How the Memory of Stonewall Lives On in a Meme

The question “Who threw the first brick?” has become a way to celebrate gay icons and to inject joy into a sobering historical moment.

Nicki Minaj, Marsha P. Johnson, Judy Garland, and Beyoncé are all icons who have been celebrated as throwing the first brick at Stonewall. (Lucy Jones)
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

One of the most enduring questions about the Stonewall riots is, Who threw the first brick? According to what has become a sort of origin myth, someone flung a chunk of masonry at police officers as they hauled revelers away during a routine raid of the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar, in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969. Other onlookers followed suit, lobbing whatever they could get their hands on—coins, rocks, glass bottles—to protest the harassment that queer people had long suffered at the hands of the state. The ensuing multi-night riots have since become a potent symbol of queer liberation.

Though the brick has achieved legendary status, there’s little historical consensus on who, if anyone, actually threw it. Still, the story has persisted. Fifty years after the Stonewall riots, if you scan certain quarters of the internet—Gay Twitter, Reddit threads—you might see that the brick-thrower question has taken on a fascinating life. You might even notice, more specifically, that your favorite celebrity holds that revered place in queer history: Mariah Carey threw the first brick. Betty Who threw the first brick. Beyoncé threw the first brick. So did Nicki Minaj, the cast of Glee, Nicole Kidman’s wig in the 2018 film Boy Erased, and Lady Gaga’s wail in the chart-topping A Star Is Born single “Shallow.” (You might see someone say that Kylie Minogue threw the first cowboy hat or that Stevie Nicks threw the first curse.) While this meme might just seem like an anachronistic gag, it also functions as a meaningful way to celebrate a variety of gay icons and the distinct resonance they have for their queer fans.

Memes are a kind of map to internet culture because they crystallize what certain online communities find important, as Caroline Kitchener noted for The Atlantic. Paraphrasing Kenyatta Cheese, an expert on meme culture, Kitchener wrote that memes can “offer particularly deep insight into human behavior,” because “the versions that go viral reveal what exactly strikes a chord with us.” So it is with the brick-throwing joke: For many queer people, it transposes a key historical event into the present, and its playful tone injects joy into a sobering historical moment.

While the meme can center a range of figures, including LGBTQ-rights pioneers, it makes sense that gay icons are most often featured. For example, part of the mythology of the Stonewall riots is that the death of Judy Garland less than a week before those pivotal nights in June contributed to the event’s aura of desperation and defiance. No wonder, then, that some people claim that Garland herself threw the first brick. Known for her towering performances in films including 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and 1954’s A Star Is Born, as well as for the heartrending trajectory of her personal life, Garland has, for generations, been a high priestess of sorts for many gay men. As the scholar Richard Dyer writes in “Judy Garland and Gay Men,” a chapter from his 1986 book, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, “Garland works in an emotional register of great intensity which seems to bespeak equally suffering and survival, vulnerability and strength, theatricality and authenticity, passion and irony.” When Garland died, the aforementioned legend goes, those at the Stonewall Inn were in no mood to put up with more police abuse. And they didn’t.

The brick-throwing meme pays tribute to the singular connection between many gay icons and their admirers. Think about the claim that “Good Love,” a 2018 track by the sibling pop duo Aly & AJ, threw the first brick. It’s a ridiculous assertion, but the absurdity is part of the point. The joke is a clear example of camp—that queer sensibility that fixates on exaggeration and mingles seriousness and unseriousness—and as Georges-Claude Guilbert writes in his 2018 book, Gay Icons: The (Mostly) Female Entertainers Gay Men Love, “pure camp has little use for historical accuracy.” The meme also drives home, in a fun and over-the-top fashion, the sheer beauty of the song. Like most of Aly & AJ’s recent music, it echoes the hazy synth-pop of the ’80s—a famously queer music genre—and exudes torch-song sentimentality.

Consider, too, the added valence that Aly & AJ, while relatively new to the pantheon of gay icons, are beloved by many queer music-listeners. The artists are known as LGBTQ allies who often comment on the symbiotic nature of their relationship with their fanbase—how lyrics like “Don’t let nobody tell you your life is over / Be every color that you are” have helped fans come out of the closet, and how reactions like that encouraged the sisters to return to music after a 10-year hiatus. (My own unscientific observation confirms this mutually supportive dynamic: While at an Aly & AJ concert in May, I realized that I hadn’t seen such a queer audience since … the Robyn concert I went to in March.)

A similar chemistry between diva and devotee is on display in the idea that Carly Rae Jepsen, or even her 2018 song “Party for One,” threw the first brick. What better way to demonstrate emotive fealty to a heroine like Jepsen—whose pop paeans, as The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber wrote last month, are often “way better camp than anything at the Met Gala”—than for queer people to write her into their narratives? And what better way to own queer history, which has typically been flattened into stories of oppression when it hasn’t been lost to crisis, than to affectionately retcon who, or what, has been a part of it? The meme’s power lies in how it exalts the subversiveness of this joy and kinship.

This isn’t to suggest that the meme is used solely to express happiness or gratitude. It can also be used derisively—mostly to question or look askance at a straight figure’s bona fides as an LGBTQ ally. Take the controversy involving the actor Scarlett Johansson last year. Because of her intention to play the role of a trans man, one episode of the podcast Keep It was titled “Scarlett Johansson Threw the First Brick at Stonewall,” and the show’s hosts set out to explore why she “would rather play anyone but a white woman in movies.” When used ironically, the meme can be a diss or a rebuke.

Five decades after the Stonewall riots, the brick-throwing meme, in its own way, keeps the spirit of that time alive and helps recover some of the era’s emotional texture. While the riots are usually, and understandably, remembered as a weightier slice of history, they also had a dimension of subtle, insurgent pleasure. Recall the protesters who formed kick-lines and taunted the police outside the Stonewall Inn, singing, “We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls / We wear no underwear / We show our pubic hair.” Or reflect on the words of the writer Edmund White, who explains in his 2009 memoir, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s, that “GLBT leaders like to criticize young gays for not taking the movement seriously, but don’t listen to them. Just remember that at Stonewall we were defending our right to have fun, to meet each other, and to have sex.” This rapturous link to the past—this devotion to the figures who’ve nurtured delight within queer communities—is what I, as a gay man, see in the meme-ification of Stonewall. The brick-throwing meme, in that, feels like a perfect inheritance.