Remembering the Stonewall Riots, 50 years after they sparked the gay rights movement
In the early hours of June 28th, 1969, a team of police officers descended on the Stonewall Inn, a known oasis for the gay community in New York City’s Greenwich Village. After becoming physically aggressive with patrons and employees, the officers arrested 13 people. But unlike police raids in the past, which were common occurrences at gay bars during this time, the Stonewall raid led to a historic uprising—the Stonewall Riots—and societal shakeup that ultimately acted as a catalyst for the modern gay rights movement.
It was exactly one year after the Stonewall Riots that the first gay pride parade took place in New York City. Then, advocacy groups soon began to pop up in every major city across the United States, thus leading to the formation of gay rights organizations like GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), Human Rights Campaign, and PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). And because of Stonewall, we celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month in June to commemorate those who stood up for the community on June 28th, 1969.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In order to aptly celebrate and pay homage to those who took part in the event that sparked the gay rights movement, let’s look back on the history of the Stonewall Riots to better understand why they were so monumental.
The Climate Before Stonewall
Before the Stonewall Inn raid and the eventual Stonewall Riots, homosexuality was viewed as a crime in the 1960s and preceding decades. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order banning homosexuals from taking federal government jobs, stating they were “security risks.” In New York City, homosexual behaviors, such as same-sex kissing, hand-holding, and dancing, were deemed illegal as was wearing less than three articles of clothing meant for one’s gender.
Gay bars became sites of refuge for members of the gay community. Here, they could openly express themselves and commune with like-minded people.
Many of these locations operated illegally without liquor licenses because the New York State Liquor Authority threatened closure of establishments that served alcohol to LGBTQ patrons. Although these rules were overturned in 1966, many gay bars were Mafia-owned, therefore liquor licenses were still sparse. Therefore, police raids became common occurrences both as a way to dampen the gay community and to shut down operations illegally selling alcohol.
June 28th, 1969
When the police arrested the 13 patrons and employees of the Stonewall Inn, they were met with unexpected resistance and agitation from other patrons and Stonewall neighbors. During the commotion, an unidentified lesbian was hit on the head by the police officer who guided her into a police vehicle. She yelled at the crowd to act and chaos erupted.
“Stonewallers,” a name given to those who participated in the initial riot, threw bottles, pennies, and rocks at the police officers. Hundreds of people joined the mob and the police were forced to barricade themselves within the Stonewall Inn. Rioters succeeded in breaking the police barricade several times, and later attempted to burn the building down.
The riot squad and fire department eventually dispersed the crowd and saved those inside the bar. Protests and riots lasted for five days after June 28th, and drew thousands.
Although there are countless Stonewallers who took part in the June 28th riot, select rioters left behind notable legacies. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender African American woman, is one of the most famous Stonewallers and is credited as being one of the leaders of the initial riot. She and fellow Stonewaller and friend, Sylvia Rivera, founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and worked tirelessly to help homeless transgender NYC youth.
Rivera, a trans woman of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent, worked as a drag queen and trans activist at the time of the Stonewall Riots. She was reportedly the first to take action at Stonewall the night of June 28th, throwing the first bottle at police.
Singer, drag king, and bouncer Stormé DeLarverie is rumored to have thrown the first punch that fateful night. But she is more often credited for her work within the gay rights community in the decades after Stonewall. She reportedly looked after her fellow Greenwich Village lesbians and would keep “ugliness” (bullying and intolerance) in check.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it’s satisfying to see how far the American LGBTQ community has come in just a few decades. But we also must realize we still have battles in front of us—the fight for health care and basic rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming people and acting against discriminatory laws are just two of many. You can learn more about how you can help the LGTBQ fight at home via the ACLU’s website.
Stonewall may have catalyzed the movement in 1969, but it’s up to us in 2019 to keep it going.