Written by Emily Leclerc
In the wee hours of the morning on June 28, 1969, the NYPD entered the Stonewall Inn and proceeded to arrest several of the patrons in the bar. The Stonewall Inn was a seedy underground gay bar in Greenwich Village in New York City. It had become one of the few safe places for LGBTQ people in the city, as any sort of open homosexual act was illegal during this time. Several employees were arrested for illegally selling alcohol, and the patrons were roughed up and arrested for not wearing the correct number of gender appropriate articles of clothing.
As the arrestees were being led to police cars, those milling around outside the bar did not withdraw but instead gathered around the police. The LGBTQ members on the city had reached their limits. They were sick and tired of being continually harassed by the police and finally decided to fight back. For the next five days, violent demonstrations took place in front of the Stonewall Inn in protest of the continuous persecution and discrimination of the LGBTQ community. The Stonewall riots, while they did not start the gay rights movement, gave the LGBTQ community the fire it needed to eventually go on and fight for their long overdue civil rights.
The gay rights movement has since exploded and is bringing about long-desired change. As this change occurs, though, people are starting to realize that LGBTQ history has not been well documented. The stories of LGBTQ people, their experiences, and their contributions have been left out of traditional histories.
Dr. Gregory Rosenthal, assistant professor of history at RC and co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, talked about this lacking history at the “Fifty Years Since Stonewall: LGBTQ+ History Forum” this past Tuesday.
“The fact is that so much queer history is not done by historians. As a field, as a practice, for the past fifty years it has often been LGBTQ people themselves who have done this work,” said Rosenthal.
It has fallen on the LGBTQ community to collect their own stories because no one else is doing it, and they are a community that deserves just as much as any other to have their stories told.
Cathleen Rhodes, senior lecturer in women’s studies at Old Dominion University and director of the Tidewater Queer History Project, discussed how her entire organization’s purpose is to collect oral histories of LGBTQ people from the surrounding community. They want to get a sense of what it was like to be a queer person during the 80s and 90s in order to garner a better understanding of the LGBTQ experience. The issue they keep running into, though, is that people don’t believe they have a story to tell.
“They think we’re looking for something very specific. And I think that’s tied to the idea that history, especially academic history, has often left out LGBTQ people. And so, the message has clearly been that those histories are not important enough to make it into our official records,” said Rhodes.
Because the LGBTQ community has been pushed to the wayside for so long, those who are trying to preserve their history have trouble pulling out their stories because they don’t believe their stories are important enough to be documented.
However, there is hope; as people have started to realize the gaping holes in the LGBTQ historical record, a concerted effort is now being made to fill those holes. Blake McDonald, another one of the panelists, heads the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. They are working to collect and document LGBTQ history along with preserving LGBTQ spaces. In 2015, the National Park Service announced that they were starting a nationwide LGBTQ heritage study. The study has since concluded, but projects like that show that there is quite an effort being made.
The Stonewall Inn was declared a national historic monument in June of 2016. Stonewall’s legacy won’t be forgotten and LGBTQ history is slowly being filled in, piece by piece.