Originally posted June 27, 2009
It was fifty-two years ago, a lifetime to some of us, a minute to others, but it marked a turning point for what would become the LGBTQ+ community. It wasn’t the first time our community fought back—there was the Cooper Do-nuts Riot in 1959, the Dewey's Restaurant protest in 1965, the Compton's Cafeteria riot in 1966, the Black Cat Tavern and New Faces, The Patch in 1968, among other—but Stonewall marked one of the loudest, times that gay men and trans 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 City 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 that we all need to remember is that it did happen, and it should continue to be a rallying cry for the LGBTQ+ community today, as we continue the march toward equality in the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of America.
Friday, June 27, 1969: 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 in New York that night, and some say it was the heat that fueled the crowd into action, into reaction. I think 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, as they had done on other occasions. Although mafia-run, the Stonewall, like other predominantly gay bars in the city, got raided by the police periodically.
Typically, the more "deviant" patrons—the 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 police corruption and collusion between bar owners and police—allowing them to reopen 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 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 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 was not going to be pushed around, or down, any longer; 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 of Sunday, June 29.
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 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 the 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 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.
As I said, no one really knows who started the riot, or how it all started, but we do know that a great deal of the credit goes to Marsha P. Johnson, a drag queen who frequented the Stonewall Inn, and fought back and fought for our community before some of us were even born.
Fifty-two years ago today.