The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that began in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City.
The Stonewall Riots, also called the Stonewall Uprising, began in the early hours of June 28, 1969 when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village in New York City.
The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets and in nearby Christopher Park.
The Stonewall Riots served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.
Constant Raids at Gay Bars
The 1960s and preceding decades were not welcoming times for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans. For instance, solicitation of same-sex relations was illegal in New York City.
For such reasons, LGBT individuals flocked to gay bars and clubs, places of refuge where they could express themselves openly and socialize without worry. However, the New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or suspected LGBT individuals, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.”
Thanks to activists’ efforts, these regulations were overturned in 1966, and LGBT patrons could now be served alcohol. But engaging in gay behavior in public (holding hands, kissing or dancing with someone of the same sex) was still illegal,
so police harassment of gay bars continued and many bars still operated without liquor licenses—in part because they were owned by the Mafia.
Gay Rights Before Stonewall
The first documented U.S. gay rights organization, The Society for Human Rights (SHR), was founded in 1924 by Henry Gerber, a German immigrant. Police raids forced them to disband in 1925, but not before they had published several issues of their newsletter, “Friendship and Freedom,” the country’s first gay-interest newsletter.
America’s first lesbian rights organization, The Daughters of Bilitis, was formed in San Francisco on September 21, 1955.
In 1966, three years before Stonewall, members of The Mattachine Society, an organization dedicated to gay rights, staged a “sip-in” where they openly declared their sexuality at taverns, daring staff to turn them away and suing establishments who did.
When The Commission on Human Rights ruled that gay individuals had the right to be served in bars, police raids were temporarily reduced
The crime syndicate saw profit in catering to shunned gay clientele, and by the mid-1960s, the Genovese crime family controlled most Greenwich Village gay bars. In 1966, they purchased Stonewall Inn (a “straight” bar and restaurant), cheaply renovated it, and reopened it the next year as a gay bar.
Stonewall Inn was registered as a type of private “bottle bar,” which did not require a liquor license because patrons were supposed to bring their own liquor.
Club attendees had to sign their names in a book upon entry to maintain the club’s false exclusivity. The Genovese family bribed New York’s Sixth Police Precinct to ignore the activities occurring within the club.
Without police interference, the crime family could cut costs how they saw fit: The club lacked a fire exit, running water behind the bar to wash glasses, clean toilets that didn’t routinely overflow and palatable drinks that weren’t watered down beyond recognition. What’s more, the Mafia reportedly blackmailed the club’s wealthier patrons who wanted to keep their sexuality a secret.
Nonetheless, Stonewall Inn quickly became an important Greenwich Village institution. It was large and relatively cheap to enter. It welcomed drag queens, who received a bitter reception at other gay bars and clubs.
It was a nightly home for many runaways and homeless gay youths, who panhandled or shoplifted to afford the entry fee. And it was one of the few—if not the only—gay bar left that allowed dancing.
Raids were still a fact of life, but usually corrupt cops would tip off Mafia-run bars before they occurred, allowing owners to stash the alcohol (sold without a liquor license) and hide other illegal activities. In fact, the NYPD had stormed Stonewall Inn just a few days before the riot-inducing raid.
The Stonewall Riots Begin
When police raided Stonewall Inn on the morning of June 28, it came as a surprise—the bar wasn’t tipped off this time.
Armed with a warrant, police officers entered the club, roughed up patrons, and, finding bootlegged alcohol, arrested 13 people, including employees and people violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute (female officers would take suspected cross-dressing patrons into the bathroom to check their sex).
Fed up with constant police harassment and social discrimination, angry patrons and neighborhood residents hung around outside of the bar rather than disperse, becoming increasingly agitated as the events unfolded and people were aggressively manhandled.
At one point, an officer hit a lesbian over the head as he forced her into the police van— she shouted to onlookers to act, inciting the crowd to begin throw pennies, bottles, cobble stones and other objects at the police.
Within minutes, a full-blown riot involving hundreds of people began. The police, a few prisoners and a Village Voice writer barricaded themselves in the bar, which the mob attempted to set on fire after breaching the barricade repeatedly.
The fire department and a riot squad were eventually able to douse the flames, rescue those inside Stonewall, and disperse the crowd. But the protests, sometimes involving thousands of people, continued in the area for five more days, flaring up at one point after the Village Voice published its account of the riots.
Though the Stonewall uprising didn’t start the gay rights movement, it was a galvanizing force for LGBT political activism, leading to numerous gay rights organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
On the one-year anniversary of the riots on June 28, 1970, thousands of people marched in the streets of Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in what was then called “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” America’s first gay pride parade. The parade’s official chant was: “Say it loud, gay is proud.”
In 2016, then-President Barack Obama designated the site of the riots—Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks—a national monument in recognition of the area’s contribution to gay rights.
In 1969 the solicitation of homosexual relations was an illegal act in New York City (and indeed virtually all other urban centres). Gay bars were places of refuge where gay men and lesbians and other individuals who were considered sexually suspect could socialize in relative safety from public harassment. Many of those bars were, however, subject to regular police harassment.
One such well-known gathering place for young gay men, lesbians, and transgender people was the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, a dark, seedy, crowded bar, reportedly operating without a liquor license. In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, nine policemen entered the Stonewall Inn, arrested the employees for selling alcohol without a license,
roughed up many of its patrons, cleared the bar, and—in accordance with a New York criminal statute that authorized the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing—took several people into custody. It was the third such raid on Greenwich Village gay bars in a short period.
This time the people milling outside the bar did not retreat or scatter as they almost always had in the past. Their anger was apparent and vocal as they watched bar patrons being forced into a police van. They began to jeer at and jostle the police and then threw bottles and debris. Accustomed to more passive behaviour, even from larger gay groups,
the policemen called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar while some 400 people rioted. The police barricade was repeatedly breached, and the bar was set on fire. Police reinforcements arrived in time to extinguish the flames, and they eventually dispersed the crowd.
The riots outside the Stonewall Inn waxed and waned for the next five days. Many historians characterized the uprising as a spontaneous protest against the perpetual police harassment and social discrimination suffered by a variety of sexual minorities in the 1960s. Although there had been other protests by gay groups,
the Stonewall incident was perhaps the first time lesbians, gays, and transgender people saw the value in uniting behind a common cause. Occurring as it did in the context of the civil rights and feminist movements, the Stonewall riots became a galvanizing force.
The legacy of Stonewall by Brittanica
Stonewall soon became a symbol of resistance to social and political discrimination that would inspire solidarity among homosexual groups for decades. Although the Stonewall riots cannot be said to have initiated the gay rights movement as such, it did serve as a catalyst for a new generation of political activism.
Older groups such as the Mattachine Society, which was founded in southern California as a discussion group for gay men and had flourished in the 1950s, soon made way for more radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).
In addition to launching numerous public demonstrations to protest the lack of civil rights for gay individuals, these organizations often resorted to such tactics as public confrontations with political officials and the disruption of public meetings to challenge and to change the mores of the times.
Acceptance and respect from the establishment were no longer being humbly requested but angrily and righteously demanded. The broad-based radical activism of many gay men and lesbians in the 1970s eventually set into motion a new, nondiscriminatory trend in government policies and helped educate society regarding this significant minority.
The event sparked the formation of scores of gay rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, OutRage! (U.K.-based), GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and Queer Nation. In 1999 the U.S.
National Park Service placed the Stonewall Inn on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2016 Pres. Barack Obama designated the site of the Stonewall uprising a national monument. The 7.7-acre (3.1-hectare) monument included the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks.
In 2019, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the riots, New York City’s police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, issued an apology on behalf of the police department saying, “The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong—plain and simple.”
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