The Stonewall Riots were a series of violent conflicts between LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangendered) individuals and New York City police officers that began during a June 28, 1969 police raid, and lasted several days. They were centered at the Stonewall Inn and are widely recognized as the catalyst for the modern-day movement towards LGBT rights. Also called the Stonewall Uprising, Stonewall Rebellion, Stonewall Revolution or simply Stonewall, the clash was a watershed for the worldwide Gay Liberation movement as gay, lesbian and transgender people had never before acted together in such large numbers to forcibly resist police harassment directed towards their community. Many also credit the events as igniting a movement to celebrate gay pride with events such as pride parades and dyke marches
Contrary to popular belief, activists had been fighting for homosexual rights for years prior to the Stonewall Riots. In 1950, a gay man named Harry Hay and a group of gay activists, tired of unequal treatment because of their sexual orientation, launched the Mattachine Society. The society unified isolated gays and also encouraged them to fight for their rights.
On April 21, 1966, members of the Society staged a "sip-in" at Julius Bar a block northeast of Stonewall challenging a New York State Liquor Authority rule that said homosexuals should not be served alcohol because they are considered "disorderly." The court was to rule that homosexuals could peacefully assemble at bars.
The activism of the Mattachine Society served as an inspiration for the first student gay rights organization. Students at certain colleges began to see the importance of equal rights for LGBT people. The first student gay rights group was formed in 1967 at Columbia University. The group began because of a student, Stephen Donaldson, who identified himself as bisexual. After the discrimination that he faced for being honest about his sexual orientation, he decided to form a Mattachine-like group called the Student Homophile League (SHL) that advocated for gay rights. Although he faced challenges in trying to get the University to accept the organization, Donaldson eventually received approval from the administration. While the SHL attracted negative attention from the media, it inspired other gay activists to begin SHL chapters at different universities. In 1968, the second gay rights group to be formed on a college campus was created at Cornell University in New York by Jerald Moldenhaurer. When he decided to take on the leadership role, he said to fellow activist Stephen Donaldson, “the mere presence of such an organization…will help to stimulate a more honest, healthy attitude about homosexuality.” Many people believe that the gay rights movement began the night after the Stonewall Riots. However, prior to the riots, students like Donaldson and Moldenhaurer had been fighting for equality.
After the Stonewall Riots, LGBT activists were motivated to form a group called the Gay Liberation Front. The name was chosen for its association with the anti-imperialist struggles in Vietnam and Algeria.
Law enforcement raids on gay bars and discotechs were a regular part of gay life in cities across the United States, until the 1960s, when sudden raids on bars in many major cities became markedly less frequent. Most conclude that the decline in raids can be attributed to a series of court challenges and increased resistance from the Homophile Movement.
Prior to 1965, the police would sometimes record the identities of all those present at a raid, occasionally providing the information to newspapers for publication. Police used any convenient justification to make arrests on charges of "indecency" including kissing, holding hands, cross-dressing - even merely being in the bar at the time of the raid.
In 1965, two important figures came into prominence. The first was John Lindsay, a liberal Republican who was elected mayor of New York City on a reform platform. The other was Richard Leitsch, who became president of the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society at around the same time. Leitsch was considered relatively militant compared to his predecessors and believed in direct action techniques commonly used by other civil rights groups in the 1960s.
In early 1966, administration policies had changed because of complaints made by Mattachine that the police were on the streets entrapping gay men and charging them with indecency. The police commissioner, Howard Leary, instructed the police force not to lure gays into breaking the law and also required that any plain clothes officers must have a civilian witness when a gay person was arrested. This policy caused entrapment of gay men to become much less common in New York City.
In the same year, in order to challenge the State Liquor Authority regarding its policies over gay bars, Leitsch conducted a "sip in." Leitsch had called members of the press and planned on meeting at a bar with two other gay men—a bar could have its liquor license taken away for knowingly serving a group of three or more homosexuals—to test the SLA policy of closing bars. When the bartender at Julius turned them away, they made a complaint.
The question then remains why the Stonewall was raided if gay bars were legal and on the rise. John D’Emilio, a prominent historian, points out that the city was in the middle of a mayoral campaign and John Lindsay, who had lost his party’s primary election, had reason to call for a cleanup of the city’s bars. There were a number of reasons that made the Stonewall Inn an easy target: it operated without a liquor license; had ties to organized crime; and, “offering scantily clad go-go boys as entertainment, it brought an ‘unruly’ element to Sheridan Square”.
Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid on the bar that first night, claims that he was ordered to close the Stonewall Inn because it was the central location for gathering information on gay men who worked on Wall Street. A recent increase in the number of thefts from brokerage houses on Wall Street led police to suspect that gay men, forced by blackmail, were behind the thefts.
The patrons of the Stonewall were used to such raids and the management was generally able to reopen for business either the same night or the following day.
The Stonewall raid and the aftermath
On Saturday morning, June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village where gay people frequently gathered to socialize on Christopher Street, just off Sheridan Square. A number of factors differentiated the raid that took place on June 28 from other raids at the Stonewall Inn. Because raids had occurred at the Stonewall Inn in the past, managers usually knew what to expect when a raid was about to occur. Likewise, raids tended to occur earlier in the evening, which allowed the bar to continue with normal business for the busiest hours of the night. On June 28th, however, an unexpected raid unfolded at the Inn. At approximately 1:20 am, eight police officers entered the bar with a warrant authorizing a search for illegal sales of alcohol. Of the eight policemen, only one was dressed in his uniform. The police questioned the customers and made many of them show identification. Many were escorted out of the bar, and some were even arrested. The escorted crowd became very angry and began to cause chaos outside of the Inn. While the police loaded arrested patrons into the police van, the existing crowd responded with catcalls and then, eventually erupted into violence. Transgender activist Sylvia Rivera claimed she "led the charge". They threw bottles at the officers, and even used a parking meter as a battering ram. Heterosexual folk singer Dave van Ronk, who was walking through the area, was grabbed by the police, pulled into the bar, and beaten. The crowd’s attacks were unrelenting. Word quickly spread of the riot and many residents, as well as patrons of nearby bars, rushed to the scene. When the police officers went inside the bar, the angry clients blockaded the Inn and then torched it. Eventually, the protesting crowd was so strong that each time the police would disperse the mob, a new group would re-form behind the police’s back, preventing them from actually breaking up the riot. Over the course of five days, the crowd of 400 protesters continued throwing bottles and lighting fires around the Inn. Police attempted to capture some of the violent rioters. If the rioters did not act fast enough, they were pushed and shoved and even clubbed to the ground by officers. Protesters in the crowd began to scream "Gay Power" and some activists dressed as drag queens started chanting:
|“||We are the Stonewall Girls
We wear our hair in curls
Throughout the night the police singled out many transgender people and gender nonconformists, including butch women and effeminate men, among others, often beating them. On the first night alone 13 people were arrested and four police officers, as well as an undetermined number of protesters, were injured. It is known, however, that at least two rioters were severely beaten by the police. Bottles and stones were thrown by protesters who chanted “Gay Power!” The crowd, estimated at over 2000, fought with over 400 police officers.
The police sent additional forces in the form of the Tactical Patrol Force, a riot-control squad originally trained to counter Vietnam War protesters. The tactical patrol force arrived to disperse the crowd. However, they failed to break up the crowd, who sprayed them with rocks and other projectiles.
Eventually the scene quieted, but the crowd returned again the next night. While less violent than the first night, the crowd had the same energy as it had on the previous night. Skirmishes between the rioters and the police ensued until approximately 4:00 a.m.. The third day of rioting fell five days after the raid on the Stonewall Inn. On that Wednesday, 1,000 people congregated at the bar and again caused extensive property damage.
A connection is frequently drawn between the timing of gay icon Judy Garland's death and funeral, also in June 1969, and the Riots. Time noted "The uprising was inspirited by a potent cocktail of pent-up rage (raids of gay bars were brutal and routine), overwrought emotions (hours earlier, thousands had wept at the funeral of Judy Garland) and drugs." Coincidental or not, the proximity of Garland's death to Stonewall has become a part of LGBT history and lore.
The forces that were simmering before the riots were now no longer beneath the surface. The community created by the homophile organizations of the previous two decades had created the perfect environment for the creation of the Gay Liberation Movement. By the end of July the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed in New York and by the end of the year the GLF could be seen in cities and universities around the country. Similar organizations were soon created around the world including Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.
The following year, in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, the GLF organized a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Between 5,000 and 10,000 men and women attended the march. Many gay pride celebrations choose the month of June to hold their parades and events to celebrate “The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World" (D'Emilio 232). Many major American cities including New York City, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Columbus as well as other cities such as Toronto hold Gay Pride Marches on the last Sunday of June, in honor of Stonewall. Other cities such as Anchorage, Alaska, Baltimore, Boston, Des Moines, Detroit, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Washington, DC hold their pride parade in June but not on the last Sunday of the month. Still others, such as Dallas, Texas and Palm Springs, California, hold their celebration in another month entirely.
In 1998, an LGBT-rights group in the United States formed the Stonewall Democrats (affiliated with the Democratic Party). The group was founded by Barney Frank, a gay Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Massachusetts' fourth congressional district.
The Stonewall Inn closed in late 1969. Over the next twenty years, the space was occupied by various other establishments, including a bagel sandwich shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a shoe store. Many visitors and new residents in the neighborhood were unaware of the building's history or its connection to the Stonewall riots. In the early 1990s, after its first renovation, a new gay bar, named simply "Stonewall" opened in the west half of the original Stonewall Inn. A second renovation in the late 1990s brought in new crowds to its new multi-floor layout. The club remained popular until management lost its lease in 2006. New management reopened the latest version of The Stonewall in February 2007.
- Brenda Howard
- Christopher Street Day
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- Gay pride parade
- Timeline of LGBT history
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Footnotes and references
- Wright, Lionel. “The Stonewall Riots - 1969 – A turning point in the Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Liberation.” Socialist Alternative, 1999.
- Remembering a 1966 'Sip-In' for Gay Rights - NPR.org - June 28, 2008
- Beemyn, Brett (2003). "The Silence Is Broken: A History of the First Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Groups". Journal of the History of Sexuality 12 (2): 205–223. Ohio State University. doi: .
- Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, pg. 262, 2004.
- New York Times, 1969, staff reporter.
- Sylvia Rivera. Sound Portraits.org. Retrieved on June 12, 2008.
- Duberman, Martin. Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 1991.
- Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: A Dutton Book, 1993, pg. 201-202.
- Haggerty, George E. Gay Histories and Cultures. ISBN 0815318804.
- Miller, Neil (1995). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. Vintage UK, 367. ISBN 009957691.
- Murray, Raymond (1996). Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video. TLA Video Management.
- June 28, 1969 By JOHN CLOUD (printed Monday, Mar. 31, 2003)
- Bianco, David, Stonewall Riots, 1995-2006, PlanetOut
- D'Emilio, John (1983), Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
- Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.
- The Stonewall Riots - About.com
- Stonewall, the movie
- Stonewall Veterans Association
- On Important Pre-Stonewall Activists
- Newspaper reports of the event itself
- Gay memoir and history of NYC from the '50s through the '80s
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