Originally posted in 2021, this post has been updated for 2024.
To grasp the significance of LGBTQ+ History Month, we need to understand what happened at The Stonewall Inn, and to do that, we need to explore what was happening at the time.
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+ people were seen as second-class and disturbed, and pop culture as a whole despised us. Even though we knew this wasn’t the case, people thought being gay was an illness that could be cured and needed to be “fixed”.
The 1960s was a very turbulent time. 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. This made the 1960s a very volatile decade.
There were signs of change, though, as people started to adjust their views. For example, people began to put up banners and shout “Black is Beautiful” in support of the African American community. Frustratingly, people of colour were also seen as inferior and second-class citizens, and this became a turning point for the gay community. Many started to realise, “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. Bars and restaurants were frequently shut down for having gay employees and even for serving gay customers.
Gay bars and clubs were very few and far between, which meant that the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street was the go-to place in New York for LGBTQ+ people to dance and feel free in a world that didn’t think they should be. However, unfortunately, the police also knew that this was a haven for the community, so they would come and raid them quite often.
Believe it or not, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was New York State law that people had to wear three pieces of clothing that were “appropriate to their biological sex”. So when the raids did happen, people would be thrown against walls and searched to make sure they were following this oppressive law. Many patrons in gay bars would not be wearing so-called “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 when the riots started depends on who you talk to, and there are many theories.
One theory is that a lesbian woman caused the riot by striking out at a policeman who was mauling her.
Another theory is that 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. This may have been lesbian activist Storme DeLarverie, 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 on that fateful 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 had taken place in today’s society, it would be all over social media, whereas so much of the story is told through word of mouth and witness accounts.
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 raids because the people inside the pub had had enough.
Previously, people would have been frightened and complied with the police, but that wasn’t the case this time. This time, patrons stood their ground and stayed on the street.
While the pub regulars were standing outside, protesting and resisting arrest, people walking by or who lived nearby began to take note of the commotion. Perhaps they just disliked the police, or they were allies of the community, but they all came to join in with the protest, creating an even larger group of people. This meant the police became stuck inside the pub.
People started to yell at the police, calling them “pigs” or “copper”, and would throw coins, bottles and stones towards them. Some would even try and help individuals get out of the police vans after they had been arrested. Others would slash the tyres of the cars and vans.
When it got to around 4am on 28th June 1969, 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 from trying, though. Some protesters grabbed a parking meter and tried it as a battering ram to get the door open. Suddenly, Molotov cocktails were being made and thrown at the police.
People were angry, and after decades of repression and anguish, it all came to a head 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 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 West Village and then coming back up behind the police, carrying on with the protests.
But eventually, sometime after 5am, things began to settle down. Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured in the riots, but some police officers did sustain injuries. We’re 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. Despite this, the pub opened its doors again before dark the following night. People came to carry on the protest; they chanted, 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.
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 the following day. They took advantage of this moment to spread the word, share information and build a stronger community.
With the supporters and activists still gathering, the police were called again and again. However, their presence began to get less aggressive, and instead of arriving in riot gear, only a few arrests were made here and there.
2nd July 1969
Many different news outlets covered the riot story; for example, a news outlet, “The Village Voice”, proceeded to use the headline “The Forces of Faggotry.” The protesters, understandably, did not like this headline, so they arrived at the paper’s office and swarmed outside, shouting to burn the building down. The police got involved again, and this started up more riots. This time, the riot only lasted till about midnight.
The Village Voice wasn’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 acknowledged the event. The New York Times didn’t report it much either and just recorded the event by stating, “Police Again Rout ‘Village’ Youths”.
Events started to relax after a few days, and Stonewall’s patrons were able to recover and rebuild after the assault. The oppression was coming to an end.
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.
Signs and banners could be seen everywhere, and all kinds of beautiful people, either in the LGBTQ+ community or 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, commemorative Pride marches were held each year in recognition of the events that happened on Christopher Street and to raise awareness that the fight for equality is not over.
In the decade that followed, some federal exclusions on gays and lesbians were lifted, and the medical profession reversed its long-held belief that homosexuals needed psychiatric treatment.
This first march sparked 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 to hold their own Pride marches.
The Rebellion’s Impact on Today’s Society
Acceptance and respect from the state were no longer humbly requested but rather angrily and righteously demanded. This activism continued into the 1970s and eventually set a new, non-discriminatory trend in government policies. It helped educate the wider society on the struggles and injustices faced by 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. (2015). Thankfully, now, 34 other countries allow same-sex marriage.
There are many worthy charities 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 their mental health and to come to terms with their sexuality.
In 2019, shortly before the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall riots, New York City’s police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, issued an apology to the community 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 banned 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.
Despite this, there have been more recent incidents in the US that deny transgender people from using bathrooms and facilities such as changing rooms according to their gender identity.
The issue is much wider, though, as at least six countries still have the death penalty, and at least nine countries allow for punishment by life in prison for same-sex relations. There are also more than 50 countries that outlaw and criminalise homosexual acts. The penalties for homosexuality vary widely among the rest of the countries where it is still criminalised. In some countries, the punishments imposed are less severe, like fines, whilst in others, they can be violent, including flogging, whipping and forced psychiatric treatment.
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.
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 face today.
So, next time you go to Pride or want to join in during Pride Month, remember that the likes of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormie DeLaverie, and so many unnamed individuals in 1969 helped fight for our rights and stood up against police oppression. It’s important that we recognise them, especially during LGBTQ+ History Month.
The events at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 were not a riot; it was a retaliation against decades of discrimination and poor treatment. That is how we on All Gay Long will continue to refer to these events; it was an uprising and a fierce rebellion, a defiant stand against systemic injustice.