The Stonewall riots, also called the Stonewall uprising, started on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village in New York City. Initially a confrontation between patrons and police officers who raided the establishment, it was strengthened by other members of the LGBTQIA+ community and neighborhood street people. Over the following six days, the community engaged in protests and violent clashes with law enforcement on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets, and in nearby Christopher Park. Although the uncoordinated actions are often called a riot, key participant Stormé DeLarverie described it as a rebellion, an uprising, and a civil rights disobedience. The event is widely regarded as a catalyst for the civil rights movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the United States.
Gay rights before Stonewall
The 1960s and preceding decades were not welcoming times for LGBTQIA+ Americans, with non-conforming displays of gender and the soliciting of same-sex relations even being illegal in New York City (and virtually all other urban centers). Gay bars thus became places of refuge where queer individuals could socialize in relative safety from public harassment.
Due to the homophobic legal system of the 1950s and 1960s, the few LGBTQIA+ organisations that were there mostly focused on non-confrontational efforts to educate the wider populace about the LGBTQIA+ community, though there had been some altercations in other cities. However, the later years of the sixties saw more activity on social/political movements, such as the civil rights movement, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, which served as catalysts for the Stonewall riots.
Three years before Stonewall, in 1966, members of The Mattachine Society, an organization dedicated to gay rights, staged a "sip-in": they openly declared their sexuality at taverns and dared staff to turn them away, suing establishments who did. This confrontation led to The Commission on Human Rights to rule that gay individuals had the right to be served in bars, which temporarily reduced the otherwise frequent police raids. Empowered by the ruling, the gay community in New York reclaimed some of their safe havens.
Constructed in the mid-19th century as two stables, the Stonewall Inn became a popular bar and restaurant in 1934. Just like any gay bay in the 1930s, the Mafia had a hand in the operations of the Stonewall, because the New York State Liquor Authority prohibited the serving of alcohol in "disorderly" establishments, and the presence of gay people was by definition considered "disorderly". Thus, without a liquor licence, the police routinely raided gay bars and clubs, which generally resulted in the selectively arrest of patrons and managers who were engaging in open displays of affection, impounding of the cash register and alcohol, and padlocking the front door. To avoid this, management typically bribed the police, Mafia, and State Liquor Authority officials for protection.
The original Stonewall Inn had its interior destroyed by fire in 1964, after which it was sold in 1965 to the Mafioso Fat Tony Lauria, who cheaply "renovated" the bar by painting everything black to cover the fire damage, did not invest in indoor plumbing behind the bar, and omitted any fire exists. It was in these conditions that the Stonewall Inn was reopened as a "private" gay club in 1967. A bouncer at the door guarded the entrance to the two bars and rooms for dancing to the jukebox, where bartenders made drinks with cheap liquor in dirty glasses washed. However, since the Stonewall was one of the few gay bars in Greenwich Village where patrons could dance, entrance was relatively cheap, and the drinking age was 18, it drew a diverse, young clientele, as well as a small number of lesbians. The bar also welcomed drag queens, such as Marsha P. Johnson, who otherwise were turned away from other gay bars and clubs and who would play a prominent role in the riots, and provided a nightly home for many runaways and homeless gay youths.
Under the usual guise of operating without a liquor license, the Stonewall Inn was raided on Tuesday, June 24, 1969, three days for the explosive riots, resulting in the arrest of several employees and confiscated the bar's alcohol. In an attempt to shut the bar down for good, eight plainclothes or undercover police officers, six men and two women, had entered the bar again after midnight that Friday, June 27, and this time targeting employees, drag queens, and other cross-dressing patrons under the guise of the 19th-century masquerade law to arrest people dressed as a member of the opposite sex.
Normally, a raid would mean that the officers poured in, threatened and beat bar staff and clientele, and patrons would pour out, lining up on the street so police could arrest them. However, in the early hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, while more police officers and patrol cars arrived, the people started to fight back.
There is no certainty on what started the conflict, nor is there a uniform consensus on what exactly transpired that night, the newspaper accounts, oral histories, and reports all conflict with one another. According to witness reports, the crowd outside the bar, formed out of patrons who had been released and neighborhood onlookers, started to heckle the police and throw pennies and other objects at them after they had roughed up a woman dressed in masculine attire. This woman has often been identified as Stormé DeLarverie, who worked as a drag king and was present during the raid. Along with several fellow butch lesbians, she had attempted to defend her friends, but was beaten by police. Some accounts have said that DeLarverie or another woman in masculine attire had complained that her handcuffs were too tight as she was being forced into the police van. The woman was roughed up by officers and struck on the head with a baton. She may have shouted at the onlookers to act and the crowd began throwing objects at the police. Other accounts are that this occured when DeLarverie was being dragged into the police wagon and attempted to flee toward Stonewall Inn. When she was pulled back and further beaten by the officers, she reportedly yelled to the crowd, "Why don't you do something?". DeLarverie stated that at some point during the events, an officer told her to move along, called her a slur referring to a gay man, and hit her; she punched back. Although there is some debate about whether or not DeLarverie was the party in certain events, along with the sequence of those events, she has been attributed with throwing the first punch that initiated the riot.
With the violence getting out of hand, the protesters having grown to about five or six hundred people according to eyewitnesses by 4 a.m., the officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn alongside some arrested patrons. Protesters managed to break through the barricade, however, and the bar was set ablaze. The riot squad and the fire department arrived as backup, and with the fire extinguished and everyone inside saved, it still took the police department till after 4 a.m. to clear the streets.
Despite the damage sustained by the early morning raid on June 28, the Stonewall Inn reopened that evening and saw about two thousand supporters showing up, chanting slogans like "gay power" and "we shall overcome". The police and riot squad were once again called to the scene, where they used brute force and tear gas on the crowd. It was not until the early hours of the morning that they managed to disperse the crowd.
Feeling empowered by the uprising, gay activists continued to gather near the Stonewall Inn from June 29 to July 1 and used the momentum to educate and build the community that would fuel the growth of the gay rights movement. Although the police returned to the scene as well, no large-scale riots took place.
Violence sparked on the last day of the riots though, July 2, when about five hundred to a thousand protesters stormed the offices of the Village Voice, after the newspaper has spoken about "the forces of faggotry" in their coverage of the events and met the police who pushed them back. The altercation was short-lived, however, as it concluded by midnight.
Despite the aggression, the riots resulted in no fatal casualties, only two dozen arrests, and a handful of Greenwich Village shop looted.
[Stonewall was] the shot heard round the world ... crucial because it sounded the rally for the movement.Lillian Faderman, historian
Formation of Gay Rights Organizations
Although the riots were not the first time gay groups had risen against the incessant police harassment and social discrimination suffered by a variety of sexual minorities in the 1960s, the Stonewall riots gave the LGBTQIA+ people of New York and beyond a sense of community. With the power of the collective, people who had once feared holding hands on the street took to the streets to demand gay liberation, a movement that quickly spread to other cities across the country. While Stonewall did not birth the gay rights movement, it sparked the formation of more radical groups, like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), as well as other organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, OutRage! (U.K.-based), GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and Queer Nation. The fire that was lit at Stonewall would spread across country borders to fuel gay rights movements in Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, among many other countries.
A year after that first raid, on June 28, 1970, Craig Rodwell led several hundred activists, joined by supporters from the by-standing crowd to form a mass of thousands of people, in a march largely organized by Brenda Howard that spanned some 15 city blocks, from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park; what was then called Christopher Street Liberation Day, is now recognized as the first gay pride march. With New York having led the way, other major US cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, organized gay pride celebrations that same year. Ever since, pride marches have been organized in major cities all over the world. However, it has only been in recent years that people of color and transgender people have been widely recognized for their pivotal role in the Stonewall riots, such as black drag queen Marsha P. Johnson.
The Stonewall Inn became the first LGBT site in the United States of America to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 2000, with additional recognition by city, state, and federal governments in 2015 and 2016.
Stonewall National Monument, a designated area on Christopher Park and the block of Christopher Street bordering the park, directly across the street from the Stonewall Inn, is the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to LGBT rights and history. President Barack Obama officially designated it as a National Monument on June 24, 2016.
- Marsha P. Johnson is recognized as being one of "three individuals known to have been in the vanguard" of the pushback against the police at the uprising, with the other two being Zazu Nova and Jackie Hormona.
- On June 6, 2019, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, New York City's police commissioner, James P. O'Neill, apologized on behalf of the department saying, "The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong—plain and simple." This was the first time the NYPD apologized for its actions during an era of widespread discrimination against people who engaged in same-sex relationships.
- Before Stonewall (1984) – Documentary
- After Stonewall (1999) – Documentary
- Stonewall Uprising (2010) – Documentary
- Stonewall Forever - A Documentary about the Past, Present and Future of Pride (2019) – Documentary