Memory  /  Debunk

Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall? Let’s Argue About It

How a particular fantasy of the Stonewall rebellion took on such huge importance in the queer imagination.

I’ve been a student of L.G.B.T.Q. history for more than two decades. O.K., “Student of L.G.B.T.Q. history” is kind of a fancy term for a closeted 14-year-old furtively reading about leather bar etiquette and hanky codes (colored hankies were once used by some gay men to signal sexual interests) on geocities websites, but along the way I did manage to absorb a decent understanding of gay history in the United States.

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I made a video, “Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall?” Spoiler alert: No one knows for sure who threw it, or even if a literal brick was thrown. But I wanted to try to find out why the first brick had remained such a popular myth.

Those of you who don’t spend hours online gossiping and arguing over RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants might not know how pervasive first brick memes have become in certain queer internet communities.

They fall into three categories: earnest attempts to honor giants in the L.G.B.T.Q. movement (“Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick at Stonewall”), tongue-in-cheek diva worship (“Madonna threw the first brick at Stonewall”) and satirical takedowns of straight celebrities who overplay their hand trying to be queer allies (“Nick Jonas threw the first brick at Stonewall”).

I love the silly first brick memes — my favorite to date being that Mario Kart Toadette threw the first brick — but the sincere ones that credited Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson with inciting the Stonewall uprising gave me pause. The impact of Ms. Rivera and Ms. Johnson on the trans and gay movements can’t be overstated, but it doesn’t take much digging to learn that they didn’t start the Stonewall rebellion.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the internet can spread misinformation, but why had this particular fantasy of Stonewall taken on such importance in the queer imagination?

To find out, I interviewed people who participated in the Stonewall uprising, historians who had devoted years to studying L.G.B.T.Q. history and contemporary queer writers. It turns out that it wasn’t just the question of who threw the first brick: Apparently no one can agree on almost anything about Stonewall.