Reclaiming the Revolutionary Spirit of Stonewall at the Queer Liberation March

Emma Gaffney Jul 2, 2019

On the night of June 28, 1969, Jay Toole awoke from her park bench bed in Washington Square Park to the sound of chaos. Another police raid was underway at the nearby Stonewall Inn. She, along with several of her homeless neighbors, rushed to the dive bar where they were plunged into the center of a riot. “[The cops] were pushing us all down towards the women’s prison, which was on Greenwich Avenue,” Toole said. Toole and hundreds of her queer peers were set upon by armed police, targeted simply for who they loved and the way that they dressed.

Standing outside of the Stonewall Inn on Sunday morning, hours before the whole area was thrown into a flurry of rainbow madness and 50 years after that fateful night, Toole — now 71 and a self-proclaimed “butch” — retraced the events of the riot.

When Toole arrived, many had already been arrested or beaten — a common occurrence with the raids on gay bars in the 1960s — but this time the patrons of the bar refused to give in. It was time for us to push back and we all came together to do that,” Toole, recalled as she prepared to join another act of rebellion — this time against the official Pride march commemorating the queer rights movement she helped to initiate.

After years of mounting frustration with the New York City Gay Pride parade’s embrace of corporate influence, queer activists and allies took to the streets Sunday in a defiant move away from the mainstream Pride celebration. An estimated 45,000 marchers, adorned with politically charged banners and protest signs poured into the Lower Manhattan streets yelling, “We will not be quiet, Stonewall was a riot!” The Queer Liberation March retraced the route of the original Pride march held one year after the 1969 Stonewall riots that ignited the modern LGBTQ+ movement.

Toole, along with numerous other attendees, explained that she chose to attend the Queer Liberation March instead of the official Pride parade because she is tired of what it has become — a festival of corporate branding with an overbearing police presence. Many queer people say that the official parade has led to a feeling of disenfranchisement within the community; that the commercialization of Pride has pinkwashed an event that was born out of a need for public and political visibility. 

Along with the corporate floats, only registered marchers are able to participate in the corporate parade, a rule which has been enforced by the use of wristbands and barricades over the past few years. This was certainly not the case at the Queer Liberation March, however, where organizers actively encouraged engagement with the event. As the protesters marched, they enticed the crowd to get involved, chanting, “off of the sidewalks and into the streets!” 

“Here today we are reclaiming Pride and everyone can march with us,” Toole said.

By allowing anyone to spontaneously join and focusing on politics instead of rainbow-clad corporations, the Queer Liberation March sought to recapture the original vitality of the Christopher Street Day March, the title of the first Pride march, held in 1970.

“[We are] tapping into the energy, the spirit and the commitment of what happened at Stonewall 50 years ago and what that fight was all about,” said Leslie Cagan an organizer with Reclaim Pride and former national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice. 

Incensed by the over-policing of the modern-day parade, Reclaim Pride made it their mission to keep the police presence at the march to a minimum. The recent apology by NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill for the department’s role in the Stonewall Riot felt hollow to many, said Cagan who added, “the real apology that we want is a change in policy.” 

“[The police] are not fighting for queer liberation or human rights, they fight for an institution that is making the world less safe for queer people,” said Jake Powell, a member of ACT UP (AIDs Coalition to Unleash Power), who told The Indypendent that they felt the apology was insufficient. Powell said they hoped that the Queer Liberation March would help energize a newfound political tenacity which will endure far beyond the 50th-anniversary celebration. 

“There is a time for joy and partying,” Powell added, “but Pride is also about highlighting the hardest parts about being queer in this world. I hope Pride will push the envelope harder and that we will all fight harder for trans liberation, for immigrant trans women who are dying, that our queer community will stand up. We’re not free until we are all free.”

As the march charged forward from its starting point at Sheridan Square, up through an unbarricaded Sixth Avenue toward Central Park, it grew and gained momentum. The marchers paid their respects to those in the LGBTQ+ community who have died from AIDS and all forms of violence by participating in moments of silence. The protest culminated with a rally held on the Great Lawn. The atmosphere was pensive, inclusive and peaceful as marchers sat together on the lawn and quietly listened to the orators on the stage.

The speakers included trans activist and lawyer, Cecilia Gentili and performing artist and LGBTQ+ rights activist Staceyann Chin. Writer Janus Rose read a statement from the currently incarcerated whistleblower, Chelsea Manning. 

“We are here because we know that rainbow-branded storefronts are not signs of acceptance but of oppression with better marketing,” Manning told the crowd via Rose. “We are here because we know there should be no Pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”

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