The Stonewall Riot is often considered the starting point of the modern gay rights movement in the Global North, despite earlier outbreaks of resistance such as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 in San Francisco. What is not often clear in the popular retelling of the story is the fact that a transgender sex worker of colour was at the front of the action.
The Stonewall Inn, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, was well-known as a hangout for sex workers, transgender people of colour and other marginalised people – which made it a target for the police who raided it regularly.
At 1:20 AM on 28 June, 1969 four plainclothes police officers arrived at the bar and announced they were ‘taking the place.’ Many patrons refused to comply with the officers demanding identification and so were taken outside to await patrol cars. As the crowd grew, they became emboldened and began to fight back.
Sylvia Rivera, an 18-year-old transgender sex worker, is credited with having thrown the first brick at the police that night. In the aftermath of Stonewall, Rivera was keen to be involved in newly formed activists groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) that would split from the GLF. However, from the beginning her identities as a transgender street-based sex worker and a Latina were troubling to the largely white, middle-class activist groups. At a gay pride rally in 1973, Rivera had to fight to speak because as Melinda Chateauvert writes in Sex Workers Unite, ‘the crowd didn’t want to hear from a transgender sex worker.’
Melinda Chateauvert: Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk.
OutHistory.org: Hell Hath No Fury Like a Drag Queen Scorned