night of rioting began. (Yes, “first night.” You read that correctly; there were multiple nights of rioting and violence).

If the Mattachine Society — the older, more wealthy, more established law-and-order gays (think the 1950s- and-’60s-version of the Human Rights Campaign) — had had their way, Stonewall never would have happened:

“[The] screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything that I wanted people to think about homosexuals… that we were a bunch of drag queens in the Village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap.” — Randy Wicker, Mattachine member

But, at the very least, some upper-crust, don’t-rock-the-boat gays had the brains to understand the reasons why so many, including homeless LGBT youth who called the bar and the park across the street home, were so very violently angry and upset, writing in their newsletter after the riots (emphasis added): “It [the Stonewall Inn] catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering… The Stonewall became home to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why.”

And that kind of understanding and empathy, however slight, is exactly what’s missing today.

You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to think it is the “right way” to organize. You don’t have to see their fully-complete 10-point political agenda and their “goals” for change. You don’t have to believe violence is “okay” (no one is making that argument, by the way).

You just have to understand the anger. You have to step back and accept that these protests and riots over police brutality and systemic racism and failed justice might just be the very flashpoint needed for this moment in history — the same kind of flashpoint our community experienced in 1969.

And instead of your finger-wagging disapproval, maybe you might take some time to educate yourself on your own history.

Maybe street protests aren’t your thing, so instead you might join the chorus of people calling for change.

And, above all, maybe you should examine inside yourself the place of privilege that allows you to treat modern black folk’s uprisings differently than you treat others, including your own, throughout American history — riots and acts of violence we now collectively as a society celebrate and commemorate.

thought from friend TJ Helmstetter (emphasis added):

“We have a gay pride parade every year to commemorate the riot at Stonewall. The American Revolution was started by a riot. The eight hour workday and labor rights were brought about in part by riots. Riots occurred at pivotal points in the movements to end slavery, to end Jim Crow, to end the Vietnam War, to expand Civil Rights, and during periods of unrest like the Great Depression and the Civil War. Riots signify a moment in history when it’s time for collective change. It’s time for change. It’s time to recognize that Black Lives Matter. Social change isn’t easy, it never is — and when you are in a position of privilege and power over others, unrest can be scary. But think about how much scarier it is on the other side, when you have nothing left to lose because your kids are getting gunned down in the streets. So in conclusion, don’t be outraged about the riots. Be outraged that black children are not safe in America, and do something about it.

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  1. Your titled it part of the problem. Not ‘Gays’. ‘Some Gays’…get it Be careful with your words, they mean things.

  2. Did I miss something? Did some gay figure come out and condemn these riots or are you just making these assumptions based off conversations you’ve had with gay people to which I would say, you need better friends. The lack of support isn’t from gay people. It’s from people in general.

  3. Comparing Stonewall to current riots? Come on. There is plenty to be mad about in regards to race relations in this nation, but to make an analogy to the 1960s and the treatment of the LGBT community? This is a classic example of argument by false analogy. Focus on the real problems instead of trying to sap sympathy with parallels.

    • Police brutality in 1969 against LGBT folks vs police brutality against Black folks in 2014. What’s not to get? The linking issue is police brutality. The deeper layer is sexuality/race/gender. All oppression is linked and works towards affirming white supremacy.

  4. Where are the facts supporting your assumptions about the gay community. Just as there were gay people who condemned the gay riots, there are black people, I hear daily, condemning the recent black riots. I don’t read in your article, however, about the outpouring of support from straight people rioting with the gay people. In Ferguson and Saint Louis people from many races and differing sexual orientations joined in the recent riots. Your comparison, with its’ lack of facts and supporting evidence showing the condemnation from the entire gay community regarding the recent riots, is inflammatory and insulting. Shame should wash over you for posting this nonsense.

  5. By not bothering to document instances of this so-called lack of gay empathy and understanding for these protests, you seem to be documenting here not some credible aspect of the gay community, but instead your own internal presumptions about the gay community. No offense, but singling out gay people because of something you “may” have heard from one or two people is ludicrous at best. And at worst, it’s a disingenuous attempt to create attention for yourself surrounding a non-issue that you’ve created.

      • Actually, William, one’s opinion on the validity of the verdicts in Ferguson, NYC, et al. is altogether irrelevant, since one could conceivably be opposed to the verdicts in Ferguson/NYC/et al. and ALSO opposed to the rioting (viewing it as counterproductive nonsense that undermines the legitimacy of a cause/particular sect of indignant outrage), OR likewise be supportive of both–provided one views the rioting at least partially as justified acts of outrage/catharsis toward a lengthy history of institutionalized oppression/racism (despite being ostensibly incited by the incidents in Ferguson/et al), and/or sees it as an unpleasant but necessary stepping stone to major sociopolitical reform.
        The oversimplification you’ve made is idiotic, reductive nonsense of the highest order.

  6. Wow, Mr. Comer, so someone’s sexual orientation makes them beholden to the choices of individuals from a completely different century?

    Oh yeah, and the entire gay community condemns the Ferguson riots because… well… apparently we all took a vote or something (I must have missed it, but admittedly, I don’t open my mail in timely manner… i’m sure that rainbow colored envelope is still around here somewhere), all those big hairy leather bears piercing a P.A. through their ballot card, or the queens marking their judgement with a huge red x in lipstick and smudging glitter all over their ballot, or maybe all the closet cases slipping their ballots out from beneath the crack under the door, and lets not forget the high society queers that spilled red wine on their ballots in a fit of passion?

    I’m really uncomfortable with this article’s certainty it has the right to tell me who I am, what I think, and so on based on what other people have done/ are doing. “Sorry, you’re gay; not only do you think like all other gays, but you’re not allowed to even think that way or have an individual opinion because of something some other gays did almost 50 years ago.” Reminds me of how some people expect the world to be bound by the choices of people from more than 2,000 years ago (ahem Levites…), or parents that tell their sons who they are and who they should love based on their biological gender, because you know… they belong to that grand patriarchal tradition of manhood.

    I’m an individual first and foremost. Sex is just a part of life. Just because the world tries to define me by my sexuality (including some in the LGBT community), doesn’t mean I do. Just because an LGBT community exists, doesn’t mean we’re all one giant thousand-headed drag queen with one utterly fabulous wig.

    I get the anger. I don’t get your article (unless you’re trying to ward off White/Gay Guilt by shouting “I’m not one of them!”)

  7. This is an excellent article. I’ve never understood why one oppressed people would oppress another people (or allow them to be oppressed). I’ve known about the Stonewall riots since coming out, but until a couple weeks ago I turned my privileged nose up at disorderly protests. This article is one of many I’ve read recently that is helping me develop a new understanding of the role of protests, righteous protests, in bringing about needed change. If laws, systems, institutions are unjust, then they must be changed. As this article so clearly shows, historically those changes are often precipitated by great unrest, even violence. My biggest hope is that all of this anger and outrage can be channeled into bringing about the changes that we so desperately need.

  8. I’m annoyed that the article is titled “Gays condemn black riots over racism…” Since when did the gay community condemn the riots? Ugh, titles like that pit people against each other. Later it says “but some gays are hypocrites,” as if that makes the attention grabbing title alright.

  9. Mainly just playing devil’s advocate here, but it would be reasonable for someone to argue that violent rioting is justified in some cases but not in others.

    It’s pretty easy to justify the Stonewall riots while condemning the Ferguson ones. At the time of the Stonewall riots, police were raiding gay bars routinely and arresting anyone in drag, the government kept lists of gay people, thousands of people were getting fired from their jobs, publicly humiliated, harassed, jailed and put in mental hospitals. Seems like a riot was completely justified. People had been trying to get attention to their cause through less extreme measures, but it never gained any traction. It wasn’t until they rioted that the movement started to take off. Meanwhile, with Ferguson, people are rioting because police killed someone who had just violently robbed a convenience store and was involved in a scuffle in the cops car. While I think police brutality and unnecessary violence that overwhelmingly targets black men are just causes to riot against, Ferguson isn’t an example of that. It is an example of people making up their own facts and ignoring all evidence that contradicts it.

    Of course, this argument wouldn’t make sense when it comes to Garner and other examples of police killing unarmed black men, but since most of the violence has been in Ferguson, it seems like a reasonable argument to make.

  10. I just wanted to say I think this is an excellent article. I think alot of the people getting mad are missing the point though. Firstly, the author never states that ALL gay people are condeming ferguson. The title /could/ be read that way but is not explicit. You should read an article before jumping to conclusions. Secondly, those who are saying that Stonewall is justified and Ferguson is not? You have a startingly low opinion of human life. There /might/ have been some shadey circumstances surrounding Mike Brown but he certainly didn’t deserve to die. Unarmed robbery and resisting arrest warrant a death sentence? Really? Also Ferguson is about more than just Mike Brown, he was just a catalyst. There’s Akai Gurley who was shot dead by police while walking down the stairs with his girlfriend, the 12 year old boy who was shot while playing with a toy gun (a detail which somehow was not passed from the dispatcher to the police), and ofcourse Eric Garner who was strangled by police officers who were using a move that they are not permitted to use. And these are just recent things, there are probably so many more that we don’t know about. If you don’t think this is worthy of the same anger that fueled Stonewall then you may be lacking the ability to feel for others.