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Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

Marsha P. Johnson (seated, left) at Christopher Street Liberation Day, 1971. Photograph by Diana Davies. All images credited to the New York Public Library are from its exhibition Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50, which is on view in the Rayner Special Collections Wing and Print Gallery through July 14.

Marsha P. Johnson (seated, left) at Christopher Street Liberation Day, 1971. Photograph by Diana Davies. All images
credited to the New York Public Library are from its exhibition Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50, which is on view in the Rayner
Special Collections Wing and Print Gallery through July 14. Courtesy the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

The Stonewall riots lasted six days, but they have reverberated for half a century as the founding moment of the L.G.B.T.Q.-rights movement. Like any historical symbol that is asked to carry so much significance, Stonewall sometimes bears its weight uneasily. Not everyone is comfortable embracing a Mafia-owned bar that catered explicitly to gay men as the heart of a remarkably diverse political movement. For others, the unquestioned dominance of Stonewall-as-origin-story unfairly consigns a series of earlier uprisings to historical oblivion. Nonetheless, the riots survive as a powerful example of resistance in the face of repression—the historian Martin Duberman has called them “the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history”—and Stonewall remains an inescapable symbol for queer Americans. While so much could be said about the historical importance of the riots and the political gains that have followed in their wake, Harper’s Magazine has taken a more personal approach to marking the fiftieth anniversary of that early morning raid, asking eight writers to respond to the simple but surprisingly fraught question: What does Stonewall mean to you?

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

T Cooper is the author of seven novels, as well as the memoir Real Man Adventures.

Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You. His essay “Sons and Lovers” appeared in the February 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

T Kira Madden is the author of a memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.

Eileen Myles is the author of twenty-one books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, Evolution.

Darryl Pinckney is the author of two novels, High Cotton and Black Deutschland, and two works of non-fiction, Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature, and Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy.

Brontez Purnell is the author, most recently, of the novel Since I Laid My Burden Down.

Michelle Tea is the author of the collection Against Memoir, winner of the 2019 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

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