It was fifty-one years ago today … a lifetime to some of us, a minute to others … but it marked a turning point for the LGBTQ+ community. It marked one of the first, and definitely the loudest, times that gay men and women, trans women of color, gender nonconforming people, 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 considered to be the modern-day LGBTQ+ movement. Oh sure, there were gay and lesbian activists before that weekend, but the confrontation between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn in New York City lit a fire in the hearts of the LGBTQ+ community like it had never been done before.
We had finally had enough with being less than.
And like any good story, there is controversy surrounding the Stonewall Riots; there are arguments and differences over what happened, over how it started, over how it ended. But the main thing we need all remember is that it did happen, and it should continue to be a rallying cry for the LGBTQ+ community to be considered equal in the eyes of America.
On Friday, June 27, 1969 the world was still mourning the death of Judy Garland a week earlier. Could it be that the death of one of the most famous gay icons was what sparked the fire of the modern-day LGBTQ+ Rights Movement?
There are many people who have speculated that Garland's death did push the gay community into the streets of New York City that night, but it was also hot, and some folks say it was the heat that spurred the fight.
I think maybe it was both Garland's death and the hot summer night; or maybe it was just that our brothers and sisters had finally had enough of being told what to do, what not to do, and how to 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 on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Stonewall, like other predominantly gay bars in the city was routinely raided by the police, and, typically, the more “deviant” patrons—the drag queens and the butch lesbians, especially if they were People of Color—were the ones who were arrested and taken away, while white, male customers looked on or quietly disappeared into the night.
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 then began ejecting the customers one by one into 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 bar.
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 seeing 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—well over a hundred people by now—suddenly exploded; people began hurling coins at police officers, and then moved on to rocks and bottles, whatever they could grab. The police, at first stunned that the normally docile and shamed-into-submission homosexuals would react in such a fashion, soon began beating the crowds with nightsticks, but this group was too sad and too hot and too angry to be pushed down again, and 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, raced 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:
And then the riot-control police unit arrived to rescue the trapped officers and break up the demonstration; it took them over an hour to disperse the crowd and, in an effort 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 in the early morning hours 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 LGBTQ+ Pride. They marched to the Stonewall Inn and waited for the police to arrive, which they did, in the early morning of Sunday, June 29. The crowds fought, rioted, screamed and chanted, and the police squads worked to arrest who they could and send the others home.
For over a week, though in smaller numbers, protests and demonstrations continued in Greenwich Village. There was finally a sense in the LGBTQ+ community of what could be accomplished if we banded together, if we came out, if we were seen, if we were heard.
Being angry created a new day, and 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 across the country and the world. We were no longer marginalized in society; we were out; we were proud; we weren’t going to sit by and watch our brothers and sisters be treated as less than any longer.
Since that weekend, marches have taken place in New York City—and all over the world—every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In June 1994, hundreds of thousands of people converged in Greenwich Village to celebrate Stonewall's 25th anniversary and 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.
For the LGBTQ+ Stonewall 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.
Fifty-one years ago, today.
Still, the march, and the fight goes on; we’ve seen so many changes in these last decades; equality; marriage; non-discrimination laws; the recent SCOTUS ruling to protect LGBTQ+ workers. But we’ve also seen hatred; we’ve seen our trans sisters neaten and murdered at an astounding rate; we’ve seen a White House seek to erase us from view; we’ve seen our brothers and sisters gunned down in another nightclub.
And so, we’ll pick up again, and we’ll continue to fight against that hatred, and we’ll continue to stand with, and for, our community, and let everyone know that we are here, and we are queer.