On June 28, 1969, one of the most important moments in the history of the LGBTQ movement began in protest.
But the moment – the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village – carried the same weight regarding the history of the gay rights movement as the impact the more peaceful sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter by the Greensboro Four had on civil rights.
It was something that started with a standard police raid, and turned into a revolution.
In the years before the Stonewall Inn was set to become infamous, the gay rights movement was quietly spreading across the country through organizations including the Mattachine Foundation, which was founded by activist Harry Hay, whose early partner was fellow activist Will Geer, who played Grandpa Zebulon Walton on the popular family drama “The Waltons.”
The group, and others, were in place as opposition against decades of oppression – years in prison, investigations during the McCarthy era, being forced to be closeted, losing employment after being outed, and rejection by family. The LGBTQ community was beginning to weave itself together, and the Mattachine Foundation and its peer groups stitched the first threads.
In 1967 – just after Pierre Trudeau moved to decriminalize homosexuality in Canada, saying government had no place in the bedroom and two years before Stonewall – Mike Wallace narrated the damning CBS documentary “The Homosexuals,” which gay advocate Wayne Besen, author of “Truth Wins Out” and born three years after the documentary aired, rightly called it “the single most destructive hour of antigay propaganda in our nation's history.”
It was not a good time to be gay in America. After the Stonewall riots, however, everything slowly began to change.
Why Stonewall became so important
At the time of the Stonewall riots, it was illegal to be gay everywhere in the nation but Illinois, which repealed such legislation in 1961, and those who were gay were officially classified as having a mental illness, which led people in the LGBTQ community to seek out their peers and find safe places to gather.
In New York City, one of those places was the Stonewall Inn.
Police were arresting about 100 people a week in New York City for being gay, many of those people already ostracized from their families, homeless and alone on the streets of the largest city in the U.S.
For the beleaguered LGBTQ community, having a place they could gather was a solace, and despite the tight restrictions on the enforcement of anti-gay laws, they did manage to find ways to seek out establishments that were welcoming, including the Stonewall Inn.
While not completely invulnerable, Greenwich Village’s Stonewall was considered a safe place for the gay community. The establishment that sold bootleg liquor was Mafia-owned, and the place was separated into different sections and populated by many different groups. Despite some Mafia members used photographs to blackmail members of the LGBTQ community to pad their coffers, still, they came.
"At first it was just a gay men's bar,” said drag queen Martha P. Johnson, one of the foremost figures in the Stonewall uprising, in a podcast interview in 1979 on Eric Marcus’s “Making Gay History.”
Eventually, however, women and drag queens joined the eclectic community that made up the clientele at the Stonewall Inn.
At the time, the transgender community was still very closeted, despite the advocacy work Christine Jorgensen began in the early 1950s when she underwent gender reassignment surgery and landed on the front page of the New York Post, and most identified as drag queens for protection.
The club was the only bar with dancing, so it was popular, and the Mafia paid off enough police officers that when raids were coming, the lights went up, a warning that law enforcement was on the premises ready to bully patrons, shoving them against the wall and brutalizing them as they searched.
On the Tuesday before the infamous June 28, 1969 raid, the NYPD Vice Squad had raided the Stonewall, but when they returned that Friday, the lights didn’t come up and the violations would have been bigger than before. Either way, an exasperated crowd had had enough.
Until it happened, the patrons of the Stonewall likely never realized they would become cemented in American history as a bold matchstick igniting the gay rights movement.
Stonewall, As It Happened
Police expected patrons to line up along the walls of the club and produce their IDs, for the drag queens, a way to prove their gender. Those without ID would be taken into another room and forced to prove their gender in a way that evokes images of a certain unsettling scene from the movie based on the life of Brandon Teena “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Few were interested in showing IDs or anything else, despite being viciously shoved, and Johnson threw her shot glass against a wall in protest, triggering insurgence inside.
Meanwhile, those who had escaped were outside, and word was spreading quickly through Greenwich Village that the Stonewall was being raided and people were being beaten and arrested.
One of those who emerged from the bar in handcuffs after being clubbed by police in a scuffle, Stormé DeLarverie, is believed to be the one who shouted to the crowd outside, “Why don’t you guys do something?” as she was being shoved into the back of a patrol car.
There were not enough police inside to prevent the uprising that followed.
Outside, word of the riot quickly spread, and police couldn’t control the growing crowds, which threw debris and spare change as they grouped together. About 600 people, mostly young people, homeless, displaced youth who had fled unaccepting households, were chasing police up and down the streets of Greenwich Village on that Friday night. Police withdrew into the Stonewall, which patrons set on fire. By Saturday morning, the place that had been a haven for the gay community was a smoldering shell, and things grew quiet.
The next night, many people who lived downtown gathered again, not just members of the LGBTQ community but everyone who called the section of New York City their home, and what followed were peaceful protests, much different than the chaotic night before.
Protestors held hands, chanted “gay power” and “we want freedom now,” both borrowed from the civil rights movement, and after a few nights, the protests died down. The power behind them, however, had not.
Like the lunch counter sit-ins spread across the nation, so did the movement sparked by the Stonewall riots.
A few weeks later, members of the Mattachine Foundation held a march from Washington Square Park to Stonewall, and although it was less than half a mile, hundreds showed up to participate in the peaceful event.
A year later, New York’s unofficial first gay pride march, called the Christopher Street Liberation Day and marked by a reclaiming of the pink triangles homosexuals were forced to wear in concentration camps during World War II, was led by the Gay Activists Alliance and Mattachine.
Craig Rodwell and some friends took advantage of the momentum and held a similar event in Philadelphia to commemorate Stonewall.
“It was only after the march that these gay pioneers realized what might be possible,” said Fred Sargent in an interview with CNN.
More cities began holding similar events, and while many groups formed and fractured in the wake of Stonewall, fireworks had been lit, and although it continues to be rocky, change had begun.
“The freedom to look how I look and to act how I act are forms of progress hard-won by queer people who fought, at Stonewall and elsewhere, for years. The stones thrown, the bones broken and the lives lost are with me now as I pursue my practice,” artist Rindon Johnson told the New York Times.
Certainly, the fight isn’t over. Not when the mayor of a town in Alabama, perhaps inspired by the freedom to spew bigotry allowed by the tweets from President Trump, suggests the “killing out” of gay and transgender people to prevent them from influencing his grandchildren, in an environment where targeted violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ is on the rise, as reported by the FBI.
But despite these moments of bigotry, Stonewall has left its mark in a monumental way, inspiring members of the LGBTQ community to continue the battle for civil rights for all.