In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police forces raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Stonewall was one of the only places in the city for gays and lesbians to convene with minimal threat. When the raid took place, patrons refused to cooperate and instead formed a crowd outside of the bar. Over the course of the next few days, riots took place on Christopher Street in response to the police raids and violence against gays. The Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Want to read more about the riots and aftermath? Martin Duberman’s Stonewall is a first-hand account of the riots and engrossing look at how six individuals, from distinctly different backgrounds, helped bring political and social awakening to the gay liberation movement. We also like David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the basis for the PBS Documentary Stonewall Uprising.
In the meantime, here’s a quick history lesson about this important day in LGBT history.
1. During the 1950s and 60s, it was illegal for gays to buy alcohol or dance together.
Because homosexuals were seen as “susceptible to blackmail,” the FBI and post office kept a list of addresses where mail considered homosexual was sent. Soon after, New York City passed laws against homosexuality in public. This included serving alcohol and dancing in gay bars.
2. By 1966, more than 100 men each week were being arrested through “entrapment” efforts.
Police raids by undercover cops were used to identify and arrest gay citizens during the 1960s. Undercover officers would find men in bars or parks and begin conversations. If the conversation led toward the possibility of homosexuality, the man was arrested for solicitation.
3. The Stonewall Inn became popular with homeless youths because for $3 they were given drinks and a place where they could be all night.
The Stonewall Inn claimed to be a “private club,” asking customers to sign in or be recognized by a bouncer. Many of the homeless, gay youths in Christopher Park would frequent the Stonewall Inn because the cover charge was affordable and granted a warm place to spend most of the night off the street.
4. During police raids, women had to be wearing three pieces of “female clothing” to prove they were not in drag.
When police raided gay bars, they would require identification cards from all patrons. Women were required to be wearing three pieces of feminine clothing or they would be arrested. Men in full drag were often arrested, along with anyone not carrying identification.
5. The Stonewall Inn was owned by the New York mafia, and the police were supposedly going after them for extortion.
Surprisingly, most of New York City’s gay establishments in the 1960s were owned by the mafia, due to the profitability of serving the shunned gay community, and the mafia’s willingness to partake in the illegal activities involved with operating a gay bar at that time. There is speculation that the owners of the Stonewall Inn were blackmailing wealthy, closeted customers, threatening to “out” them if they didn’t pay up. As the police couldn’t prove this, they raided the Stonewall Inn for not having a liquor license as a means of shutting down the extortion business, and the raid triggered the riots.
6. One woman’s call to action began the riots.
While the crowds were forming outside of the Stonewall Inn, police took a woman out in handcuffs. They hit her with a baton after she complained that the handcuffs were too tight and threw her into the paddy wagon. She yelled at the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” This was the call to action for the crowd and they began rioting.
7. In addition to more aggressive tactics, rioters sang and danced in “Rockette-style” kicklines in response to the police raid.
As the tactical police force tried to break up the crowds on Christopher Street and push rioters back, the crowds did not retreat—instead, they began singing and dancing in kicklines, infuriating the police and causing the riots to escalate.
8. Coverage of the Stonewall Riots in the Village Voice sparked even more rioting as crowds protested the degrading reporting.
Days after the police raid of the Stonewall Inn, the Village Voice ran articles covering the riots using words and descriptions that angered the gay community. Crowds flooded Christopher Street once again, this time seeking revenge on the Village Voice. Protesters threatened to burn the newspaper’s offices and caused chaos in the street.
9. The riots prompted a nationwide establishment of gay rights groups and newspapers.
Although a handful of gay activist groups existed prior to the incident at the Stonewall Inn, the riots acted as a catalyst for the formation of gay rights groups and publications. A citywide newspaper called Gay began circulation soon after the riots, in response to the Village Voice’s refusal to print the word “gay” in advertisements. Groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance were formed to provide community, activism, and support networks.
10. Today’s gay pride parades originated with Stonewall.
On June 28, 1970, crowds formed on Christopher Street to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Christopher Street Liberation Day became the first gay pride celebration in the history of the United States and was the predecessor to the gay pride parades celebrated globally today.