The Stonewall Riots: Gay People Stormed out of the Closet in 1969

The trauma of World War II left a deep scar across the American psyche, which was still simultaneously trying to get over the economic horror that had been the Great Depression. Fear of losing American culture and values, whatever those might be, was galvanized by the rising atheist and communist culture of the Soviet Union. America was scared, perhaps rightfully so, of what this strange new post-war world held for it and its people. And fear often evolves into outright paranoia. And paranoia on a nationwide scale all too often leads to oppression.

A gay couple dances in Harlem, ca 1920

Gay culture was not a new thing in postwar New York. Communities of gays and lesbians had taken up residence in Greenwich Village and Harlem decades earlier, at the close of World War I, when huge numbers of returning soldiers chose to settle in big cities rather than return home to start families. Homosexuals who might otherwise never have met another of their kind were suddenly able to band together and live their lives with relative openness as the Roaring Twenties got into full swing.

A 1960 flyer from the Mattachine Society, which attempted to show that gay people were equal to straight people.

But this carefree exuberance wouldn’t endure forever, and the looming threat of Communist Russia brought the party to a grinding halt after World War II. Spearheaded by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, American cities and government organizations began performing “sweeps” to rid themselves of anyone deemed a security risk. Enemies included, among others, Anarchists, Communists, and Homosexuals. It was proclaimed that, due to their ability to be blackmailed over their private lives, gays and lesbians were a risk to national security.  Between 1947 and 1950 alone, more than 400 people were fired from Government jobs for being suspected of homosexuality.

The 1965 Eastern Conference of Homophile Organizations (NYPL)

In the 1950s and 60s, the FBI began keeping lists of known Homosexuals, as well as their friends and regular gathering places. The United States Postal Service began keeping records of addresses receiving gay-oriented materials. Before long, cities began raiding gay establishments, arresting patrons, and posting their names in local newspapers. It may never be known how many thousands of people were harassed, humiliated, arrested, and institutionalized during these raids, and America’s budding gay culture was kicked, punched, and shoved to the back of its metaphorical closet.

Almost immediately, however, homosexuals and their allies began fighting back. Multiple organizations sprang up in the 1950s, starting on the west coast and spreading east, which sought to assimilate gays and lesbians into mainstream society, arguing that they were no different from their heterosexual counterparts. Their cause was hampered, though, by the 1952 declaration by the American Psychiatric Association that homosexuality was a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”

The rise of homophile organizations occurred in relative synchronization with the contemporary racial civil rights movement as well as the anti-Vietnam War protests which rocked American culture during the 1960s. The Beat Culture took hold in New York’s Greenwich Village, speaking out against the stalwart mainstream cultural expectations of the era. Authors, such as Allen Ginsberg, began writing openly about their homosexuality and the oppression they faced, attracting an increasing number of like-minded liberals, gay and straight alike, to the Village and to their cause.

But New York was to host the World’s Fair in 1964, and Mayor Robert Wagner feared for the city’s global image. Known gay bars and gathering places had their liquor licenses revoked and police began performing regular raids: anyone with an ID was booked and released, anyone without ID was arrested, as were any men dressed as woman and any women who weren’t wearing at least 3 pieces of feminine clothing.

Despite the raids, bars were among the only places in New York where gays and lesbians could congregate openly and freely. Many, including the Stonewall Inn, were owned by branches of mob families, who saw Homosexuals as merely another source of income. Knowing gays had nowhere else to go, drinks were watered down, and prices were hiked up. Police were bribed to keep raids at a minimum and to keep a blind eye turned away from their lack of a liquor license.

New Year’s Eve 1968: the only known photo taken inside the Stonewall Inn before the riots
(stonewallvets.org)

There were several gay-oriented bars in the Village in the 1960s, but none so popular as the Stonewall. The building at 51-53 Christopher Street had originally been built in the 1840s as horse stables. They were renovated into a restaurant in the 1930s, and operated as such until being destroyed by fire in the 1960s. The Genovese crime family purchased the space and renovated it into a bar, and when it opened in March of 1967, it was the largest gay bar in the United States.

The bar was darkly lit and rather dingy. There was no running water behind the bar, and used glasses were simply dipped in a tub and reused. Drag queens frequented a room at the rear of the building, where they stood a better chance of evading arrest should police perform a raid that night. The entrance to the bar was kept locked, and a bouncer would observe anyone wishing to enter through a peephole. To gain access, the would-be patrons would either have to be known by the bouncer or to “appear gay.”

Any time police arrived to raid the Stonewall, the bartender would switch on white overhead lights as a signal for everyone to stop dancing or touching. Raids became increasingly frequent in the summer of 1969, and finally, on June 28th of that year, the patrons were pushed too far. That night, 4 undercover police officers had gained access to the bar, gaining evidence that could be used to shut it down and arrest its patrons.

Police pushing the crowd back outside the Stonewall, June 28, 1969
(NY Daily News)

At 1:20AM, 8 police officers and detectives arrived at the Stonewall’s front door, announcing their intention to raid the building. Some of its more than 200 patrons panicked and attempted to flee, but found the police had barricaded the doors and windows. The officers entered, and began ordering people to line up with their identification cards ready for inspection. As was normal procedure for these types of raids, female officers attempted to escort anyone dressed as a woman to the restroom to verify their gender.

But this time, the cross-dressers refused to go. Men in line began to refuse to produce their IDs. And before long, the police ordered every bar patron who resisted to be arrested and brought into the station for identification. As the resistors were lined up to wait for the police wagons to arrive to cart them off, those who had been released refused to leave quietly. Instead, they stood outside the bar, and were soon joined by a growing crowd of supporters and rubberneckers.

A rioter surrounded by police, June 28, 1969

As the crowd grew, bar patrons began “performing” for them, saluting the police officers in exaggerated gay fashion. The campier their performances, the louder the crowd began to applaud them, and the louder the applause grew, the more exaggerated the performances became. When the first police wagon arrived, however, a growing sense of anger began to descend on the crowd. Someone shouted “Gay power!” while others sang “We shall overcome.” A police officer shoved a transvestite out of his way, and she hit him with her purse, throwing the crowd into a chorus of boos.

The Stonewall Inn, June 29, 1969
(NY Times, Larry Morris)

But the camel’s back broke when a woman, described as being a “typical New York butch” was dragged out of the bar, complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. An officer responded by striking her over the head with a billy club and throwing her into the wagon. The woman looked up at the crowd and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” The restless crowd erupted.

NY Times, June 29, 1969

The scene quickly turned violent, as patrons began throwing bottles and other objects at the officers, and attempted to overturn the police wagon. Officers attempted to beat the crowd back, which only served to incite them further. The louder the scuffle got, it continued attracting more and more onlookers and participants. Members of the crowd, which now numbered more than 500, began hurling bricks from a nearby construction site at the police officers, who had barricaded themselves inside Stonewall against the onslaught.

NY Times, June 29, 1969

Rioters began spraying lighter fluid into the bar and shoving burning garbage through its broken windows. Some people ripped a parking meter out of the sidewalk and attempted to use it as a battering ram against the door. But after 45 minutes of brutal fighting and protesting, police backup arrived. The officers inside the Stonewall, several of whom were injured in the melee, were absolutely furious. No one, especially not the “fairies,” were supposed to be able to force police officers into a retreat like that. Orders were given to arrest anyone that could be captured.

NY Times, June 29, 1969

As the newly-arrived police arranged themselves in a phalanx of riot gear, the bar patrons began mocking them by forming a parallel line facing them, in which they broke into a full-blown chorus line kick routine. The enraged police, however, were not amused, and rushed the kick line with their billy clubs in hand. As the police smashed people to the ground, the rest of the mob became further incited, even going so far as to flip a car on its side to barricade Christopher Street. The police, outnumbered and taken aback by ferocity of the crowd, began fleeing. The fighting continued until past 4:00AM. Almost no one in the Village went to sleep that night. All through the next morning, people lingered around the heavily damaged Stonewall Inn, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

NY Times, June 30, 1969

Word spread quickly of the riot, and the following night, crowds returned to Christopher Street in even greater numbers. Some were veterans of the previous night’s events; some were tourists coming to see what all the fuss was about; and some were merely looking for an excuse to get in on some anti-police action. Whatever their reasons, there was a noticeable change in the energy of the neighborhood. For the first time in anyone’s memory, gay men and women were affectionate out in the open: holding hands, hugging, kissing, right in the streets. Something about what had happened the previous night had driven these long-oppressed and -hidden people out from their hiding places. They were, for the first time, a force to be reckoned with that wouldn’t go away quietly into the night.

The arrest record for folk singer Dave van Ronk, who took part in the first night of rioting.

As night fell on June 29th, the crowd swelled into the thousands. Fires were started in trash cans, cars were flipped, windshields were smashed. When the riot police returned, so did the kick lines. When a gay man or woman was taken into custody, the mob would swarm the police until the person was retrieved. All the while, the Stonewall Inn remained, as it announced with spray-paint on its facade, “OPEN.” The violence endured until 4:00AM again that night. The sense that something had changed for the gay community was undeniable now.

A group of gay youths posing outside the Stonewall Inn on the second night of rioting, June 29, 1969 (Getty Images)

Rain prevented widespread riots for the next few days, and life returned largely to normal, but the Gay Rights movement had been born. On June 28, 1970, the anniversary of the start of the Stonewall Riots, “Christopher Street Liberation Day” was celebrated with a parade from the Stonewall up 6th Avenue to Central Park. It was the first Gay Pride parade in U.S. history. Parades were also held that year in Los Angeles and Chicago. Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm followed suit in 1971. And in 1972, Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Francisco joined in on the movement.

The first Gay Pride parade in New York City, June 1970 (NYPL)

Within 2 years of the riots, there were Gay Rights organizations established in almost every major city of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. And in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of mental illnesses.

Second annual Gay Pride Parade in New York City, June 1971 (NYPL)

In 1994, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the annual parade snaked from the Village past the United Nations Headquarters and up to Central Park. It is estimated that over a million people attended. And in 1999, the buildings of the Stonewall Inn were added to the National Register of Historic Places. As the bronze plaque was unveiled on the facade of the building, Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior, M. John Berry, summed up the Inn’s significance: “Let it forever be remembered that here — on this spot — men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire.”

The Stonewall Inn, 1969 (NYPL)

And on June 24, 2011, just shy of the riots’ 42nd anniversary, the New York State Senate voted 33-29 to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. Thousands of people, your author included, rushed to a spontaneous celebration in the only place everyone knows to gather for anything related to Gay Pride: a little bar on a quiet block of Christopher Street known as the Stonewall Inn.

Crowds gather to celebrate New York’s legalization of Gay Marriage, June 2011

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About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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