Stonewall was a Riot: When Compassion Gets Radical

In this moment, many of us wonder how we can help, and many may wonder ‘what good could rioting do?’ Stonewall was a moment among many when the violent state-sanctioned oppression and abuse of the unheard LGBTQ+ community caused an eruption. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to riots a ‘self-defeating and socially destructive,’ but also as ‘the voice of the unheard,’ and reminded us that ‘It is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause people to feel they must engage in riotous activity as it is for me to condemn riots.’ How can we understand and condemn the conditions better than through practicing ‘compassion’ or ‘suffering together’?

Text of sermon:

“Stonewall was a Riot: When Compassion Gets Radical”

In 1969, my relationship with my husband would be illegal. I would be thrown in prison and my name, address, and probably likeness would be published in the local papers. Police would have the right to “rough me up a bit” if they caught me “resisting” the arrest. My children never would have entered the picture because I absolutely would not have been allowed to adopt them under any circumstances. I certainly wouldn’t be married – heck, Drew and I were together for 10 years before marriage was even an option… LGBT+ individuals lived in terror, self loathing, hiding… if found out, we were sent to institutions to help cure us of our “mental disease” with treatments that included being given ipecac to induce horrible nausea and/or electrocution or burning with hot wires while being shown pornographic images, to an IV containing succinylcholine a drug that made it impossible to move or breathe (without artificial assistance)… we were pharmacologically waterboarded. We were denied any licensure and – up until a couple weeks ago… let me repeat that, up until a couple weeks ago we could be, and were, fired or not hired based solely on our status as homosexuals. When you hear discussions of “conversion therapy,” know that it is only slightly less barbaric (burning, ice baths, or worse etc. are rare, but not unheard of).

We were beaten at home, we were kicked out onto the streets, we were beaten in the streets. There were marches and protests, oh yes. In the late 60’s, the Mattachine Society organised lovely protests in Philadelphia where the lesbians put on skirts and blouses and the gay men put on suits and ties and marched in circles calling for humanity, calling for some sense of dignity…. above all, calling for being left the hell alone…

But the violence and raids persisted. In New York, the alcohol board had a rule that a single known homosexual in an establishment made the establishment “rowdy” and they could lose their license. So, there were no bars willing – or able – to cater to us. The mafia decided to swoop in and “help.” The Stonewall never had a liquor license. They paid the mafia and the cops for protection, the liquor was grossly watered down, unsanitary, and easily twice as expensive as it was anywhere else, but for a couple hours there was a place where we could unguardedly look at each other, dance with each other, talk with each other, where I could tell my husband “I love you”… and no one said anything about it. We were willing to suffer all these other indignities if we could dance… if we could just dance.

But even that wasn’t permitted. The cops raided gay bars, including Stonewall, published names and addresses, and destroyed lives. Finally, after protesting with the Black Power movement, with the Women’s Lib Movement, with all the other social movements happening in the ‘60’s, the gays decided we were going to fight for ourselves: we realised that we were worth fighting for. That first night we burned our own street down, we almost burned down our own bar with a bunch of cops trapped inside, because our suit-and-tie circles had gone unheard.

On the second night of the Stonewall Riots – that is, the evening of July 28th, 1969, since the “first night” started around 1 am on the 28th – police used, in addition to billy clubs and riot gear, tear gas on the protesters, the rioters, the uprising.

Tear gas… a chemical weapon classified as a “riot control agent” which the UN has banned in war, but permitted for law enforcement… how is that right? On Sunday, May 31st, 2020, tear gas, “less lethal” ammunition, and clubs were used against protestors here in Columbia.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to riots ‘self-defeating and socially destructive,’ but also as ‘the voice of the unheard,’ and reminded us that ‘It is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause people to feel they must engage in riotous activity as it is for me to condemn riots.’

The day of the 28th, graffiti covered the walls of the Stonewall, including a message from the Mattachine Society – “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the village – Mattachine”… We condemned our own riots.


It can be hard for those of us who are unaffected, personally, by these matters to understand why someone would be willing to riot. Why self-destruct like that? I mean, we’ve all seen pictures of Buddhist monks, those bastions of non-violence – for the most part, Burma is a topic for another day – setting THEMSELVES on fire in protest… perhaps the most vicious, visceral image of what a riot is… Consider, though, that if I met someone and spoke to them in English and they responded in Russian. Then I spoke to them in Spanish and they responded in Russian. Then I spoke to them in Japanese and they responded in Russian… at some point I’m going to decide that the only option I have anymore is to speak Russian… no matter how much they protest that they’re perfectly fluent in English. This is what happens.


These days we’re seeing, again, large groups of people chanting in English, being met with Russian. There are, of course, agent provocateurs in attendance – like the so called “Boogaloo Boys” – but that in no way invalidates the fact that people are fed up.


I believe, strongly, that everyone here – and everyone not here, frankly – wants to practice compassion for others… but it can be so, so difficult. As a Buddhist, “compassion” is sorta’ one of our things… it’s one of those moments we can get up from the cushion and say “oh, we can talk about this one for a LONG time…” I don’t have the time or education to give a full discussion of Compassion practices, and, for the most part, it’s a pretty difficult concept to put into words, but the core of the idea is that compassion is feeling intimately aware of the suffering of other, and feeling an overwhelming need to alleviate their suffering. I want to introduce you to the concept of “near enemies.” In our tradition – well, the Theravedan practice, but, as a Zen practitioner, I can borrow – there is the belief that there are “four limitless qualities” that we all can, and should, work on. Each one has a “far enemy” – that is, the opposite of the quality – and a “near enemy” – that is, something that is easily mistaken for the quality, but isn’t. For Compassion, the far enemy is cruelty. I will leave that there because I feel like it is pretty self evident. The interesting thing, though, is compassion is the only one of the four to have more than one “near enemy”… in fact, it has three! Pity, Idiot’s Compassion, and Overwhelm. I want to look at these riots, these people screaming for safety and love and acceptance… for compassion… and help us recognise those dead ends we may mistakenly walk. I’ll speak for myself, and hope to illustrate how I’ve walked those dead end streets many times.


PITY: This is that type of compassion where you feel the desire to “raise them up” to where you are. The type that says “I am a helper” which, inherently, says that the other “needs me and what I can give.” It’s the compassion that erases the fight and plight of marginalised groups and says “they need to be given equality and justice.” It looks so much like compassion that I KNOW there are people firing up emails to me right now, but understand that compassion literally means “suffer together.” By setting ourselves in a place outside of their experience, we are not suffering with them, we are shielding ourselves from that suffering. I was able to see someone throw a rock through a window or light a police car on fire and think “they are treated so much worse than I am, and they need help… (but that’s not quite the best way to do it)” because until about three years ago, I heard stories like the murder of Trayvon Martin or Breonna Taylor and without immediately seeing Colette or Miryam laying on the road, or in their bed, in their own blood. I didn’t touch their mothers’ and fathers’ suffering… I pitied them, but I didn’t have full compassion for them.


IDIOT’S COMPASSION: This is the kind of compassion that protects my image as a “compassionate” person by avoiding conflict and allowing debasement of myself or others. It is a sort of “malignant kindness.” It is me not wanting to speak out with my full chest against police brutality because I have some loved ones who are police officers and I don’t want them to think I don’t care about them. It’s me not speaking out against homophobia because I don’t want people to think I can’t take a joke, or that I want to shame someone else. It’s me choosing to prepare myself for the impossible task of helping Colette and Miryam navigate the first time they’re called “the N word” or I am called a “faggot,” but not being willing to tell those voices “enough… here and no further, in fact, take a few steps back and a couple seats.” Me willing to say “that person is hurting, that’s why they said that, did that, thought that, voted for that” to my daughters but not to the individual and follow it with “but I will not stand for you causing any further harm. You will not continue this under any circumstances.”


OVERWHELM: This one I feel like everyone present is probably INTIMATELY aware of right now. Sitting and weeping for the seemingly hopeless magnitude of our problems. This is not compassion, it’s self-indulgence. How do I combat it, though? I start small. If I cannot touch the suffering of my fellow people who, for whatever reason, are being violently oppressed, then I start with trying to touch the suffering of a single person in the crowd who is being violently oppressed. If I can’t do that, then I try touching the suffering of someone whose mother, father, brother, sister, uncle… someone died recently. If I can’t do that, then I try touching the suffering of someone who lost their job. If I can’t do that, then I try touching the suffering of someone who lost a card game, or who has to get up to pee for the 14th time it seems and now they’re never going to get to sleep… There is always a place where I can start, and from there I can build myself up to being able to hold compassion for those bigger things. For me to sit and weep for days, or shut down because “I feel it all too deeply” is not compassion, though it may seem like it.


I know that, being a good UU congregation, with somewhere around 150 to 200 congregants there are at least 427 different feelings about the protests, and, yes, the riots, happening right now. But today, on the 51st anniversary of my fellow gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans, queer brothers and sisters finally saying “here and no further, in fact, take a few steps back and a couple seats” and finally deciding to meet the beatings and shamings and arrests with fire and fury, I encourage all of us to seek compassion. Don’t give in to overwhelm. Don’t be an idiot about it. Don’t pity them and lift ourselves above it. Let us all work on cultivating this sense of compassion so that we come to a place where we can feel the desperate anger and exhaustion at the destruction of life more than the destruction of property.