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The Stonewall riots 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 considered a turning point for the modern gay rights movement worldwide. It was the first time any significant body of gays resisted arrest.
Police raids on gay bars and nightclubs were a regular part of gay life in cities across the United States. Throughout the 1960s, however, raids on bars in many major cities became markedly less frequent. A series of court challenges and increased resistance from the Homophile Movement can be attributed to the decline in raids.
It was not uncommon, prior to 1965, for the police to record the identities of all those present, which could be published in the newspaper, and load up their police van with as many patrons as it would hold. The police would use any number of reasons to justify an arrest on indecency charges including: kissing, holding hands, wearing clothing 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 in New York City on a campaign of reform. 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 the “scourge” of entrapment for gay men 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).
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. The week of the raid, however, an important cultural icon, Judy Garland, died. The gay community identified with Garland on many levels and for many her loss was tragic. Her funeral was five days before the raid, June 22, 1969. Many of the patrons were emotionally distraught from the funeral prior to going out to the bar that night.
The Stonewall Raid and the Aftermath
A number of factors differentiated the raid that took place on June 27 from other such raids on the Stonewall Inn. In general, the sixth precinct tipped the management of the Stonewall Inn off 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 legend, a drag queen started swinging 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 often singled out effeminate men and often beat them. On the first night alone thirteen 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 cops (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 were completely unsuccessful at breaking 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. Leaflets were handed out saying, "Get the Mafia and cops out of gay bars!"
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 environment perfect 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 cities including New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and Minneapolis hold Gay Pride Marches on the last Sunday of June, in honor of Stonewall.
The general atmosphere of the days immediately before the riots are dramatized in a film called Stonewall .
- 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.
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