Who threw the first brick at Stonewall? Let's argue about it

Those of you who don’t spend hours online gossiping and arguing over RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants might not know how pervasive first brick memes have become in certain queer internet communities.

Who threw the first brick at Stonewall? Let's argue about it

I’ve been a student of LGBTQ history for more than two decades. OK, “Student of LGBTQ history” is kind of a fancy term for a closeted 14-year-old furtively reading about leather bar etiquette and hanky codes (colored hankies were once used by some gay men to signal sexual interests) on GeoCities websites, but along the way I did manage to absorb a decent understanding of gay history in the United States.

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I made a video, “Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall?” Spoiler alert: No one knows for sure who threw it, or even if a literal brick was thrown. But I wanted to try to find out why the first brick had remained such a popular myth.

Those of you who don’t spend hours online gossiping and arguing over RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants might not know how pervasive first brick memes have become in certain queer internet communities.

They fall into three categories: earnest attempts to honor giants in the LGBTQ movement (“Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick at Stonewall”), tongue-in-cheek diva worship (“Madonna threw the first brick at Stonewall”) and satirical takedowns of straight celebrities who overplay their hand trying to be queer allies (“Nick Jonas threw the first brick at Stonewall”).

I love the silly first brick memes — my favorite to date being that Mario Kart Toadette threw the first brick — but the sincere ones that credited Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson with inciting the Stonewall uprising gave me pause. The impact of Rivera and Johnson on the trans and gay movements can’t be overstated, but it doesn’t take much digging to learn that they didn’t start the Stonewall rebellion.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the internet can spread misinformation, but why had this particular fantasy of Stonewall taken on such importance in the queer imagination?

To find out, I interviewed people who participated in the Stonewall uprising, historians who had devoted years to studying LGBTQ history and contemporary queer writers. It turns out that it wasn’t just the question of who threw the first brick: Apparently no one can agree on almost anything about Stonewall.

Was a brick thrown, or a cobblestone, or rocks? Was the atmosphere on the street fun and festive, or grave and violent? Were patrons of Stonewall that night grieving Judy Garland’s death? No one could come to consensus on these or many other questions.

In a sense, I was comforted by the disagreements of past generations of LGBTQ people. While shooting the video, more than once I found myself thinking, “See? Millennials didn’t invent queer infighting!”

But I also began to see these disagreements as fundamental to my history. When I interviewed Mark Segal, who was present for several nights of the protests at Stonewall and who was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front, he described the GLF as both “the most dysfunctional organization that has ever existed in the LGBT community” and “literally why we have everything that we have today.”

Indeed, the GLF, which was the first queer activist organization formed after Stonewall, argued about everything — its structure, its purpose, its leadership, its mission, and on and on. My favorite anecdote was a disagreement about whether men’s beards posed a masculine insult to women.

But the GLF also set the stage for one of the most successful civil rights movements in the United States. Within a year of Stonewall, the GLF organized three simultaneous gay pride marches in three cities — before the concept of a “gay pride parade” even existed. Then they went on to create the first LGBTQ community center and the first organization for gay youth and, from what I was told, they never once stopped arguing.

And that was a revelation to me — disagreement was not tantamount to ineffectiveness.

There is much hand-wringing about disagreements in my community. I hear things like “we can’t get anything done because all we do is argue” or “we’re eating our own instead of banding together.” Producing this video and conducting these interviews reminded me that separating disagreement from effectiveness is a false binary.

Granted, the arguments at the GLF were happening face to face, and the disagreements in my community are largely mitigated by algorithms and social media platforms — and therefore ultimately controlled by money. But after talking with many LGBTQ elders, I’m more wary of the medium of social media than I am of the disagreements themselves.

Fifty years after Stonewall, we’re still arguing about what happened on that night. And that’s kind of the point: Stonewall was, at its core, about people reclaiming their narratives from a society that told them they were sick or pitiful or didn’t even exist.

Getting to tell your own story is a gift, but it means that you have to contend with other people’s stories, and I guess that can mean arguing, maybe for 50 years straight. And that’s OK.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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