This is a brief history of what happened in New York City 50 years ago.
On Saturday, June 28, 1969, nine policemen entered the Stonewall Inn, arrested the employees for selling liquor without a license. It was a tipping point within the United States gay liberation and LGBT rights movement that turned worldwide. It reshaped an ostracized community into having a new cultural awareness. This event is also known as the Stonewall riots, Stonewall uprising or the Stonewall rebellion.
Stonewall was a hotel in Greenwich Village, New York City, NY that was converted into an underground bar for the LGBT community. It was a dark and crowded establishment that served liquor without a license. It was painted black in the interior with pulsing black lights and gel lights. It was more of a dive bar than an established club with alcohol. They would host parties and drag queen competitions within the bar. It was a place of refuge for gay men, lesbians, transgendered people and drag queens due to the public harassment. But it was also a place for homelessness youths to hang out.
At the time homosexual relationships and not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing was an illegal act in 1960s New York City. They faced a lot of discrimination in the legal side besides clothing. Most of these types of gay bars were open of harassment by the police on a regular basis for lewd and indecent behaviour. If the police were spotted the white house lights would be turned on.
Unfortunately, the bar was run by the Genovese mafia family which owned most of the West Village which is where the Stonewall Inn is on Christopher Street. They bought the establishment and converted it into a gay bar from a night club/restaurant. The Stonewall Inn was run under the license of a bottle club which at the time didn’t really require a license since it was like a private club and hard to raid. This means on entry they could turn away people at the door since they were privately owned and sign into a fake membership book. It was seen more of venture capital like bootlegging and gambling to the mafia. The business was purchased by mafioso Tony Lauria a.k.a. Fat Tony. Stonewall Inn. may not of been the only gay bar in the city but it was one of the largest with two dance floors and two bars mostly serving male patrons. The pipes at the back of the bar didn’t work, there was no fire exit for the bar that had two bars and two dance floors, the toilets overflowed often. The bar had prostitutes just hanging out at the bar with drug sales taking place. The drinks were often served heavily watered down with the mafia’s own liquor sold at a high ticket price; some members brought in their own alcohol to drink.
Stonewall Inn. employees were arrested for selling liquor without a license after the police were stopping by the bar looking for alcohol law violations and other transgressions. The police that came by the bar were expecting to be paid off in return of not publishing the name or any arrests. This was called “gayola”; it’s a combination of payola (bribery slang) for gay businesses. When the police didn’t get their weekly $1,200 bribe they started to arrest whoever was inside. They were told to stop drinking and dancing when the house light were on. If they didn’t have any I.D. they were arrested. The police have beaten most of the patrons of the club to clear the bar. Apart from the police procedure to check if a person was male or female was to bring them inside the bathroom and check. It wasn’t until a woman was hit over the head by the police by the police for saying her handcuffs were too tight when she was escorted to the police wagon that the riots truly broke out. The woman was never identified but some people say that it could have been Stormé DeLarverie.
It was the third raid in a small period of time. This time the crowd turned angry and didn’t leave or scatter. They started to jeer, push and threw bottles of beer and debris at the police while they were watching other patrons in the bar roughly placed inside police vehicles. The crowd was led by two trans women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Marsha P. Johnson was not only one of the first people to resist the police intimidation but stayed to rally the crowd about the oppression she was facing for her identity. No one really knows how really thrown the first bottle starting the riots.
The crowd was shouting “gay power” and “we shall overcome”. Policemen had to barricade themselves inside the empty bar while some 400+ people rioted outside. The barricades were breached and the bar was set on fire as a result. Other reinforcements were called and the fire was put out. But the people still stayed outside rioting, handing out leaflets and pamphlets taking advantage to educate people in the riots. The riots lasted for five days.
“I had been in combat situations, but there was never any time that I felt more scared than then.”Detective Inspector Pine quoted by Wright
There were other similar protests from the gay community like this before the events at Stonewall. But it was possibly the first time that gay men, lesbians and trans people uniting were seen more effective and powerful for a common cause. 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. The Stonewall riots became a symbol of resistance to the discrimination against homosexual groups. It started a lot of studies and discussions of the treatment of the LGBT community afterwards. But mostly it started a lot of organizations that helped the LGBT community.
Johnson and Rivera set up the organization calked STAR which is abbreviation of Street Transvestite Action Revolution. It was a group dedicated to help homeless young drag queens and trans women of colour.
The Gay Liberation Front was formed in the middle of the riots to protest against social oppression of the LGBT community. It was one of the most visible and vocal organizations promoting equality for the LGBT community. Originally, named the Mattachine Action Committee after Michael Brown after reading a paper by Dick Leitsch (former Mattachine president) about Stonewall called “The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World.” They boldly used the word “Gay” for their organization name unlike cryptic names like the Daughters of Bilitis.
And the former members of the Gay Liberation Front formed Gay Activists Alliance six months after the Stonewall riots. They focused on gay and lesbian rights within the political system has a politically neutral group.
Homosexual civil rights groups like Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were around since the McCarthy era of communist witch hunts in the 1950s. They fought for protective and supportive social networks for homosexual laying much of the groundwork for more civil rights to be sought. While the Mattachine Society was still a functioning organization campaigning for human rights for the LGBT community, many people wanted a more aggressive approach to civil rights to match the modern age. After the Stonewall Riots, they seemed too traditional and timid.
Other organizations like: Human Rights Campaign, OutRage!, GLAAD, PFLAG, Queer Nation formed afterwards after the riots.
On the 1st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the first gay pride parade took place in near the Stonewall Inn in New York on Christoper Street called the Christopher Street Liberation Day originally organized by the Christopher Street West Association. And there were a few other parades in San Francisco down Polk Street, Chicago from Washington Square Park to Water Tower and Los Angeles (considered to have the first pride parade) down West Hollywood in June of 1970.
The Stonewall Riots is regarded as the first major protest for equal rights for LGBTQ people. In 2015, the U.S. National Park Service placed the Stonewall Inn on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you want to see the memorial website dedicated to the event that happened in Stonewall, check out this interactive website that you can hear the stories from the people who were actually there and add your own story if you want. There’s also a documentary that sums up what’s on the website.
Pink News – What were the Stonewall riots? The story of the historic demonstrations
New York Times – A Stonewall Veteran, 89, Misses the Parade
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. – Stonewall riots
The New York Public Library – 1969 LGBT History
History Channel – How the Mob Helped Establish NYC’s Gay Bar Scene
New York Post – How NYC’s gay bars thrived because of the mob
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