Monday, June 28, 2010

GLBT saints: The Saints of Stonewall

“It was beautiful” by Douglas Blanchard shows the Stonewall Rebellion
Oil on canvas, 24" x 36," 1999.

LGBT people fought back against police harassment 41 years ago today (June 28) at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, launching the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liberation movement.

The Stonewall Rebellion (aka Stonewall Riots) became known as the first time that LGBT people rebelled against government persecution of homosexuality. It is commemorated around the world during June as LGBT Pride Month.

The queer people who fought back at Stonewall are not saints in the usual sense. But they are honored here as “saints of Stonewall” because they had the guts to battle an unjust system. They do not represent religious faith -- they stand for faith in ourselves as LGBT people. They performed the miracle of transforming self-hatred into pride. These “saints” began a process in which self-hating individuals were galvanized into a cohesive community. Their saintly courage inspired a justice movement that is still growing stronger after four decades.

Before Stonewall, police regularly raided gay bars, where customers submitted willingly to arrest. The Stonewall Inn catered to the poorest and most marginalized queer people: drag queens, transgenders, hustlers and homeless youth.

Witnesses disagree about who was the first to defy the police raid in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. It was either a drag queen or a butch lesbian. Soon the crowd was pelting the officers with coins, bottles, bricks and the like. The surprised police beat some people with nightsticks before taking refuge in the bar itself. News of the uprising spread quickly. Hundreds gathered on the street and a riot-control police unit arrived. Violence continued as some chanted, “Gay power!”

Drag queens started spontaneous kick lines facing the police with clubs and helmets. That dramatic moment is captured in the painting “It was Beautiful” by Douglas Blanchard. The drag queens taunted police by singing,
We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!
That night 13 people were arrested and some hospitalized. The streets were mostly cleared by 4 a.m., but a major confrontation with police happened again the next night, and protests continued on a smaller scale for a week.

A month later the Gay Liberation Front was formed, one of many LGBT rights organizations sparked by the saints of Stonewall. GLBT religious organizations, including JesusInLove.org, are indebted to the saints of Stonewall for our very existence.

I think of the saints of Stonewall as I pray this standard prayer for all saints:
God, May we who aspire to have part in their joy
be filled with the Spirit that blessed their lives. Amen.
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Let us also remember the 32 LGBT people who died in the arson fire of the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, on June 24, 1973. It was the deadliest gay massacre in US history. They can rightly be called martyrs and join the queer saints honored here. The bar was home to Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. Half the victims were MCC members, including the pastor, Rev. William R. Larson.

Memorial plaque for New Orleans fire
I have written before on this blog about queer martyrs who were burned at the stake for sodomy in during medieval times. (See Ash Wednesday: Queer martyrs rise from the ashes.) Maybe arson fires of gay bars are a new form of this historic horror!

For more info, visit:

Gay Weddings and 32 Funerals: Remembering the UpStairs Lounge Fire (HuffPost)

Not To Ruin Your Pride, But Today Marks The Deadliest Gay Massacre In US History (Queerty)

The Upstairs Fire 25th anniversary memorial service
(includes names of the victims who died)
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F. Douglas Blanchard is a New York artist who teaches art at City University of New York and is active in the Episcopal Church. Much of his art explores history, including gay experience.
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New and recommended: To see this history come alive, check out the excellent 2011 video “American Experience: Stonewall Uprising” from PBS.
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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7 comments:

Terence Weldon said...

Thanks, Kitt.

There are many forms of sainthood, and you are right to include as saints more than just those formally recognised by the institutional church.

Often linked to "saints" is the word "martyrs", from the Greek "to bear witness". It is in this sense, that we can think of the Stonewall heroes not only as saints, but also as "martyrs", those who bore witness to the truth.

So it is too, that we are all called to "martyrdom" at Pride, to bear witness to out own truth. "Speak the Truth in Love" is the instruction from Scripture, and even from the Vatican in its infamous Hallowe'en letter. "Speaking the Truth" can also mean, quite simply, joining a Pride Parade as a religious act.

Trudie said...

Another excellent piece of art by Doug, and a delightful historical tidbit. Thanks again, Kitt!

KittKatt said...

I got excited about LGBT Pride Month this year and posted a lot of material about it, but I thought the "saints of Stonewall" piece was my best. I’m glad that it touched you, Terry and Trudie.

Terry, thank you for expanding my definition of “martyrs.” I actually thought about using that word to describe the queers who fought back at Stonewall, but quickly dismissed the idea because they didn’t die. But as you say, martyrs are more than people who die for a cause.

I love your idea of “joining a Pride parade as a religious act.”

BreathingSoul said...

Beautiful post and very inspirational. Until now, I only knew vaguely about Stonewall. Reading your post has ignited my interest to learn even more. It has been a pleasure joining LGBT Pride at Bloggers Unite.

Turtle Woman said...

I always thought that what the lesbian/gay movement needed was brilliant heroic art. Thanks to Doug Blanchard, we have our epic paintings. We need to commemorate our heroic fight in paintings-- I'd like to see a whole series on lesbian battles for freedom, a favorite being when all the women walked out of Harvard Memorial Chapel in the early 1970s, because they were walking out of patriarchy!

Turtle Woman said...

Be sure to get the current July issue of Tikkun magazine, the entire issue is devoted to queer art and gays and god. Doug's beautiful painting is among the art work in the magazine. Thanks to Kitt for making all of this possible, as she worked with Tikkun early on to bring all of this information to the general public.

KittKatt said...

Breathing Soul, I appreciate your affirmation. It’s an important reminder that we need to keep retelling the story of Stonewall, even though it may seem like everyone has heard it before. We can be empowered by remembering our own history.

Turtle Woman, I share your admiration for Doug Blanchard’s art. I’d also love to see a painting of lesbian feminist Mary Daly ending her sermon at the Harvard Memorial Chapel by leading the congregation to walk out on patriarchy. I wonder if there’s a photo of it?

I definitely recommend Tikkun’s “Queer Spirituality and Politics” issue, and plan to write a whole post about it soon. It does include Doug’s art, but not THIS painting. I think they are using his “Jesus Appears to His Friends.”