LGBTQ+ History Month: The Stonewall Riots

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The Stonewall riots (also referred to as the Stonewall uprising or the Stonewall rebellion) were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay (LGBT) community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.

Very few establishments welcomed openly gay people in the 1950s and 1960s. Those that did were often bars, although bar owners and managers were rarely gay. At the time, the Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia. It catered to an assortment of patrons and was known to be popular among the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn. Tensions between New York City police and gay residents of Greenwich Village erupted into more protests the next evening, and again several nights later. Within weeks, Village residents quickly organized into activist groups to concentrate efforts on establishing places for gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of being arrested.

After the Stonewall riots, gays and lesbians in New York City faced gender, race, class, and generational obstacles to becoming a cohesive community. Within six months, two gay activist organizations were formed in New York, concentrating on confrontational tactics, and three newspapers were established to promote rights for gays and lesbians. Within a few years, gay rights organizations were founded across the U.S. and the world. On June 28, 1970, the first gay pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago commemorating the anniversary of the riots. Similar marches were organized in other cities. Today, Gay Pride events are held annually throughout the world toward the end of June to mark the Stonewall riots. The Stonewall National Monument was established at the site in 2016.

The Stonewall Inn, located at 51 and 53 Christopher Street, was owned by the Genovese crime family. In 1966, three members of the Mafia invested $3,500 to turn the Stonewall Inn into a gay bar, after it had been a restaurant and a nightclub for heterosexuals. Once a week a police officer would collect envelopes of cash as a payoff, as the Stonewall Inn had no liquor license. It was the only bar for gay men in New York City where dancing was allowed.
Visitors to the Stonewall Inn in 1969 were greeted by a bouncer who inspected them through a peephole in the door. The legal drinking age was 18, and to avoid unwittingly letting in undercover police, visitors would have to be known by the doorman, or “look gay.” Patrons were required to sign their names in a book to prove that the bar was a private “bottle club”, but rarely signed their real names. The interior was painted black, making it very dark inside, with pulsing gel lights or black lights. If police were spotted, regular white lights were turned on, signaling that everyone should stop dancing or touching. It was one of two bars where effeminate men who wore makeup and teased their hair could go. Only a few transvestites, or men in full drag, were allowed in by the bouncers.

Police raids on gay bars were frequent—occurring on average once a month for each bar. Many bars kept extra liquor in a secret panel behind the bar, or in a car down the block, to facilitate resuming business as quickly as possible if alcohol was seized. Bar management usually knew about raids beforehand due to police tip-offs, and raids occurred early enough in the evening that business could commence after the police had finished. During a typical raid, the lights were turned on, and customers were lined up and their identification cards checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested; others were allowed to leave. Some of the men, including those in drag, used their draft cards as identification. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them. Employees and management of the bars were also typically arrested. The period immediately before June 28, 1969, was marked by frequent raids of local bars—including a raid at the Stonewall Inn on the Tuesday before the riots.

At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, and Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the Stonewall Inn’s double doors and announced “Police! We’re taking the place!” Stonewall employees do not recall being tipped off that a raid was to occur that night, as was the custom. Two undercover policewomen and two undercover policemen had entered the bar earlier that evening to gather visual evidence, as the Public Morals Squad waited outside for the signal. The music was turned off and the main lights were turned on. Approximately 205 people were in the bar that night. Patrons who had never experienced a police raid were confused. A few who realized what was happening began to run for doors and windows in the bathrooms, but police barred the doors.

The raid did not go as planned. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested. Those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station, after separating those cross-dressing in a room in the back of the bar. Both patrons and police recalled that a sense of discomfort spread very quickly, spurred by police who began to assault some of the lesbians by “feeling some of them up inappropriately” while frisking them.

The police were to transport the bar’s alcohol in patrol wagons. Twenty-eight cases of beer and nineteen bottles of hard liquor were seized, but the patrol wagons had not yet arrived, so patrons were required to wait in line for about 15 minutes. Those who were not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not leave quickly as usual. Instead, they stopped outside and a crowd began to grow and watch. Within minutes, between 100 and 150 people had congregated outside, some after they were released from inside the Stonewall, and some after noticing the police cars and the crowd. Although the police forcefully pushed or kicked some patrons out of the bar, some customers released by the police performed for the crowd by posing and saluting the police in an exaggerated fashion.

When the first patrol wagon arrived, the crowd—most of whom were homosexual—had grown to at least ten times the number of people who were arrested, and they all became very quiet. Confusion over radio communication delayed the arrival of a second wagon. The police began escorting Mafia members into the first wagon, to the cheers of the bystanders. Next, regular employees were loaded into the wagon. A bystander shouted, “Gay power!”, someone began singing “We Shall Overcome”, and the crowd reacted with amusement and general good humor mixed with growing and intensive hostility. An officer shoved a transvestite, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo. Pennies, then beer bottles, were thrown at the wagon as a rumor spread through the crowd that patrons still inside the bar were being beaten.

A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon several times. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described as “a typical New York butch” and “a dyke–stone butch”, she had been hit on the head by an officer with a baton for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown, sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went “berserk.”

The police tried to restrain some of the crowd, and knocked a few people down, which incited bystanders even more. Some of those handcuffed in the wagon escaped when police left them unattended. As the crowd tried to overturn the police wagon, two police cars and the wagon—with a few slashed tires—left immediately. The commotion attracted more people who learned what was happening. Coins sailed through the air towards the police as the crowd shouted “Pigs!” and “Faggot cops!” Beer cans were thrown and the police lashed out, dispersing some of the crowd who found a construction site nearby with stacks of bricks. The police, outnumbered by between 500 and 600 people, grabbed several people. Ten police officers—including two policewomen—barricaded themselves and several handcuffed detainees inside the Stonewall Inn for their own safety.

The Mattachine Society newsletter a month later offered its explanation of why the riots occurred: “It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering… The Stonewall became home to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why.”

Garbage cans, garbage, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows. Witnesses attest that “flame queens”, hustlers, and gay “street kids”—the most outcast people in the gay community—were responsible for the first volley of projectiles, as well as the uprooting of a parking meter used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn.

The mob lit garbage on fire and stuffed it through the broken windows as the police grabbed a fire hose. Because it had no water pressure, the hose was ineffective in dispersing the crowd, and seemed only to encourage them. When demonstrators broke through the windows—which had been covered by plywood by the bar owners to deter the police from raiding the bar—the police inside unholstered their pistols. The doors flew open and officers pointed their weapons at the angry crowd, threatening to shoot. The Village Voice writer Howard Smith, watched someone squirt lighter fluid into the bar; as it was lit and the police took aim, sirens were heard and fire trucks arrived. The onslaught had lasted 45 minutes.

The Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) of the New York City Police Department arrived to free the police trapped inside the Stonewall. Police detained anyone they could and put them in patrol wagons to go to jail.

The TPF formed a phalanx and attempted to clear the streets by marching slowly and pushing the crowd back. The mob openly mocked the police. The crowd cheered, started impromptu kick lines, and sang to the tune of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay:

“We are the Stonewall girls

We wear our hair in curls

We don’t wear underwear

We show our pubic hair.”

Craig Rodwell, owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, reported watching police chase participants through the crooked streets, only to see them appear around the next corner behind the police. Members of the mob stopped cars, overturning one of them to block Christopher Street.

By 4:00 in the morning the streets had nearly been cleared. Many people sat on stoops or gathered nearby in Christopher Park throughout the morning, dazed in disbelief at what had transpired. Thirteen people had been arrested. Some in the crowd were hospitalized, and four police officers were injured. Almost everything in the Stonewall Inn was broken.

During the siege of the Stonewall, Craig Rodwell called The New York Times, the New York Post, and the Daily News to inform them what was happening. All three papers covered the riots; the Daily News placed coverage on the front page. News of the riot spread quickly throughout Greenwich Village. All day Saturday, June 28, people came to stare at the burned and blackened Stonewall Inn. Graffiti appeared on the walls of the bar, declaring “Drag power”, “They invaded our rights”, “Support gay power”, and “Legalize gay bars”, and “We are open.”
The next night, rioting again surrounded Christopher Street. Many of the same people returned from the previous evening but they were joined by “police provocateurs”, curious bystanders, and even tourists. Remarkable to many was the sudden exhibition of homosexual affection in public.

Thousands of people had gathered in front of the Stonewall, which had opened again, choking Christopher Street until the crowd spilled into adjoining blocks. As on the previous evening, fires were started in garbage cans throughout the neighborhood. More than a hundred police were present from the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Precincts, but after 2:00 a.m. the TPF arrived again. Kick lines and police chases waxed and waned; when police captured demonstrators, whom the majority of witnesses described as “sissies” or “swishes”, the crowd surged to recapture them. Street battling ensued again until 4:00 a.m.

Activity in Greenwich Village was sporadic on Monday and Tuesday, partly due to rain. Police and Village residents had a few altercations, as both groups antagonized each other. Craig Rodwell and his partner Fred Sargeant took the opportunity the morning after the first riot to print and distribute 5,000 leaflets, one of them reading: “Get the Mafia and the Cops out of Gay Bars.” The leaflets called for gays to own their own establishments, for a boycott of the Stonewall and other Mafia-owned bars, and for public pressure on the mayor’s office to investigate the “intolerable situation”.

Not everyone in the gay community considered the revolt a positive development. To many older homosexuals and many members of the Mattachine Society who had worked throughout the 1960s to promote homosexuals as no different from heterosexuals, the display of violence and effeminate behavior was embarrassing. Others found the closing of the Stonewall Inn, termed a “sleaze joint”, as advantageous to the Village.

On Wednesday, however, The Village Voice ran reports of the riots, written by Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott, that included unflattering descriptions of the events and its participants: “forces of faggotry”, “limp wrists”, and “Sunday fag follies”. A mob descended upon Christopher Street once again and threatened to burn down the offices of The Village Voice. Also in the mob of between 500 and 1,000 were other groups that had had unsuccessful confrontations with the police, and were curious how the police were defeated in this situation. Another explosive street battle took place, with injuries to demonstrators and police alike, looting in local shops, and arrests of five people. The incidents on Wednesday night lasted about an hour.

The feeling of urgency spread throughout Greenwich Village, even to people who had not witnessed the riots. Many who were moved by the rebellion attended organizational meetings, sensing an opportunity to take action.

Raids on gay bars did not stop after the Stonewall riots. In March 1970, Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine raided the Zodiac and 17 Barrow Street. An after-hours gay club with no liquor or occupancy licenses called The Snake Pit was soon raided, and 167 people were arrested. One of them was Diego Viñales, an Argentinian national so frightened that he might be deported as a homosexual that he tried to escape the police precinct by jumping out of a two-story window, impaling himself on a 14-inch spike fence. The New York Daily News printed a graphic photo of the young man’s impalement on the front page. A march was organized from Christopher Park to the Sixth Precinct in which hundreds of gays, lesbians, and liberal sympathizers peacefully confronted the TPF. They also sponsored a letter-writing campaign to Mayor Lindsay in which the Greenwich Village Democratic Party and Congressman Ed Koch sent pleas to end raids on gay bars in the city.

The Stonewall Inn lasted only a few weeks after the riot. By October 1969 it was up for rent. Village residents surmised it was too notorious a location, and Rodwell’s boycott discouraged business.

Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with an assembly on Christopher Street; with simultaneous Gay Pride marches in Los Angeles and Chicago, these were the first Gay Pride marches in U.S. history. The next year, Gay Pride marches took place in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm. The march in New York covered 51 blocks, from Christopher Street to Central Park. The march took less than half the scheduled time due to excitement, but also due to wariness about walking through the city with gay banners and signs. Although the parade permit was delivered only two hours before the start of the march, the marchers encountered little resistance from onlookers. The New York Times reported (on the front page) that the marchers took up the entire street for about 15 city blocks. Reporting by The Village Voice was positive, describing “the out-front resistance that grew out of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn one year ago”.
By 1972, the participating cities included Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Miami, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, as well as San Francisco.

The Stonewall riots brought pivotal change. The image of gays retaliating against police, after so many years of allowing such treatment to go unchallenged, “stirred an unexpected spirit among many homosexuals”. Within two years of the Stonewall riots, there were gay rights groups in every major American city, as well as Canada, Australia, and Western Europe.

The events of the early morning of June 28, 1969 were not the first instances of homosexuals fighting back against police in New York City and elsewhere. The most significant facet of the Stonewall riots, however, was the commemoration of them in Christopher Street Liberation Day, which grew into the annual Gay Pride events around the world.

In June 1999, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated 51 and 53 Christopher Street and the surrounding streets as a National Historic Landmark, the first of significance to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In a dedication ceremony, Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior John Berry stated, “Let it forever be remembered that here—on this spot—men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire.” The Stonewall Inn itself was named a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

On June 1, 2009, President Barack Obama declared June 2009 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, citing the riots as a reason to “commit to achieving equal justice under law for LGBT Americans”.The year marked the 40th anniversary of the riots, giving journalists and activists cause to reflect on progress made since 1969. Two years later, the Stonewall Inn served as a rallying point for celebrations after the New York Senate voted to pass same-sex marriage. The act was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 24, 2011. Obama also referenced the Stonewall riots in a call for full equality during his second inaugural address on January 21, 2013:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

This was a historic moment, being the first time that a president mentioned gay rights or the word “gay” in an inaugural address.

In 2014, a marker dedicated to the Stonewall riots was included in the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in Chicago celebrating LGBT history and people.

On June 23, 2015, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved the designation of the Stonewall Inn as a city landmark, making it the first landmark honored for its role in the fight for gay rights.

The Stonewall Book Award is a set of three literary awards that annually recognize “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience” in English-language books published in the U.S.

On June 24, 2016, President Obama announced the establishment of the Stonewall National Monument, a 7.7-acre site to be administered by the National Park Service. The designation, which followed transfer of city parkland to the federal government, protects Christopher Park and adjacent areas totaling more than seven acres; the Stonewall Inn is within the boundaries of the monument but remains privately owned.

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9 Responses to LGBTQ+ History Month: The Stonewall Riots

  1. Ron says:

    Thanks for posting this. I remember when this happened. I was in the Westbury bar in Philly (which was also mob owned and frequently raided, I was in one raid but let go) when word of the Stonewall root sorrad like wildfire. We knew something had changed forever. There was never another raid on the Westbury bar after that date. The police payoffs stopped too. My friend Bob was a bouncer at the Westbury, he frequently had to hand an envelope of cash to the police. Sometimes just a case of beer. Funny, when the plainclithesmrn cam in we always knew who they were, they were almost always dressed in tan trench coats. Now what self respecting gay would go to a bar on Saturday night with a trench coat?

    • Sassybear says:

      I wish I had more lgbtq friends of older generations who could share their experiences with me.

      • Ron says:

        When the police raided the bar they were looking for underage drinkers. I was in my 20’s at the time. They checked my ID and I “passed.” They still arrested the bartenders (Darryl and another one). I remember when they took Darryl out (Darryl had been arrested many times before) he waved at us, smiled and said “See you tomorrow ladies!” And he was back the next day tending bar. The raids always picked up around election time. This was when Frank Rizzo was police chief. It was all a show. Still, when they turned the lights on and the plainclothesmen made the rounds in their trench coats checking our ID’s, and we dressed in our tightest jeans (this was the Sixties remember, it was all about showing a “box”), it was all so ridiculous. I’m so glad those days are over.

  2. renudepride says:

    I’ve enjoyed this featured series during GLBTQ History month. Thank you for publishing this. Naked hugs!

  3. how I miss obama, an intelligent, articulate PRESIDENT!

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