June 28th, 1969. It’s an iconic date in LGBT rights’ history. It’s the date of the Stonewall Riots. And this year is the 50th anniversary of that incredible event, which was a massive turning point in the fight for LGBT equality.
You probably think you know the story – after all, the Stonewall Riots are often the first thing the public thinks of in the fight for LGBT rights – but over time it’s become warped through inadequate media portrayals and news coverage. Thus, it began to erase the role that women, trans people, and people-of-color played.
Given how important the Stonewall Riots are in LGBT history, it’s essential that we get it right. That’s why we’re going to look at what really happened and why it still matters today.
The Stonewall riots
The Stonewall Inn was a mafia-run gay bar, which was raided on June 28th, 1969, by police who used the pretext that the bar did not have a proper alcohol license. However, at that time, the police never needed an excuse to raid gay bars because homosexuality was illegal in every state except for Illinois.
During these frequent raids, the police would check that bar patrons were wearing at least four items of “gender-appropriate” clothing as dictated by law. If there was any doubt about a person’s sex, police would inspect their genitals. Most of the time, gay bars received a tip-off allowing patrons to leave, change clothes, or take opposite-sex dance partners to avoid the criminal charges and social shunning that came with being ‘outed’ because some of the police officers were on the payroll of the mafia that owned the bars.
For whatever reason, the Stonewall Inn did not receive a tip-off that night.
For context, it was a brutally hot June evening and happened to be the day of the funeral of one of the most beloved celebrities of the gay community, Judy Garland. Her funeral was attended by more than 20,000 people including some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, which forced New York City officials to shut down traffic for the hoards of sweaty fans waiting to pay their final respects and catch a glimpse of the stars. Emotions were high because many gay men felt they’d lost one of their only public advocates. Many wandered downtown after the funeral with their friends for a drink after the services.
There are several contradictory reports about what happened (i.e. who was there at Stonewall), but what is clear, is that something changed that night.
At roughly 1.20am, four plainclothes police officers, two patrol officers, and two detectives entered the bar, yelling “Police! We’re taking the place!” (Some report that four undercover police officers had entered the bar earlier that evening to gather evidence, while the Public Morals Squad waited outside.)
There were just over 200 patrons in the Stonewall Inn that night, most of whom had never seen a police raid before. Panic set in and many tried to escape. Things did not go as planned. The patrons refused to show their IDs or allow police to inspect their genitals and the police resorted to violence and sexual assault while frisking the patrons.
The police decided to arrest them and take them downtown – a deeply terrifying prospect for anyone, but especially to those not out to their families or at work. At the time, being outed frequently resulted in loss of personal relationships but also being blacklisted from work opportunities indefinitely. However, the patrol wagons were slow to arrive and the mafia and bar employees were carted away first. All the while, tensions only grew between LGBT people and the police.
Those who hadn’t been arrested did not flee, even when pushed out of the bar by the police. Stonewall was unique because it was frequented by many transgender and queer patrons who were homeless or had unstable housing and employment because they were openly queer. For the first time ever, the LGBT people stayed because many of them had a low risk of being outed. Soon enough, up to 150 people were gathered outside; some of whom had never been in the bar to begin with but had been attracted by the scene happening in the largely LGBT neighborhood.
Someone in the crowd shouted “Gay Power!”, while another started singing “We Shall Overcome!”, but it was fairly calm outside until rumors began to spread that the patrons still inside were being beaten by police. Onlookers started throwing pennies and beer bottles at the wagons. Storme DeLarverie, a butch lesbian-of-color, complained about the tightness of her handcuffs and police hit her with a baton, while other police officers knocked some of the crowd over.
Then, the mood changed drastically. Some of the crowd picked up bricks at a nearby construction site. More people were attracted by the commotion. Soon the police were outnumbered by 500-600 people, so they barricaded themselves, several handcuffed detainees, and a couple of bystanders inside the Stonewall Inn for protection.
This is where the reports tend to differ because there was no leader in this movement, so nobody really knows who threw the first brick. (Although many say that Marsha P. Johnson, a transwoman-of-color, threw the first shot glass.) All they knew was that something had changed. They weren’t going to be pushed around anymore and they were done asking politely for their rights to be granted.
They broke the windows of the Stonewall Inn using whatever projectiles they could find, used a parking meter as a battering ram, and put flaming garbage through the broken windows. Then, the Tactical Patrol Force arrived and eventually forced the rioters out by 4am.
But it wasn’t over. The next night, thousands gathered outside the Stonewall and the riots continued sporadically until July 4 following an unflattering report of the Stonewall Riots in the Village Voice.
What Stonewall did for us
The Stonewall Riots changed the course of the LGBT rights movement in the US and the world. As such, the Stonewall Inn became a National Monument in 2016 – the first related to queer history – and many activists are working hard to ensure that you know the real story about those who risked their freedom/lives/love so that we could have ours.
As you probably know, the Stonewall Riots did not end LGBT inequality in America. Some gains have been made over the years (i.e. the decriminalization of homosexuality), but there are always those trying to push us back into the closet. But we’re never going back. That was cemented in the first-ever Pride March from Sixth Avenue to the Stonewall Inn in 1970.
This year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, New York will host World Pride with the theme “One World, One Pride, One New York City – Unite in 2019”. It reminds us that although discrimination against LGBT people is still frighteningly common in our society, we should work together for a better future.
We’ve come a long way since the Stonewall Riots, but we’ve got a long way to go. I’ll be fighting for equality for the rest of my life, but I hope that you’ll fight with me and support the LGBT community. Remember, none of us is free until all of us are free.