Firstly, to fully understand why the Stonewall riots happened the way they did, we need to understand its period.
The Story Behind The Stonewall Inn
The 1950s to late 1960s in the USA was a very different world from the one that we live in today, especially when it came to the gay community.
LGBTQ+ were seen as second class, disturbed and pop culture as a whole despised us. Even though we knew there was nothing wrong with us, people thought being gay was an illness that could be cured and needed to be “fixed”.
The 1960s was a very turbulent time for a change. The 60’s Rebellion was at its height. From the birth of the Feminist Movement to Martin Luther King’s Assassination and the Black struggle for Civil Rights, it was a time of protest and rebellion. Making the 1960’s a very volatile decade.
But when people started to change their views, for example, people began to put up banners and shout “Black is Beautiful” with the black community. People of colour were also seen as inferior and second class, which became a turning point for the gay community. Many started to imagine, “well, if black is beautiful, then maybe gay can be beautiful as well.”
At this time, homosexual acts remained illegal in every US state except Illinois. The bars and restaurants could get shut down for having gay employees or even for serving gay patrons. Most gay bars and clubs in New York at the time (including The Stonewall Inn) were operated by the Mafia, who paid corrupt police officers to look the other way and blackmailed wealthy gay patrons by threatening to “out” them.
Gay bars and clubs were very few and far between, which meant that the Stonewall Inn was the go-to place in New York for LGBTQ+ to dance and feel free in a world that didn’t think they should be. Unfortunately, though, police also knew that this was a haven for the community, so they would come and raid them quite often.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the law that people had to be wearing three pieces of clothing that were “appropriate to their biological sex”. So when the raids did happen, they were not pleasant in the slightest. People would be thrown against walls and searched to make sure they were following the law, which you can imagine how horrid that may have been. Many patrons in gay bars weren’t wearing gender-confirming clothing, which meant being arrested was a widespread occurrence, especially at the Stonewall Inn.
The Start of the Riots
The Stonewall rebellion and what started the riots depend on who you talk to, and there are many theories.
One theory is that a lesbian caused the riot by striking out at a policeman who was mauling her.
Another theory is some people say it turned violent when a trans person hit a policeman.
Some witnesses say it started because the police roughed up a woman dressed in masculine attire. Some say this woman was lesbian activist Storme DeLarverie (who we have covered in a previous episode), who had complained that her handcuffs were too tight.
But the most common theory is that the Mafia bar owners failed to pay off the police, and that’s why they came to raid that night.
Most of the confusion as to how or why it started is because there are very few photographs of the uprising in progress. If it were in today’s society, it would be all over social media. Whereas they didn’t have that back then, so much of it was word of mouth and witness accounts, which aren’t always the most reliable.
One thing we do know, though, is that on the night of 28th June 1969, eight plainclothes or undercover police officers entered the packed Stonewall Inn and began to arrest and usher people out of the pub. More N.Y.P.D. Officers were arriving in vans and cars outside the Inn, ready to put the detained people in the back of them.
But this night was very different from the previous night of raids because the people inside the pub had had enough.
Previously, people would have been frightened, maybe even complied with the police, that wasn’t the case this time. This time they stood their ground and stayed on the street.
So while the pub patrons were standing outside, protesting and resisting arrest, people walking by or who lived nearby heard the commotion. Perhaps they just disliked the police, or maybe they were allies of the community who came to join in with the protest, creating an even larger group of people. This meant the police inside the pub got stuck inside because of the number of people outside.
People started to yell at the police calling them “pigs” or “copper”, they would throw pennies, bottles and stones towards them, and some would even try and help people get out of the police vans after they had been arrested. Others would slash the tires of the cars and vans.
Two transgender women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were said to have resisted arrest and thrown the first bottle (or brick or stone) at the cops. We have covered Sylvia Rivera on the podcast previously, and we will be doing a separate episode on Marsha P. Johnson in the coming months.
In a 1987 podcast interview with historian Eric Marcus, Johnson later said that she had not arrived on Christopher Street until the uprising was well underway.
It was now about 4 am on 28th June 1969, and the riot started to amp up. So much so that the police, who were still stuck inside the pub, had to barricade themselves in to stop the protesters from getting inside.
That didn’t stop them trying though, some protesters even got a parking meter and tried using that as a battering ram to try and get the door open. Some even started making Molotov cocktails and were throwing them at the police.
People were angry, and I feel as though at that moment, it was decades of repression and anguish coming out all at once.
As the riots continued, crowds could hear a siren announcing the arrival of more officers, as well as the squadron of the Tactical Patrol Force (T.P.F.). These guys were the city’s riot police. They tried marching down in formation through Christopher Street. Still, the protesters outsmarted them by running away and then circling the short blocks of the Village and then coming back up behind the police, carrying on with the rioting.
But eventually, sometime after 5 am, things began to settle down, amazingly no one was killed or seriously injured in the riots, but some police officers did sustain some injuries. I’m sure some of the protesters did, too, but the newspapers only reported injuries to the police.
Many people believe that the Stonewall Riot was a one-night event, but that’s not the case.
The Next Day/Night (28th/29th June 1969)
The Stonewall Inn was an absolute mess and was utterly torn apart by the police, who were barricaded inside that previous night. Despite this, The Stonewall Inn opened its doors again before dark the following night. People came to carry on the protest; they chanted and shouted and rallied to show support and unity with the community.
The police were called out again to try and “restore order,” which included an even larger group of T.P.F. officers. They beat the protesters and used tear gas on members of the crowd. How is that supposed to “restore order”? I have no idea!
This use of force from the police continued until the early morning hours when the crowd finally had to disperse.
29th June/1st July 1969
Even after the beatings and the tear gas, protesters and activists continued to gather and rally with each other the following day. Taking advantage of this moment to spread the word, share information and build a stronger community.
With the supporters and activists still gathering, this meant that the police were also still there. But they began to be less aggressive, and instead of going into full-on riot mode, they only had a few spats and arrests here and there.
2nd July 1969
Many different news outlets covered the riot story; for example, a news outlet called “the Village Voice” proceeded to use the headline “The Forces of Faggotry”. The protesters did not like this headline, so they decided to go to the paper’s office and swarm outside, shouting to burn the building down. The police got involved again, and this started up more riots. But this time, the riot only lasted till about midnight.
But they weren’t the only news outlet to use homophobic slurs as a headline. The New York Daily News used the headline “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Like Mad”. Most news outlets either used very homophobic headlines or barely acknowledge the event, like The New York Times didn’t report it much and just recorded the event by calling it “Police Again Rout ‘Village’ Youths”.
The 60s Rebellion was a very transformative time for LGBTQ+ people, although the gay rights movement didn’t start with Stonewall. It propelled the idea that we could fight back and have the same rights people began to see in the Black community or the Feminist movement. More people were coming around to the idea that being gay wasn’t an illness but something to be celebrated and proud of.
The Stonewall Riots helped not only the New York LGBTQ+ community, but it helped the rest of the world to realise that GAY WAS OKAY! It also led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front, the first group to advocate for gay equal rights on a public scale.
On 28th June 1970, gay activists organised the Christopher Street Liberation March, which would become the first Gay Pride Week. Several hundreds of people attended and began to march up 6th avenue towards Central Park, chanting.
Many different signs and banners could be seen all over, and all kinds of beautiful people, either in the LGBTQ+ community or just allies coming out to support their family and friends, were in attendance. The procession stretched for around 15 blocks, and eventually, it involved thousands of people.
After that first Pride march, the speed of progress went up a notch. In the decade that followed, the federal exclusions on gays and lesbians lifted, and the medical profession reversed its long-held belief that homosexuals needed psychiatric treatment.
This kind of March ended up sparking other cities around the USA to do the same, including LA, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Activism for gay rights on this scale fuelled people worldwide in places such as Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.
The Rebellion’s Impact on Today’s Society
Acceptance and respect from the establishment were no longer humbly requested but rather angrily and righteously demanded. The broad-based radical activism of many gay men and lesbians in the 1970s eventually set into motion a new, non-discriminatory trend in government policies. It helped educate society regarding this significant minority.
Many anti-sodomy laws were struck down in the 1980s, making homosexuality effectively legal, although it was decades before gay marriage became a federally recognised right in the U.S. in 2015. Thankfully 27 countries now allow same-sex marriage.
There are many worthy charities now for LGBTQ+ people, like the Stonewall Charity and The Trevor Project. These charities work to help any person who needs help with their sexuality or just with their mental health and come to terms with their sexuality.
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.” In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Law bars employers from discriminating against workers based on sexual orientation or transgender status. This clarification gave many LGBTQ+ people protections in the workplace that they had been craving and campaigning for years.
Unfortunately, 11 countries still have the death penalty and 57 countries with imprisonment as a punishment for homosexual acts. Nonetheless, despite the danger and lack of acceptance in some countries and some places STILL trying to silence us, the LGBTQ+ community is forever changing, evolving, and growing. One thing it won’t do is disappear.
The Stonewall Rebellion will always be a pivotal and vital event in our LGBTQ+ history. We wouldn’t have PRIDE if it weren’t for the riots. Every PRIDE should be a reminder of these events and remain a protest against discrimination that we still receive today.
Having our voices heard and telling people that we are not going anywhere is so IMPORTANT! So, next time you go to PRIDE or want to join in during Pride Month, remember what these people in 1969 helped us fight for our rights and stood up against police oppression.
We hope that you have learned that the events at The Stonewall Inn in 1969 were not, in fact, a riot; it was a retaliation against decades of discrimination and poor treatment. It was an uprising. That is how we on All Gay Long will continue to refer to these events. Stonewall was not a riot; it was an uprising, and it was a rebellion.
Find out more about Stonewall Rebellion and listen along on the All Gay Long podcast: