Deconstructing the Stonewall Myth (Brick by Brick)

If you’ve been on social media at all during the month of June, you’ve probably seen Marsha P. Johnson’s name floating through your feeds. Johnson, a self-identified drag queen and founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, looms large in public consciousness today as the “black, bisexual trans woman, who was a sex worker, that threw a brick at a cop and started a riot against the state.” The brick, of course, is a reference to the famous Stonewall riots of June 1969, during which members of Greenwich Village’s gay community responded to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn with a series of spontaneous demonstrations. New York City’s annual LGBT Pride March, which ends near the Stonewall Inn, commemorates this action each year on the last Saturday in June, and throughout the month cities around the country hold similar events and demonstrations to celebrate this key turning point in the history of LGBT Americans. The demonstrations extend through the digital realm, and in 2018, no one has a better claim to being the face of #Pride history than Marsha P. Johnson.

Here’s the thing: Johnson did not start the riots at Stonewall. In fact, she herself reported that she had only arrived on the scene around 2 a.m., to find that “the place was already on fire” and “[t]he riots had already started.” No sources have been able to conclusively answer the question of who did begin the fighting, but accounts from the night broadly agree that violence broke out between police and protesters when a butch lesbian, handcuffed and bleeding from a head wound, fought back against the officers trying to drag her into a waiting van. She then turned to bystanders and yelled, “Why don’t you guys do something?” This was the moment, witnesses agree, that something was done. That something stretched through the night, into the next night, inflaming Christopher Street and rapidly growing, through the work of organizers like Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, into something much more — an organized front against homophobia and transphobia, the movement that today we label with words like gay liberation, LGBT rights, and Pride.

A photo of Marsha P. Johnson. (Wikimedia Commons

The exact identity of the lesbian whose refusal to go quietly became a national uprising of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people remains controversial. Most reports suggest that it was Stormé DeLarverie, a biracial butch lesbian and drag king known for defending the lesbians of the Village, but a sense of uncertainty hangs around the question: there is no photograph of the crucial moment, no video footage to confirm or deny this narrative; DeLarverie herself has called it into question. And in the absence of proof, Johnson’s name has risen to the top of the history.

Where did all this brick fascination come from in the first place? A glance at Google Trends suggests that the rise of Johnson in our historical consciousness has peaked twice in the last five years — first in the summer of 2015, then more recently in October 2017. This pattern coincides with the rise of publicity around two movies: Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, released in October 2015, and the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, released in October 2017 and directed by David France.

The two films could hardly be more different. The first, a fictionalized account of the Stonewall uprising, casts a cisgender white man from Iowa in the role of brick-throwing catalyst; the second follows the efforts of trans activist Victoria Cruz to shed light on Johnson’s suspicious 1992 death, ruled a suicide but recently reopened by the NYPD as a possible homicide. Audience responses speak loud: Stonewall received a damning 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson boasts 96%. Yet both movies sparked interest in Johnson’s life, death, and role in the movement that brought about the current state of LGBT rights.

In the summer of 2015, with the release of Stonewall looming, writers began asking the question that shapes current #Pride remembrance rhetoric today: who really threw that first brick? That Roland Emmerich’s fresh-faced “Danny” wasn’t the author of the riots was a foregone conclusion, and many early pieces on the question acknowledged that there was no definitive answer on who precisely gave rise to the violence in the early hours of June 28.

In fact, the entire idea of the “first brick at Stonewall” emerged as an in-joke among the gay community, calling out the fact that the effort to boil the history of gay liberation down to a single moment or actor ignored the complexity of that history. Posts on Twitter, tumblr, and Facebook in August of 2015 facetiously suggested Macklemore, the cast of Glee, and Bernie Sanders as possible candidates for the coveted role of brick-thrower.

A diverse group of rioters posing beneath the sign over the Stonewall Inn. (Fred McDarrah and Timothy McDarrah, Gay Pride: Photographs from Stonewall to Today (Chicago: a cappella books, 1994), xxi.)

In spite of the memes, people have continued to focus on the brick, and on Johnson as the figure wielding it. Most recently, the release of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson has further elevated awareness of Johnson’s story, and with it the catastrophic rates of violence against trans peopleparticularly trans women of color — that often go ignored in mainstream media to this day. In this context, Johnson’s name and story are more than a new mythology meant to counter whitewashed, cisnormative alternative histories, but a form of resistance to state-sanctioned violence. The popularity of the idea that Johnson personally started the uprising at Stonewall, then, has its roots in the vital impulse of gay and trans communities to highlight the powerful histories of the members of our community who remain most marginalized today.

Does it matter that the story on which so many people have pinned these efforts is itself a myth — a definitive untruth in its details, denied even by the individual around whom the myth turns? In some ways, maybe not — Marsha P. Johnson’s name and story are important to LGBT history, and deserve the recognition they’re seeing in recent years. But they also deserve accuracy, and accuracy often runs counter to simplicity. For instance, Johnson is often referred to as a trans woman, but that term was not in widespread use at the time of Stonewall, and Johnson herself most often called herself a “drag queen” or “transvestite,” neither of which translate perfectly to our modern conception of trans identity (in fact, “transvestite” is generally viewed as a derogatory term today). In addition, while the Stonewall uprising marked a key moment in LGBT history, its impact means little when divorced from the complex and ugly history of state violence against gay and gender-non-conforming people to which it responded. By painting the story of Stonewall as that of a single trans woman fighting back against discrimination and starting a movement, we erase the movement that already existed, the role of other LGBT people in that movement, the complexity of LGBT identities across time, the violent and systemic nature of the hatred faced by the gay community, and, perhaps most importantly, the extent to which that violence continues into the present.

History is hard, and retweeting the myth of Marsha P. Johnson makes it easy. This #PrideMonth, let’s start pushing back against simplified, mythologized versions of LGBT history and work to complicate those pictures of the past, for the sake of those living with that same complexity in the present.

Further Reading

NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

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