Saturday, June 27, 2009


It was forty years ago, a lifetime to some of us, a minute to others, but it marked a turning point for the LGBT community. It marked one of the first, and definitely the loudest, times that gay men and women stood up en masse and said, No. We will not be treated like this any longer!

The weekend of June 27-29,1969 began what is the modern day gay movement. To be sure, there were gay and lesbian activists before that weekend, but the confrontation between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn in New York lit a fire in the hearts of the LGBT community like it had never been done before.

And like any good story, there is controversy surrounding the Stonewall Riots; there are arguments and differences over what happened, how it started and how it ended. But the fact we all need to remember is that it did happen, and it should continue to be a rallying cry for the LGBT community to be, finally, considered equal in the eyes of America.

It wasn't like there weren't fights for gay rights before Stonewall, because that simply isn't true. There was activity, activism, in the 1950s, when the Mattachine Society was founded by a group of gay men. Mattachine was an activist organization, but it was nice and polite, non-threatening; members were well-dressed and kind, and were not so different than other polite, well-dressed white men except for whom they loved.

Still, Mattachine opened the closet door a little bit, and shone a light on what it meant to be gay, on the fact that gay men and women aren't any different than straight men and women; we all essentially want the same things: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The Mattachine Society, while it provided much needed support for gay men, was unable to sustain itself, and the national chapter dissolved in the mid-1960s.

In the mid-fifties, the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, was created and began to publish The Ladder, which lead to an increase in membership. However, internal tensions regarding DOB's involvement in the early women's movement--which some saw as anti-lesbian--caused rifts in the organization. The Ladder ceased publication in 1972, and DOB membership sharply declined.

And while both these groups offered a place for gay men and women to feel safe, to feel less alone, both groups tended to be rather conservative in their activism for social change. Rather than engage in open confrontation with authorities, the goal was to work within the system to lobby for social acceptability. When protests such as picketing did occur, demonstrators acted in an orderly, polite manner; the least of their intentions was to get arrested.

That changed in the 1960s with the civil rights, black power, anti-war, and the women's movements. Acceptance, understanding, and tolerance for who you were, not what you were, was the impetus, the catalyst, for younger gay and lesbian activists. Now the goal was to choose a more radical, militant stance, with the idea of a social revolution. The lesbian and gay community seemed primed and ready for an incident--perhaps any incident--to allow an aggressive Gay Pride movement to spark, catch fire, and burn brightly.

It was Friday, June 27, 1969, and the world was mourning the death of Judy Garland. Could it be that the death of one of the most famous gay icons was what sparked the fire of the modern day Gay Rights Movement? Many people have speculated that Garland's death did indeed push the gay community into the streets of New York that night. But it was also hot, that night, and many say it was the heat that fueled the crowd into action, into reaction. Maybe it was both Garland's death and the hot summer night; or maybe it was just that the gay community had finally had enough of being told what to do, what not to do, and how we should live our lives. Whatever the reason, it was enough. Finally, enough.

In the early morning hours of June 28, police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a small bar located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Although mafia-run, the Stonewall, like other predominantly gay bars in the city, got raided by the police periodically.

Typically, the more "deviant" patrons--drag queens and butch lesbians, especially if they were black--were arrested and taken away, while white, male customers looked on or quietly disappeared. The bar owners would be levied an insubstantial fine--a sign of corruption and collusion between bar owners and police--allowing them to open for business the following day.

On this night, the charge at the Stonewall was the illegal sale of alcohol. The raid began as they always did: plainclothes and uniformed police officers entered the bar, arrested the employees, and began ejecting the customers one by one onto the street. For some reason, however, the crowd that had gathered outside the Stonewall, a somewhat campy and festive crowd, began to cheer as the patrons were pushed out of the Stonewall Inn. But soon the mood changed; it was Judy Garland's death, or the summer heat, or the fact that the summer of 1969 was a particularly busy one for police raids on gay bars.
Or maybe it was watching drag queens and lesbians being pushed and shoved and kicked into paddy wagons.

Whatever it was, the on-lookers lost their patience. No one really knows who threw the first punch; some say it was a drag queen, some say it was a rather butch-looking lesbian. But someone defied the police that night; someone had finally had enough.
The crowd, now numbering several hundred, exploded. People began hurling coins at police officers, then they moved on to rocks and bottles, whatever they could grab. The police, at first stunned that the normally docile and shamed homosexuals would react in such a fashion, soon began beating the crowds with nightsticks. This group, however,was too angry, and could not be pushed down; the police officers were forced to take refuge inside the Stonewall.

As news spread throughout Greenwich Village the crowd grew ever larger; many residents, some gay, some not, ran down to the Stonewall Inn to join the fight. Lighter fluid was squirted inside the bar and someone tried to light it; others grabbed a downed parking meter and used it as a battering ram against the front of the Stonewall. Someone began chanting "Gay Power!"

The riot-control police unit arrived to rescue the trapped officers and break up the demonstration, though it took over an hour before the crowd dispersed. To taunt their attackers a group of drag queens began to sing at the top of their lungs:

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!

That first Stonewall Riot ended the morning of Saturday, June 28, but the fight was far from over. That night a second riot broke out and the crowd now numbered in the thousands, filling the streets in the name of Gay Pride. They marched to the Stonewall Inn and waited for the police to arrive; and they did, in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 29.
For over a week, though in smaller numbers, protests and demonstrations continued in Greenwich Village. There was finally a sense of what could be accomplished by banding together, by being out, by being seen, by being heard. By being angry. It was a new day.

A month after the riots, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed. Radical and leftist, the GLF was one of many politically focused lesbian and gay organizations formed in the days and weeks following the riots. The number of lesbian and gay publications skyrocketed as well, which led to an even greater sense of community. The LGBT community was no longer strictly marginalized in United States society. Now, out and proud lesbians and gay men were developing their own communities in cities across the country.

Since 1970, marches have taken place in New York City--and all over hte world--every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In June 1994, hundreds of thousands of people converged on New York to celebrate Stonewall's 25th anniversary. In 1999 the United States government proclaimed the Stonewall Inn a national historic site. The following year, the status of the Stonewall was improved to "historic landmark," a designation held by only a small percentage of historical sites.
It is our Plymouth Rock. It's where the gay community landed and came together and began the march toward equality. Stonewall was our first glimpse of a new world where we weren't alone, we weren't all that different, where we belonged.

It makes no difference how it started. The death of an icon; the summer heat; a sense of frustration. It makes no difference who started it; drag queens or lesbians; coin tossers or rock throwers. The difference is that it happened.

Forty years ago today.


Eric Arvin said...

Nice essay!

mistress maddie said...

Thank God that it happened. Very nice post for Pride and for what it is REALLY for and means. We have come a long way. Every time I go to New York, I always like to go there with David to pay homage I guess. But from what I understand the place hasn't changed to much. And there is always a sense of welcome there. Happy Pride Bob!

Beth said...

Very interesting, Bob. Thanks for the writeup and education!

Stephen said...

This is why you are one of my favorite/best bloggers...
it was quite a week, a weird week, & you were insightful & brilliant every day.
Thank you.
Happy pride & happy 40th to those that led us into a new age.

Lou said...

Great post Bob - I didn't know about this.

Sasha (Malchik Gai) said...

I always learn something from you Bob. I'd no idea that Judy died then as well. New angle on it for me.
Hugz to you, Carlos and the kids.
Happy pride.