‘The first Pride was a riot:’ The Triad’s LGBTQIA community reflects on the Stonewall Uprising 50 years later
It all started with unprovoked police raids. In 1969, homosexuality was illegal in every state except Illinois. According to History.com, bars and restaurants could be shut down for employing and serving the LGBTQIA community. The mafia controlled the gay bars in New York City and often paid off corrupt police officers to look the other way. The Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, was one of these establishments. On an unseasonably hot Friday night June 27, 1969 (and into the early morning hours that Saturday, June 28), the Stonewall Inn became the birthplace of the gay liberation movement. All it took were trans women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera resisting arrest and throwing bottles (although some claim it was bricks or cobblestones) at the police. I spoke with several prominent LGBTQIA members and organizations in the Triad and asked them to reflect on the 50 years after the Stonewall Uprising, and what it meant for their community in 2019.
Jennifer Ruppe is a lesbian and the executive director of the Guilford Green Foundation and LGBTQ Center.
“A lot of people think that Stonewall was about gay pride, but really it was about police brutality,” she explained. “It was the LGBTQ community saying ‘Enough is enough.’ The bars that they had there, the safe places that they had to go to weren’t really that safe. It was constantly raided by the police; before Stonewall, people were harassed, fired and had crimes committed against them just for being gay. Not that it hasn’t changed, but there were no protections in place before Stonewall. Stonewall was that moment where the pot boiled over and they stood up.”
Ruppe said Pride is a time where members of the community show up and let others know that they exist and won’t be silenced.
“Some people say the first Pride was a riot, referring to Stonewall, but really, the first Pride was the year after Stonewall,” she said. “I don’t think Pride festivals would have happened if Stonewall did not happen. That was the time people stood up and said, ‘We are tired of the way you are treating us, and you can’t put us in a closet; you can’t hide us away, you can’t continue to arrest us and beat us up.’”
Ruppe said the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall is a time to remember and reflect on the people that stood up and fought back, and to acknowledge that there is still a long way to go, in terms of equality.
“It can be easy to get complacent, but complacency isn’t a privilege everyone in the LGBTQ community has,” she said. “Especially with trans people and trans people of color…And in this current political climate, we are seeing LGBTQ rights being eroded by the current administration with specific attacks on transgender people and transgender health care. We are at a time where, yes, we have achieved a lot, and there should be a lot of celebration of how far we’ve come. But a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats, and we have to remember that the reason why Stonewall happened was because people were fed up with the way the system treated them and we are still experiencing those things now.”
One thing about Pride and Stonewall that Ruppe believes is often misunderstood is that the riots started the gay liberation movement and was spearheaded by people who are often left out of the history books.
“I think the thing people don’t know is that it was largely led by trans women of color, with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera being two of those people,” she said. “History tends to write them out a bit because Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera also did a lot of sex work to make money. So, they are trans women of color, they didn’t fit into society, and they did sex work to survive at least through parts of their lives, and that is not always the picture that history wants to raise up.”
Ruppe said she hopes the younger generation doesn’t overlook the importance of what happened at Stonewall.
“It was 50 years ago, so a lot of [young]people think that was so long ago, but it wasn’t that long ago,” she said. “We have plenty of people alive in the gay community who went through that, who knew what it was like to not be able to bring your full self to work, school, wherever you are. Who lived with their ‘roommate’ or ‘friend’ or hid who they were, lied, or got married to the person of the opposite sex because it was the thing that they were ‘supposed’ to do. I think that the younger generation today is afforded more freedoms not to have to fit those societal norms because of Stonewall. So, it is important that we not lose sight of that history of who fought for it and what it means, and we stay focused on ensuring that those rights and privileges that we fought for aren’t eroded.”
In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, GGF is hosting a free screening of Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson in partnership with Greensboro Pride, Stonewall Sports, and Triad Pride Performing Arts at the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro on June 27. Seating is limited, and attendees must claim a ticket via social media. The film starts at 6 p.m. and is followed by a Q&A discussion.
“We all believe that coming together to commemorate this date is important, so we wanted to do something free and accessible to the community, and specially select a film that really highlights one of the leaders, who a lot of people don’t even know her name,” she said.
Ruppe said that the LGBTQ Center would be moving from Bessemer Avenue to downtown Greensboro (121 N. Greene St.) in a 1,800 square-foot space sometime this September or early October. There is a capital campaign going on now to help fundraise for the LGBTQ Center’s move. Those interested in contributing can buy a tile with their name on it to appear in the center for as low as $100. Visit the GGF website for more information.
Kandi Villano is the vice president of Pride Winston-Salem and also identifies as a lesbian. She was four years old living on Long Island when the Stonewall Riots took place. She thinks that even though the past 50 years have been somewhat progressive for the LGBTQIA community, there is still so much work to be done.
“If you don’t remember what happened in the past, it will be repeated in the future,” she said. “If you look at what is going on in the government, they are trying to take away a woman’s right to choose and giving medical offices the right to refuse service by sexual orientation and identity. Then they wonder why trans people don’t go to the doctors.”
Villano said as a lesbian, she still feels discriminated against.
“What I went through the past month, with breast cancer, and having to deal with the medical groups around here, I have never been through such blatant bigotry,” she said. “I was dissed badly. My partner was dissed. I know why I am becoming an advocate. You should not have to worry, especially if you are in the middle of a health crisis and waiting for results, about [asking for your] partner, and having [medical personnel] say, ‘What is his name?’”
In terms of this year’s Pride Winston-Salem festival, Villano said there would be something planned every day of the week leading up to Oct. 19.
“There will be a slideshow on the website, and more than likely something special on the stage,” she said of what Pride Winston-Salem has planned to honor Stonewall. “It is going to be interesting because I have reached out to a couple of people to be involved as Grand Marshals, so we will see if we can try to tie in the political environment in Winston.”
Even though they are supportive, Villano said, the leaders of Winston-Salem, such as the mayor, have been unresponsive in attending the festival.
“Hopefully, we can convince him this year to be apart of the parade. I have reached out to the state to see if Gov. Cooper wants to come. I wasn’t told no, I was told to fill out the schedule form.”
Villano said that Pride Winston-Salem is always looking for more volunteers, and the board meetings are always open to the public.
“Look at where we came from and participate,” said Villano on what she would like to see the next 50 years look like. “Volunteer, just be involved, because if you are not, eventually the old guard is going to pass on. That is what we had to learn up in New York, the old guard had passed on–and HIV helped along the way–and if there was nobody there to pick up that baton, it would have been gone. Everybody is passionate about something. I’m not saying giving 90 hours like a lot of us do, but every little bit counts. Get out and vote, if you don’t like what is going on. Participate, don’t sit back and complain because that is not going to get you anywhere.”
Devonte Jackson is the co-pastor of New Faith Metropolitan Community Church in Winston-Salem and the director of trans engagement for Pride Winston-Salem. He believes in honoring those who fought for LGBTQIA rights in the Stonewall Uprising and that the LGBTQIA community has to continue the fight.
“I believe that the seed was planted 50 years ago, and we now must continue to water that seed so it can grow into beautiful flowers to be seen as equal no matter who we love or who we choose to be,” he wrote in an email.
He wrote that Pride means standing out and celebrating one’s true self.
“It’s a month/day to have fun but also reflect on where we were versus where we have come, and it’s so good to do that in the presence of all those that we love.”
The biggest misconception people tend to have with the LGBTQIA community from Jackson’s perspective is, “that it’s a sin and all we do is sleep around. That is not the case; we live perfectly normal lives, just like the next person.”
Jackson encourages the younger generation to continue educating, standing their ground, and loving and supporting one another.
“The last thing I will leave is, no one can tell me who or what I am until you have walked all the way in my shoes,” he wrote. “I am a firm believer that God created us all in his own image and for his purpose. As a trans man, I could easily blend in with the heterosexual community; however, I believe God has called me to continue to serve, educate and support our community. I am proud of who I am and who I have become. Remember, never judge a person based on who you think or feel they should be because that is not our job. Keep God first. Love wins!”
Drew Wofford is gay and the owner of Chemistry Nightclub in Greensboro. Chemistry Nightclub opened in 2012 and since, every other gay bar in the area has shut down. Chemistry remains the only one still open in the Triad.
“Stonewall was the tipping point, so to speak, where gay people were fed up with the police coming in and doing raids on the gay bars constantly,” he said. “Gay bar owners had to pay off the police to stay open. It was so much, and that was just the breaking point. People said they had enough and they fought back.”
Since the Stonewall Uprising happened at a gay bar, Wofford believes these spaces are historically sacred and should be preserved.
“Gay bars are extremely important; they are vital spaces to the gay community,” he said. “Queer people and our allies turn to gay bars to escape from judgment, social prosecution, and to create our own safe haven. These spaces allow us to be ourselves, express ourselves in a safe environment, similar to our churches or institutions.”
Wofford explained that gay bars were the bloodline of the community, and to keep them safe, the bars had to be inconspicuous to the public and off the beaten path.
“In rural areas with narrow doorways, tinted windows, controlled-entry to screen patrons; I’m sad to say we still have it today at Chemistry because there is still a need for it,” he said. “[The Pulse Nightclub Massacre] happened three years ago. There is still a need to know who is in these spaces.”
Wofford said in the 1950s and 1960s, the police would regularly raid clubs and send in undercover cops to give out lewd conduct and indecency charges.
“Here in Greensboro, 30 years ago, if you were to dress in the ‘wrong attire’ –as transgender, cross-dressers, and drag queens do– you could have been arrested for that,” he said.
(Also in Greensboro, according to a News & Record article by Lorraine Ahearn from Aug. 16, 2006, on Feb. 4, 1957, 32 men were tried for Crimes Against Nature and indicted by a Greensboro grand jury on accusations that they were gay. It was apart of the local gay scare called “the purge,” and instead of focusing on spaces such as gay bars or public parks, “Greensboro’s 1957 trials focused on private acts behind closed doors.”)
Wofford said recently, gay bars have been closing down all across the world. Between 2005 and 2011, Slate.com reported that 12% of gay bars went out of business.
“Which is sad because Chemistry, Warehouse, Legends, Q Lounge are historic gay institutions in North Carolina. Especially for the older generation, [gay bars are] the places where they have seen a drag show for the first time or even more simply, the first time they were able to dance with their partner on the dance floor. I don’t think that is so much the case anymore, but I do think there is still a need for the gay bar.”
Wofford said that gay bars have historically been a place of charity, and “incubators for nonprofits, which is something that isn’t seen as much in non-LGBT spaces.”
“The gay bar today is not a dark dungeon, it is not a dingy hole-in-the-wall with tinted windows, locked doors with passwords; it is not even just a gay bar, we are reinventing it as a safe space for everyone,” he said. “There are some Saturdays where [Chemistry] has more straight people than gay people. Which I love, I think it is beautiful. We are now at a spot where you can come and see fantastic entertainment and diversity at its finest.”
Thanks to the Stonewall Uprising, Wofford said there is now gay marriage, more awareness for transgender people, and inclusivity and protections for the LGBTQIA community.
“Or even just the simple fact that you can be whoever you want to be. You can put a dress on and walk into an establishment in Greensboro and I don’t think there is any that would turn you away.”
“Looking forward, we have come really far, but the fight is still not over,” he said. “For me, as a white, gay male, I don’t have much discrimination, if any anymore. But I think if you turn that around and put yourself in the African American community, I think there is a lot less acceptance. It is hard for me to speak on behalf of an African American because I am not one. Then if you flip it to being transgender, there is even less acceptance, and even less if you are a black transgender person…I think some parts of the LGBT community still have a long way to go. Pulse was three years ago; the fight is still not over. There are still people who aren’t going to accept us and are going to attack us in our safe spaces.”
Wofford said he lives Pride Month every single month of the year. With the recent rise of corporations cashing in on the rainbow, Wofford said he has become skeptical of these intentions and the commerciality of Pride.
“Pride Month, to me, is just a bunch of people trying to make a bunch of money,” he said. “I don’t even do anything for Pride Month here. We work together with Greensboro Pride to market pride events in September because that is when we celebrate Pride.”
Coming up, Chemistry will be holding its annual Fourth of July party with drag shows at 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., and the first foam party in four years on July 6. Greensboro Drag Brunch on July 14 will benefit Greensboro Roller Derby and will host special guest Biqtch Puddin’ from The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula. For more information and a full schedule of events, visit Chemistry Nightclub’s website.
Rex Welton is the director and founder of OUT at the Movies International LGBT Film Festival in Winston-Salem.
Welton said OUT at the Movies is a monthly film series and annual film festival for the LGBT community and its allies. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, all volunteer-run organization with a mission to entertain and educate through narratives, features, shorts and documentaries.
Welton grew up in the 1970s and 1980s but said he couldn’t imagine what it was like 50 years ago to be gay, transgender, bisexual or a lesbian.
“The brave people who were at the Stonewall Inn that night put up with the unprovoked police raids again and again, and all they were doing was enjoying each other’s company,” he said. “I guess they had become so conditioned to it, but finally, the night of the Stonewall Riots, the patrons–who, I believe, were mostly transgender and people of color– finally just had enough and decided it was not right and they weren’t going to stand for it. I am thankful they took a stand that night and fought back for what was right.”
Welton said as the City of Arts and Innovation, Winston-Salem is an accepting community. He believes that acceptance of those who are gay or lesbian is at an all-time high, but it is not so much for the transgender community.
“There has been a tremendous amount of progress, but where our community and probably most communities across the country have a ways to go, is that there is still a lot of discrimination against men and women who happen to be transgender,” he said. “I feel like, in some ways, people who are transgender are where people that were gay and lesbian were in the 1980s. It is almost hip to be gay or lesbian, but it is more difficult for those who are transgender, especially for people of color.”
Welton said it is vital for the younger generation to realize how fortunate they are in the United States and know that the fight for equality is still not over.
“OUT at the Movies just had our Key West fundraiser on Saturday, and a young man from Jamaica joined us as our emcee,” he said. “I heard stories about how difficult and dangerous it is today to be gay or lesbian in Jamaica. People are murdered just because of who they love. We have a lot to be thankful for in the United States of America, and our young people need to realize that there are still challenges and obstacles that need to be different and better so that everyone is treated equally.”
OUT at the Movies will be showing a documentary called Before Stonewall on July 13 at 7 p.m. at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
“I am certain we will have something that commemorates the brave folks that took part in the Stonewall Riots,” Welton said of the plans for this year’s film festival.
Welton said he and others on the board hope to get people who participated in the Stonewall Riots to come to speak at the festival as well.
“It seems like every single decade has gotten better,” he said. “It isn’t perfect; some of the stuff that is going on right now with the federal government is discriminatory. We need to do what we can to make sure that we elect officials that are going to protect all the people of the United States, not just some citizens.”
The OUT at the Movies International LGBT Film Festival takes place Oct. 3-6. The festival will screen up to 30 movies, and the lineup will be announced after Labor Day. For more information, visit the website.
Teresa Carter is the founder of North Star LGBTQ Community Center and one of the first HIV social workers for North Carolina Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. Carter wrote in an email that when the riots happened, she was a teenager living in Winston-Salem.
“I saw the riots on the NBC news, and my first thoughts were, ‘It is about time someone stood up against hate, being beaten and killed just for being who you are,’” she recounted. “I had a close relative who was gay and 11 years older than me, and he had to live a lot of his life in fear of being bullied and not welcomed. I saw how proud he was for those fighting for him that night. I am proud of those who stood up against injustice of any kind.”
Carter also witnessed the first decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Winston-Salem. She wrote that the medical community, the LGBTQ community and their straight-allies volunteered and assisted those who were fighting HIV/AIDS. Some of these groups included the AIDS Task Force of Winston-Salem, AIDS Care Service of Winston-Salem, the Adam Foundation, and the Positive Wellness Alliance.
“Pride, to me, is honoring those LGBTQ and straight [-allies] who fought and continue to fight for equality,” she wrote. “Equality at our workplaces, churches, schools, universities, communities, and country. The LGBTQ community must unify, collaborate, and support each other daily, for divided, we will fall.”
Carter believes a misconception of Pride is that it is only one month, or one event or march.
“We all must do something to move this forward not backward, and show up to vote at all local, state and national elections,” she wrote. “I also believe that our youth today are living in a better country because of Stonewall, Harvey Milk and others who chanted: ‘Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Homophobia has to go,’ or ‘Come out, come out wherever you are.’”
In 2012, Carter had the vision of beginning an LGBTQ Community Center in Winston-Salem because she felt that there was not a place in the Triad for people to be themselves without being bullied or frightened. After visiting the Raleigh Community Center, she believed there could be one put together in Winston-Salem. A board was formed, which included the board members of Equality Winston-Salem, the nonprofit status was established, and North Star began.
“Since that time, thousands of people of all ages have come to North Star for information, education, groups, Alternative Proms, a library, and space just to be themselves,” she wrote. “The communities in the Triad have supported this center. Grantors of the local, state and federal [level], and businesses have sponsored tables at our annual fundraiser, ‘In Good Company.’ Other Winston-Salem groups have also supported the center such as Pride Winston-Salem and OUT at the Movies. It is, again, very important that we support each other as much as possible.”
Carter wrote that she has seen the younger generation become volunteers at North Star and have formed many Gay-Straight Alliances at their local high schools and universities.
“We all must never forget those who continue to fight for LGBTQ rights and move ahead to even better legislative laws,” she wrote. “As a member of the Winston-Salem LGBTQ and Christian communities, I believe in what Jesus taught, that we need to love one another and to care for the least of these. As a community in Winston-Salem, we have made great strides in doing just that.”
Monica Cecil is a heterosexual trans woman who grew up in Winston-Salem and later moved to New York City in the 1980s and 1990s to pursue a career in the fashion industry as a designer.
“The attention has been turned on trans people,” she said of the state of present-day LGBTQIA relations. “That is what I loved back in the old days, the anonymity of it. It wasn’t a fashionable thing.”
Cecil said that living in NYC during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was scary and led her to getting involved in activism.
“When I moved to New York, I had seen people on the streets with those Kaposi-things (Kaposi sarcoma, is cancer that causes body lesions, usually appearing on AIDS patients) on their faces, that is what made me start marching with Act Up,” she said. “The first time I did, it was during Pride one year, and it was right as I had started transitioning and I jumped right into that crowd and marched with Act Up. It was so exciting; the chant was, ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!’”
“It was just so freeing and wonderful; it was just a great moment,” she continued. “That is when I met Marsha (and I’m sure Sylvia, too, but I just remember Marsha). She was just a creature of her own making, and back then, nobody knew who Marsha P. Johnson was, except for the people directly involved in her circle… It was just a great moment because as scary as it was, by doing these things it was making a difference in the world and contributing to the growth of society not to be so 1950s.”
Cecil said that she didn’t know what all Johnson did until she heard about her suspicious death in 1992.
“I really became aware when she was murdered, cause her picture was all over the Village, and they were trying to find out what had happened–the community was, not the police,” she clarified. “Antique shops run by old queens had little sheets of her picture, and I was talking to my friend, and I said, ‘I know her’…and then I found out the whole story about how she and Sylvia [started STAR] and opened houses for kids who were thrown out of their own homes. They didn’t have anything themselves, but they got it together and made things so that kids living in the street, living at the Port Authority would have a place to go. To me, that was just like the greatest thing.”
Cecil said it is a different world these days, and she hopes that the youth will carry the torch that Johnson and Rivera passed along.
“I hope these kids realize that, and continue to activate, act up and march on because [this administration] will try to take us back to the ’50s,” she said. “And if you just want to sit complacently on your phone or your whatever, and just play games and ignore reality, then I am scared of what these kids are going to face when they are my age or before. I am almost 61 years old, and never in my life have I dreamed that we would be where we are today. I would have thought we would have been light years ahead because we were light years ahead [in the 1980s].”
Despite all that Cecil has been through, she remains optimistic and believes in the goodness of humanity. She hopes the next generation will not take life for granted.
“To these young kids out here that are struggling, and think they are the only ones in the world, please God, know you are not. And just love yourself above all,” she said with a shaky voice as if she were starting to cry. “Cause if you don’t love yourself, you are doomed. You have to believe in yourself and love yourself to keep going.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.