Only a few months ago I’d walked the streets of Greenwich Village with a gaggle of queer college students, led by a middle-aged butch lesbian.
She showed us the bench that she had slept upon for much of her teen years after her parents disowned her for being gay when she was 13. Marginalized women just like her–women of color, poor women, gay and bisexual women–were imprisoned there decades ago. Next to that, there was street sign around the corner from the Stonewall Inn coincidentally called “Gay Street,” which we all shared a laugh about.
Our tour guide Jay Toole*, homeless drug addict and current LGBT rights activist, not only showed a few college kids taking a Queer Literature class what it was like to be gay in the 1960’s; she also gave us a connection to a history that has been severed by the modern fetishization of gay culture. In a day and age where LGBT identities have become more “mainstream,” and therefore more profitable, we’ve largely lost touch with our roots.
I reconnected with those roots around the next street corner when she showed us the exact place she had stood during the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Finally, right next to a ridiculously overpriced pet store, stood the Stonewall Inn.
The Stonewall Inn was one of the many gay-friendly bars subjected to violent police raids on the basis of “homosexual deviance” in the mid-20th century. After the violent persecution of queer people at the hands of the police, the inn’s tenants and bar-goers decided to fight back; hence, the modern gay and trans liberation movement was born.
History like this kind Jay exposed us to is vital to the LGBT community. LGBT history lets us see what politicians did wrong, how they left us to die amidst the AIDS crisis, how we were persecuted for simply being, and how we can change the landscape of activism as a whole and individually.
The trans women of color who led the movement, such as like Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, understood the power a riot can give to the marginalized. The Stonewall Riots were a response to institutional injustice, a collective act of self-defense that was imperative for LGBT people to take.
Remembering Stonewall empowers LGBT youth and all marginalized peoples; it reminds us to keep those facing the greatest oppression at the forefront, because they will create the most profound change.
Meeting Jay was experiencing a connection to the past I hadn’t seen before. It was awe-inspiring. Hearing her talk about her wife and several cats showed me there is hope for LGBT youth like me, and that we, too, could one day be queer elders telling our stories of empowerment to the next generation of activists.
* For more information of Toole’s activism and speaking tours, visit https://www.nyctransoralhistory.org/queer-walking-tour