The Ladies of Stonewall

women stonewall

Danny Winters did not throw the brick that initiated the Stonewall riots in 1969. Danny Winters wasn’t anywhere near Stonewall that evening. Danny Winters doesn’t even exist.

Danny Winters is a fictional character created by Roland Emmerich, the director of Stonewall. Emmerich was asked why he chose to make the protagonist a white, middle class male from Indiana. “As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay,” he explained.

But even though the character is gay, Emmerich has the actor portraying Winters act straight. Why? The director informs us that he didn’t make this movie just for gay people, he made it for straight people as well. “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that.”

In other words, it’s alright to be gay as long as you don’t act too gay. The tag line of the movie reads, “Where Pride Began,” yet Emmerich is willing to strip his protagonist of any hint of his essence in order to placate straight audiences. And if this wasn’t offensive enough, who does Emmerich casts as the bigots? Gay people! They mistreat Danny because he’s too straight! I wonder if the director truly appreciates the irony?

By casting himself as the protagonist in his movie, Emmerich has done a great disservice to the real soldiers of Stonewall. The army was diverse, and the battle was fought on several fronts over several days. There was no white savior from the Midwest; no Spartacus to lead a slave army against the oppressors. There were mostly street kids, displaced and unwanted, and would be considered at home in a Dickens’ novel. Black. White. Hispanic. Gay. Hated and marginalized by society.

And then there were the women of Stonewall. The lesbians and the drag queens. I use that term in this article because that was the vernacular of the time. The word Transgender was unknown to them; they were called drag queens, and that’s how they described themselves. But please don’t confuse that with performers in a drag show, as we define the word today.

The Stonewall Inn was frequently raided, and the usual procedure was for female officers to take the women to the rest room to verify that they were indeed women. The drag queens were then arrested, along with any male patrons who did not have proper identification.

But during the raid on the evening of June 28, 1969, the drag queens resisted and refused to go with the female officers. This act of civil disobedience in the face of injustice, in the true spirit of Thoreau or Gandhi, set in motion a series of events that quickly escalated into the riot. In solidarity with the drag queens who were being harassed by the police, many of the male patrons of the bar refused to show their identification.

Both the police and the patrons of the bar felt the level of discomfort rise inside the bar as they waited for the patrol wagons to arrive. Some of the lesbians were fondled by a few of the policemen under the pretext of being frisked, adding to the feeling of unease. Those who were released hung around the front door, waiting to see what would happen. Bystanders in the street joined them outside the Stonewall, and before the first patrol wagon arrived, a sizable crowd had gathered.

Stormé DeLarverie, a “dyke-stone butch” who often dressed in male attire, was forcibly escorted from the bar to a waiting patrol wagon. When she complained about her handcuff being too tight, she was hit in the face with a night stick. Bleeding from her chin, Stormé fought back against four policemen, crying out to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?”

The butch lesbians and drag queens would no longer take the harassment, choosing instead to make a stand, refusing to comply with the police who struggled in vain to arrest them. And as soon as they got one of them in the patrol wagon, she would simply escape the moment the cops weren’t looking. The days of compliance were over; no longer would they just sit there and meekly do what they were told. It was time to fight back.

Inspector Pine, who led the raid at Stonewall, later recalled, “Fights erupted with the transvestites, who wouldn’t go into the patrol wagon.”

Quickly, the situation escalated, and the cops used their batons to punish the queens for their resistance. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who later became a leading advocate for transgender rights and prison reform, was struck on the head and arrested. Others fought back the best that they could, some using their shoes as defensive weapons. As one bystander noted, “All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously.”

The crowd that had assembled outside the Stonewall Inn came to the aid of their sisters, throwing coins and rocks at the police. According to witnesses, street queen Marsha P. Johnson was the main instigator inciting the crowd. Playwright Robert Heide, who witnessed the event, remembers that she was “… in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks and almost like Molly Pitcher in the Revolution or something.”

Sylvia Rivera was another of the notable drag queens at the Stonewall riot. Reacting to the violent arrest of her friend Tammy Novak, Sylvia picked up a beer bottle and hurled it at the police. By many accounts, the first to do so. Later on, Sylvia and Marsha founded STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

So who are the real heroes of Stonewall? Sylvia Rivera. Marsha P. Johnson.  Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.  Stormé DeLarverie. Certainly not Danny Winters.

And what do they all have in common? They’re all people of color, whitewashed by those who see Stonewall only from a white, male perspective. They are all transgender (I now use that term with absolute pride), ciswashed from the movement they gave birth to. They are the women of Stonewall.


This article from the July 6th, 1969 Sunday edition of the New York Daily News documents the role of the drag queens in the Stonewall riots June 28th – July 1st.