On June 27, 1969, a 17-year-old Rusty Rose walked into Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, for a fun night out. The events that unfolded were far from fun, but would end up lighting the spark for the modern gay rights movement.
“I didn’t know I was going to make history,” Rose says today.
Rose had gone to the bar with her friend Vinny, a drag king. The Stonewall was dark, smoky, and smelled of beer. Around 1am on June 28, a group of men walked in and spoke to the person behind the bar. The conversation got heated, and then physical. Rose realized the new entrants were plainclothes cops.
This wasn’t unusual. In 1969, the solicitation of homosexual relations was illegal in New York City. While gay bars were places of refuge, they were often subject to police raids and harassment. New York state’s criminal statute also authorized the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of “gender-appropriate clothing.”
The Stonewall confrontation quickly turned violent. Rose remembers the police calling the bar’s patrons “faggots, poofs, and pansy.” The lights came on and the police used bar stools to push people towards the front of the club, dragging some of them out by force. Uniformed police officers joined the fray. There was a lot of banging and shouting, and Rose could hear someone screaming, “We’re going to die.”
Rose was terrified, but also angry. “We were all young and we weren’t going to take it anymore,” she says. She jumped on the back of a cop trying to arrest her friend, but another cop came and put the friend into a police car. Rose was then caught by a cop, but he shouted at her to go home. She believes it was because she looked so young.
Before she went home, Rose saw a crowd forming around Stonewall Inn, fighting back against the police. By the time the police called for reinforcement, a riot was well underway. The rebellion, which lasted several days, inspired a movement that spanned the globe.
Rose is now an award-winning poet. A favorite poem of hers—titled “Put the T first where it belongs”—is a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community to not erase the essential role the transgender community played at Stonewall, and in the overall movement.
Put the T first it is where it belongs!
T-L-G-B and even S for straight, this is how our acronym should be
The night we were all set free
Fighting for freedoms at Stonewall,
I will never forget—beautiful Transgender woman
Of fifty—purple midriff and eye lined,
Long dark hair, her voice raised over the Din.
She led the way, this is why I say:
Put the T first it is where it belongs
— A segment of “Put the T first it is where it belongs”
The LGBTQ struggle has often, at least historically, ignored transgender rights. When stories of Stonewall hit the mainstream, trans women—and particularly trans women of color—were often omitted. As recently as 2015, a film about the rebellion, Stonewall (paywall), was met with severe backlash from the LGBTQ community for misrepresenting and “whitewashing” the leaders of the protests.
“Our transgender brothers and sisters have not gotten their due,” Rose says.
More recently, greater attention has been paid to the trans women at Stonewall who went on to have a huge impact on the gay liberation movement: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The duo established the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which campaigns and advocates for homeless queer youth.
A year after the 1969 rebellion, a march was held to commemorate the fight. Dubbed the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, that march would later morph into Pride, the annual celebration of the Stonewall rebellion and the fight for LGBTQ rights.
But during and shortly after Stonewall, the radical agenda for queer liberation for all members of the community was often in conflict with those who fought under a more conservative position. Trans activists like Johnson and Rivera were often shunned and at times even banned (paywall) from pride parades. Some believed their activism went too far, while others felt they risked the movement’s search for respectability and assimilation.
Although Rose has attended Pride events with other veterans of the Stonewall rebellion, she’s become increasingly frustrated with corporate sponsorship it now entails; the march has been “hijacked by corporations,” she says.
Rose isn’t alone in feeling that way. Last year, the group “No Justice No Pride” halted Washington DC’s Pride parade to protest against the presence of both police and a large number of corporations. Others point to the fact that LGBT grassroots organizations are being priced out of Pride events and replaced by corporations.
Rose says she’s still very anti-establishment—“I’ll always be a hippy at heart”—and believes the fight for liberation is far from over. She says the younger generation, who have been leading protests against police brutality and gun violence, reminds her a lot of her own. The same rules apply for the fight today as did during Stonewall.
“If we want change, we can’t sit in the wings. We’ve got to grab those wings and fly.”