To mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this month History Workshop will post a series of articles reflecting on the event and its legacy. Here, writer and activist Nivea Castro recounts her own memories of the riot – both in a Q&A with HWO and in her poem ‘Let’s Not Forget’.
What are your memories of the Stonewall riots?
I was a 17-year-old, yet to come out Latina Nuyorican hippie wannabe, the first in my family to graduate from high school and accepted into college. I remember a mention of police ‘disturbances’ with homosexuals in the newspapers my step-father brought home every day from his janitor’s job but nothing was acknowledged at home. I lived in Brooklyn but I’d hang out with friends at Washington Square Park, just a few blocks away from Christopher Street where Stonewall Inn was/is located. I remember a buzz of excitement like electric currents. Even though I did not directly participant in the actual events, I felt included: I, along with others, were a part of something bigger than just a street commotion. We witnessed history in the making.
New Yorkers are hardcore and are accustomed to anything goes but this ‘riot’ was different. It was distinct for two amazing reasons, both a first. One, the cops were getting their butts kicked to the curb. Their odious tactics were turned back on them and this time they were the ones humiliated. Two, It was Boricua drag queens who lead the revolt and triumphed in humbling the NYPD! I was so proud of them.
Soon after, I left New York hitch-hiking cross country and back in time for college and another monumental and historical event – Woodstock.
What impact did the riots have on your life – both immediately afterwards and over the years?
I came out soon after the riots. At the time, I didn’t make a direct correlation but looking back, the Stonewall riots allowed me the space, the permission and approval to “come out of the closet” as was the popular sayin’ in the 1970s.
As a newly out Lesbian I hurled myself into dyke liberation politics especially around Womyn/people of Color concerns. These social justice endeavors compelled me to complete an undergraduate degree and then enter law school. I consider myself a triple L warrior: Lesbian, Latina, Lawyer (I could also add Lover. HA).
What are your thoughts now, fifty years on, about the impact of the riots and about the way in which they have been remembered?
We tend to forget history. Before Stonewall, for example, a thriving LGBT community existed in 1920s Berlin – the ‘Gay capital of Europe’ – until the Nazis decimated them. Today, with so-called marriage equity, people have become complacent and many of us act as if there is nothing more to do but enjoy unmolested private lives. Wrong. The political and social climate are blowing rightwing raging red – dreadfully dangerous for Lesbians and all the rest of the queer alphabet. I say remember Stonewall as a moment in time. Use the memory as ‘fight back’ impetus. Complacency is not an option.
Lets Not Forget
Faux females hitched
dresses round furry calves
high heels in hand
be pointy weapons.
From outraged closets naked
notions of frustrated freedoms spilt
onto Christopher Street
like boiled milk in Puerto Rican coffee.
Burnt bloody tired of living
on curb’s edge tired
of brutal policia bust tired
of social condemnations.
When enough was enough
queers fought back.
Lets not forget it was Boricua
drag queens who led stonewall.
© nívea castro
NÍVEA CASTRO is a writer, photographer, retired social justice attorney and educator. Her poems, essays, fictions, and photographs are published in journals and anthologies, most recently in 50/50: Poems and Translations by Womxn over 50. She is also the curator/editor of Soy Lesbiana y Que! Out Latina Lesbians, a Lambda Literary and Golden Crown Awards Finalist. Nívea is currently the Interim Executive Director of VONAVoices.org, a multi-genre workshop for writers of color celebrating its 20th year.