The Stonewall riots, which as a whole is often called the Stonewall Rebellion, were a series of violent conflicts between homosexuals and police officers in New York City. The first night of rioting began on Friday, June 27, 1969 not long after 1:20 a.m., when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. "Stonewall," as the raids are often referred to, is generally considered a turning point for the modern gay rights movement worldwide, as it is one of the first times in history a significant body of homosexual people resisted arrest.
Police raids on gay bars and nightclubs were a regular part of gay life in cities across the United States, until the 1960s, when sudden raids on bars in many major cities became markedly less frequent. Most conclude that the decline in raids can be attributed to a series of court challenges and increased resistance from the Homophile Movement.
Prior to 1965, the police would record the identities of all those present at the raids, which on some occasions was published in the newspaper. Sometimes they would even load up their police van with as many patrons as the van could hold. At the time, the police used any number of reasons they could think of to justify an arrest on indecency charges including: kissing, holding hands, wearing clothing traditionally of the opposite gender, or even being in the bar during the raid.
It is important to look back to before 1969 and examine the changing attitudes in New York towards gay bars and gay rights. In 1965, two important figures came into prominence. John Lindsay, a liberal Republican, was elected mayor of New York City on a reform platform. Dick Leitsch became president of the Mattachine Society in New York at around the same time. Leitsch was considered relatively militant compared to his predecessors and believed in direct action techniques commonly used by other civil rights groups in the 1960s.
In early 1966, administration policies had changed because of complaints made by Mattachine that the police were on the streets entrapping gay men and charging them with indecency. The police commissioner, Howard Leary, instructed the police force not to lure gays into breaking the law and also required that any plainclothesmen must have a civilian witness when a gay arrest is made. This nearly ended entrapment of gay men on such charges in New York (D’Emilio 207).
In the same year, in order to challenge the state liquor authority (SLA) regarding its policies over gay bars, Dick Leitsch conducted a “sip in.” Leitsch had called members of the press and planned on meeting at a bar with two other gay men—a bar could have its liquor license taken away for knowingly serving a group of three or more homosexuals—to test the SLA policy of closing bars. When the bartender at Julius turned them away, they made a complaint to the city’s human rights commission. Following the “sip in,” the chairman of the SLA stated that his department did not prohibit the sale of liquor to homosexuals. In addition, the following year two separate court cases ruled that “substantial evidence” was needed in order to revoke a liquor license. No longer was kissing between two men considered indecent behavior. The number of gay bars in New York steadily rose after 1966 (D’Emilio 208).
So if in 1969 gay bars were legal, why was the Stonewall Inn raided that night? John D’Emilio, a prominent historian, points out that the city was in the middle of a mayoral campaign and John Lindsay, who had lost his party’s primary, had reason to call for a cleanup of the city’s bars. The Stonewall Inn had a number of reasons that the police would target it. It operated without a liquor license, had ties with organized crime, and “offering scantily clad go-go boys as entertainment, it brought an ‘unruly’ element to Sheridan Square” (D’Emilio 231).
Race is said to have been another factor. The Stonewall bar was heavily frequented by blacks and hispanics. The decision by the police to raid the bar in the manner they did may have been influenced by the fact that most of the "homosexuals" they would encounter were of color, and therefore even more objectionable. A large percentage of the rioters were also men of color.
Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid on the bar that first night, claims that he was ordered to close the Stonewall Inn because it was the central location for gathering information on gay men who worked on Wall Street. A recent increase in the number of high-quality thefts from brokerage houses on Wall Street led police to suspect it might be gay men who were being blackmailed who were behind the thefts. (Carter 262)
The patrons of the Stonewall were used to such raids and the management was generally able to reopen for business either that night, or the following day. What may have made the June 1969 raid different was the death a week earlier of Judy Garland, an important cultural icon with whom many in the gay community identified. The palpable grief at her loss culminated with her funeral on Friday, June 27, attended by 22,000 people, among them 12,000 gay men. Many of the Stonewall patrons were still emotionally distraught when the raid occurred that night, and refused to react passively. However, historians still differ on whether her death's proximity to the Stonewall riots was mere coincidence, or if it was a true cause of the riots.
The Stonewall Raid and the Aftermath
A number of factors differentiated the raid that took place on June 28 from other such raids on the Stonewall Inn. In general, the sixth precinct tipped off the management of the Stonewall Inn prior to a raid. In addition, raids were generally carried out early enough in the night to allow business to return to normal for the peak hours of the night. At approximately 1:20 AM, much later than the usual raid, eight officers from the first precinct, of which only one was in uniform, entered the bar. Most of the patrons were able to escape being arrested as the only people arrested “would be those without IDs, those dressed in the clothes of the opposite gender, and some or all of the employees” (Duberman 192).
Details about how the riot started vary from story to story. According to one account, a transgendered woman named Sylvia Rivera threw a bottle at a police officer after being prodded by his nightstick (Duberman). Another account states that a lesbian, being brought to a patrol car through the crowd put up a struggle that encouraged the crowd to do the same (D’Emilio 232). Whatever the case may be, mêlée broke out across the crowd—which quickly overtook the police. Stunned, the police retreated into the bar. Heterosexual folk singer Dave van Ronk, who was walking through the area, was grabbed by the police, pulled into the bar, and beaten. The crowd’s attacks were unrelenting. Some tried to light the bar on fire. Others used a parking meter as a battering ram to force the police officers out. Word quickly spread of the riot and many residents, as well as patrons of nearby bars, rushed to the scene.
Throughout the night the police singled out many effeminate men and often beat them. On the first night alone 13 people were arrested and four police officers, as well as an undetermined number of protesters, were injured. It is known, however, that at least two rioters were severely beaten by the police (Duberman 201-202). Bottles and stones were thrown by protesters who chanted “Gay Power!” The crowd, estimated at over 2000, “did battle” with over 400 police officers.
The police sent additional forces in the form of the Tactical Patrol Force, a riot-control squad originally trained to counter anti-Vietnam War protesters. The tactical patrol force arrived to disperse the crowd. However, they failed to break up the crowd, who sprayed them with rocks and other projectiles. At one point they were presented with a chorus line of mocking queens, singing:
- 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! (See Duberman)
Eventually the scene quieted down, but the crowd returned again the next night. While less violent than the first night, the crowd had the same electricity that was seen in the first. Skirmishes between the rioters and the police ensued until approximately 4:00 AM. The third day of rioting fell five days after the raid on the Stonewall Inn. On that Wednesday, 1,000 people congregated at the bar and again caused extensive property damage. Anger and outrage against the way police had treated gay people for decades previous burst to the surface.
The forces that were simmering before the riots were now no longer beneath the surface. The community created by the homophile organizations of the previous two decades had created the perfect environment for the creation of the Gay Liberation Movement. By the end of July the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed in New York and by the end of the year the GLF could be seen in cities and universities around the country. Similar organizations were soon created around the world including Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.
The following year, in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, the GLF organized a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Between 5,000 and 10,000 men and women attended the march. Many gay pride celebrations choose the month of June to hold their parades and events to celebrate “The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World" (D'Emilio 232). Many major American cities including New York City, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis as well as other cities such as Toronto, Ontario, Canada, hold Gay Pride Marches on the last Sunday of June, in honor of Stonewall. The prominent British gay rights group Stonewall is named after the riots. A gay bar, Stonewall and Moose Lounge in Allentown, Pennsylvania takes its name from the revolutionary bar.
- D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
- Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: A Dutton Book, 1993.
- Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.
- Carter, David. "Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution". New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004