Stonewall was a Riot

We’ve all heard the stories about the Stonewall riots. Police raided the mafia-owned bar. Usually, the mafia paid off the cops to make sure they got a heads up, but for whatever reason on the evening of June 28, 1969, they weren’t warned. The cops busted in, rounded up the queers, and loaded them in the waiting paddy wagon. The patrons decided they didn’t particularly want to be arrested that night so they fought back. Three nights of rioting ensued. The following year, a march. Following that, a parade. And now we get drunk and dance and, let’s be honest, that’s all the original patrons of Stonewall wanted: to get drunk and dance.

Have you ever wondered why though? Why didn’t the patrons want to be arrested? I mean, no one wants to be arrested. But these were outlaws. Queers were all criminals, outlaws, deviants. When they got dressed in their gender non-conforming clothing and left the house, they were criminals. When they congregated, they were outlaws. And sexually, they were deviants. The worst possible social violation. So what? You get arrested, you are charged with cross-dressing or congregating. It’s a misdemeanor. You pay a fine (assuming you can) and go home. That’s the price you pay for living the life you choose.

Except that’s not how it usually went.

When the police raided a bar, they lined everyone up according to perceived gender. Short hair and pants, male. Skirt and painted nails, female. Then the police would check gender. Not by asking or checking IDs, but by looking at the external sex organs of the queer. Sometimes privately in the bathroom. Sometimes in the middle of the bar. Those found in violation would be arrested. If you’ve read Stone Butch Blues, you know what happens next. If you haven’t, I apologize in advance. At the police station, the queers were put in mass holding cells. Throughout the night, they would be systematically brought to interrogation, raped, and returned to the cell. In the morning, everyone would be released without charges. Their names would be published in the local newspaper’s arrest log, which meant they would be outed, evicted from their residences, fired from their jobs.

Did this exact sequence happen every single time? No. But it was always some variation. The purpose, of course, was to enforce social norms. Those violating normative behavior must, of course, be stopped, be regulated. Laws regulate deviancy. Police officers enforce laws. Laws and law enforcement officers are tools of the cishetero patriarchy.

Are current police officers behaving in this way? Are they raiding gay bars and rounding up queers for sport? Are they systematically raping them to enforce normative sexual behavior? Of course not. That said, do queers still live in a society that is violent physically and emotionally and socially? Do queers move through a world that is not built for them? Does that world regularly remind them that they do not belong? Fuck yes. A thousand times yes. That’s the tricky thing. Police officers in the twenty-first century are not regulating queerness the way they did half a century ago. But police officers still represent that regulation. The queers who survived that bar scene are still alive. The queers who didn’t make it sent their stories on to maintain their immortality. And what about the young ones? What about the trans babies who don’t have identification that matches their gender identity? Or those who have realized that passing isn’t just a privilege, but another tool to regulate conformity? Have you ever had a cop ask for your ID and handed over a document that looked nothing like your current gender presentation? I have. It’s terrifying.

There are a lot of gay police officers. Lesbians too. Bisexuals, of course. There are likely even some trans officers. I’d be willing to bet there are queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, aromatic, two-spirit, and pansexual police officers. Some of them are women and some are men and some are enby. Many are out. Many are not. (You’ll notice, I hope, that I am intentionally not talking about race. The intersection of race and sexuality makes for a more nuanced and complex argument. I have opted to not include race in this blog because I am white. I have privilege that makes it impossible to truly conceive of being regulated by both race and queerness. I will leave that to voices who are more able.) Police departments are shifting at a rapid pace, which is great. But they have not come close to completing the work. They are still symbols of oppression. They will always be symbols of oppression because they enforce and regulate. Many of the laws they enforce are necessary and pivotal to a society that wishes to foster kindness. But not all. Some laws are intended, still, to subjugate.

If police officers (especially queer police officers) want to prove they are not their predecessors, they must acknowledge the weight of their history. The purpose of a uniform is to homogenize. There are living queers who are unable to separate a good cop from a bad cop because it was a man in a police uniform who raped them. Who arrested them. Who beat them. Who killed their lovers and friends. That is the legacy of a police uniform. If queer police officers want to attend pride in their queer police uniform, they will carry the weight of every uniform who came before them and that uniform inspired fear. To be clear, I am not talking about the aberrations. There always have been and always will be rogue cops who are mean and cruel and evil. Just as there will always be aberrations in librarians or accountants or humans. But the cop who arrested and raped and beat and ruined the life of a queer for being a queer is not an aberration. He is one of many. He is a nameless face. He is everything the uniform intended. He is a legacy.

Police officers in uniform are a symbol of regulation. To queers, they are a symbol of our subjugation even if they are worn by a queer. Their uniform does not belong at Pride. Their uniform belongs outside, listening, learning. When we are no longer afraid, we will invite them in.


  1. Thank you, Ashley, for this week thought out blog. I agree with Elaine, regarding Lee Lynch’s book, The Raid. Such fears as you mentioned, such as about showing identification, were prevalent in the trailblazing novels of Bannon, Forrest, and others.

    For me, one statement in your blog had the most impact, and will be with me for a long time:

    “…I have opted to not include race in this blog because I am white. I have privilege that makes it impossible to truly conceive of being regulated by both race and queerness. I will leave that to voices who are more able.)…”

    Thank you. Thank you for that, and thank you for that statement.

    Ms M


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