Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall? Let’s Argue About It

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 L.G.B.T.Q. 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 G.L.F. as both “the most dysfunctional organization that has ever existed in the L.G.B.T. community” and “literally why we have everything that we have today.”

Indeed, the G.L.F., 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 G.L.F. also set the stage for one of the most successful civil rights movements in the United States. Within a year of Stonewall, the G.L.F. 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 L.G.B.T.Q. 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 G.L.F. 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 and capital. But after talking with many L.G.B.T.Q. elders, I’m more wary of the medium of social media than I am of the disagreements themselves.


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