THE STONEWALL INN UPRISING
Content Warning: homophobia, transphobia, racism, police violence, and sexual assault.
- Because of its current linguistic usage as shorthand, “Stonewall” is used to refer to the Stonewall Inn Uprising in this article several times.
- ‘Gay’ is used instead of ‘homosexual’ in this article, as the latter carries rather clinical and negative connotations for many gay people.
- The language used by and for LGBT people in the 60s was very different to language used now, so necessary changes have been made and explanations provided for clarity.
- As a group, the LGBT community is difficult to coordinate cohesively because being LGBT spans gender, race, class, politics, and age. This is important to keep in mind when considering the fight for LGBT rights and the obstacles that come from within.
On June 27th 1969, a crowd of patrons and onlookers rioted against a group of New York City police who raided The Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by members of the LGBT community.
For a long time, homophobic and transphobic arrests, harassment, and violence had been the norm for LGBT people, but something different, something huge, took place that night.
The riots continued for five nights and were a turning point for LGBT activism in the US and UK alike, seeing Pride Parades springing up from the following June to commemorate the event.
BACKGROUND: 1950s &1960s AMERICA
The atmosphere of the 1960s was undeniably political and radical, with the Black Civil Rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, second-wave feminism, and the counterculture / hippy movement all going on and prompting the questioning of many biases and assumptions in America.
In hindsight, a bigger and louder fight for LGBT rights was inevitable.
There were of course smaller factions of activists, with the most prominent being The Mattachine Society. However, unlike many groups after Stonewall, the Mattachine Society was focused on furthering gay rights through respectability and legislation – peaceful protests of well-dressed but openly gay people were radical in the 1950s – and this was the nature of much of LGBT activism in mid-century America.
Homophobia had been rife in America for years, legitimised by the government’s anti-gay legislation and rhetoric. Being gay was illegal, and considered a mental disorder until 1973. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the “Lavender Scare,” a fear campaign in the 1950s investigating gay and lesbian employees of the federal government as a ‘security risk.’ In 1953, President Eisenhower issued an executive order banning the employment of gay people by the federal government, costing many their jobs because of their (real or perceived) sexual orientation.
THE POLICE AND THE LGBT COMMUNITY
The relationship between the police and the LGBT community was extremely troubled, with the police harassing and arresting them for seemingly little reason other than bigotry.
There were laws and rules in place to discourage being LGBT, e.g. the outlawing of ‘indecent acts’ like anal or oral sex, and of ‘crossdressing.’ The broadness of these laws allowed for flexible enforcement and targeting. The police would frequently ‘raid’ gay bars for several reasons: to harass its patrons; for hush money from the owners; and for a precinct’s arrest numbers.
It’s estimated that the Stonewall Inn paid the police $10,000 per month in order to stay open, equivalent to a shocking $70,000 in 2020.
A typical raid would be at around 21:00, with the bar flashing a light before the police came to warn its patrons to stop anything that could get them arrested. A typical raid consisted of police taking hush money, shaking patrons down, checking IDs, sometimes making arrests, then leaving. Because of the precariousness of the LGBT person’s situation, the harshness of the police, and the fact that many gay bars were mafia-run, people were unable to fight back against these raids.
Police harassment was specifically vicious towards trans women, gender non-conforming people (those who do not present according to the societal expectations of a certain gender or sex, i.e. a butch lesbian or drag queen), effeminate gay men, people of colour, and homeless people. People of colour and homeless people often would not have IDs and trans women would often have IDs that did not match their gender, giving the police an excuse to arrest them for not having ID and ‘impersonating a woman’ respectively. They had an informal rule for this second crime: you had to be wearing at least 3 articles of clothing that the officer felt matched your sex, or they would arrest you for crossdressing.
Much of the contemporary gay rights movement held the narrative that the LGBT rights movement should only be about sexual orientation, that it was purely gayness for which we should advocate, but of course LGBT-phobia was never just about sexual orientation.
It always intersects with gender, gender expression, race, and class. The police would oftentimes let gay men who looked like “upstanding citizens” (read: middle class, white, and more masculine) go without much hassle.
Many trans women reported that cops would accuse them of impersonating a women or of sex work, arrest them, shave their heads if they had long hair, allow them to be sexually assaulted while in custody (in men’s jails/prisons), and sexually assault them themselves.
It was incredibly dangerous to be LGBT, especially outwardly so.
The Stonewall Inn was a bar in Greenwich Village, New York City and was popular with the most marginalised people in the LGBT community.
A dive bar without even running water, The Stonewall Inn was a lively, dirty, mafia-run safe haven for its patrons to dance and be gay with relative freedom for the time. The threat of police raids hung over their heads, the mafia ran the place for profit, and shady dealings possibly took place upstairs, but Stonewall was fun, and compared to other bars was quite inclusive. Many places willing to serve gay people were strictly white-only and never allowed gender non-conforming people but the Stonewall, while still discriminatory, was more permissive.
The first notable difference in the 27th June raid of the Stonewall was its timing: the police showed up at 01:20, much later than usual and right in the middle of the evening.
Attendees and employees were annoyed, as part of the reason they put up with the raids was the fact that they would take place before the night’s celebrations really began, and the night could continue on afterwards.
Four undercover police officers and further reinforcements began conducting the raid, first targeting trans women to check their IDs and arrest some of them before sending patrons outside one by one, looking through their wallets and looking some of them up. This was the second difference: patrons slowly trickled out and, instead of quietly slinking home as normally expected, waited outside for their friends and for the bar’s anticipated reopening.
Soon, a small crowd formed and started cheering for people as they came out, with victorious voguing (a dance created by LGBT people of colour in New York, made mainstream by Madonna in 1990) and posing from several upon their exit.
The officer in charge of this raid, Seymour Pine, began to box up the bar’s liquor and the officers started perp-walking (arresting someone and publicly leading them to a police van / police station / courtroom etc.) employees (including a straight, cisgender, middle-aged, black bathroom attendant) and trans women to the paddy wagon.
By this point the crowd was about 500 people, who now realised that this night had ended early and aggressively with 13 arrests. Several things then happened.
One woman hits a police officer with her purse while he pushes her along in handcuffs, telling him to be polite to her; a lesbian cries out “Why don’t you guys do something!” to the crowd as she gets pushed into a paddy wagon; teenagers toss pennies at the police, telling them to just take the payout they came for and go; and people start throwing rocks and other things they find at the police.
Only around 100-200 actually do physical things in the riot, mostly those with the least to lose like homeless teens and trans women.
The police then, ironically, barricade themselves inside the bar and try to subdue the protest with a weak hose, achieving little as people instead joke and dance in the water. A SWAT team arrives in full gear and the protest continues until around 04:00, with people taunting the police and SWAT team with cries of ‘the girls in blue’ and ‘Lily law’ as they fight back against years of violent oppression. The following days see continued protests in Greenwich Village.
A description of events from The Atlantic:
The conflict over the next six days played out as a very gay variant of a classic New York street rebellion.
It would see: fire hoses turned on people in the street, thrown barricades, gay cheerleaders chanting bawdy variants of New York City schoolgirl songs, Rockette-style kick lines in front of the police, the throwing of a firebomb into the bar, a police officer throwing his gun at the mob, cries of “occupy — take over, take over,” “Fag power,” “Liberate the bar!”, and “We’re the pink panthers!”, smashed windows, uprooted parking meters, thrown pennies, frightened policemen, angry policemen, arrested mafiosi, thrown cobblestones, thrown bottles, the singing of “We Shall Overcome” in high camp fashion, and a drag queen hitting a police officer on the head with her purse.
The New York Post reported on June 28, 1969, that hundreds outside the bar had been observed chanting “Gay Power” and “We Want Freedom.”
There were similar protests after Stonewall, with protests outside police precincts and people throwing things at other bars.
Ideas of “gay power” and fighting back had been around for several years, but after this riot more people saw that this was an option.
On one hand, the mainstream media reported on the uprising through a pro-police and anti-gay lens, arguing that because the patrons were doing something illegal (being gay and gathering in a bar with no liquor license) the police’s actions were therefore justified.
However, gay journalists and activists like Craig Rockwell contacted the press during the nights of protest and urged them to come see what was going on, directly getting the event into the media and therefore into the public consciousness. Afterwards, Craig Rockwell and others worked hard to publicise the LGBT rights movement by creating and printing leaflets, calling politicians and officials, and creating communication links between different cities’ LGBT communities.
Stonewall saw gay publications begin to appear in America, creating the community’s own media and space for the LGBT community to publish and exist in the media.
THE PUBLIC’S REACTION
For some non-LGBT members of the public, Stonewall was profound and eye-opening.
There was a women’s prison facing onto the riots in which both gay and straight inmates set their belongings on fire and pushed them out the windows in support of the rioters, joining their shouts of ‘Gay power!’
One inmate was particularly affected by this. Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac Shakur, already a revolutionary involved with the Black Panthers, was moved by what she saw and began to ask her fellow gay inmates about their lives and experiences.
Once out of prison, Shakur urged the Black Panthers to join the fight for LGBT rights, forming a crucial supportive link between the LGBT community and the Black Panthers.
From the Stonewall.org website: “The Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in 1970 was a key moment in which activists from Black Power, feminist and gay liberation movements came together, saw common cause and learned from each other.”
With the uprising’s media prominence, a privilege not previously afforded to the LGBT rights movement, the government was more pressured to respond.
The work of LGBT groups and journalists forced those in charge to pay attention to the movement, and it seemed as though things were looking up for the LGBT community. The gay rights movement was radicalising and activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera laboured tirelessly to gather funds and support for members of the community who needed it most.
Johnson and Rivera, both trans women of colour, each lived in and out of homelessness and died destitute, giving their all to a movement which often saw people like them as the lowest of the low.
With the help of them and others like them, the lives of many in the LGBT community very slowly began to improve.
However, this did not last.
The end of the 60s sadly ushered in a more conservative mainstream, costing many radical movements their previous momentum. By 1973, the Gay Liberation Front had essentially become defunct.
Gay rights legislation is slowly being passed, but trans rights are ignored and the movement slowly shifts back to the initial quiet, less radical gay movement focused on respectability.
In the 70s, the public attitude towards LGBT people reverted back with increasing militarisation of the police and increasing power of the Christian right. The American and British governments, although gradually improving their stances on LGBT people, remained harsh in their treatment.
The Stonewall Inn went out of business after the riots and the building has been used by various businesses since then. In the early nineties, The Stonewall Inn reopened in an adjacent building as an LGBT establishment once again – although this time with running water.
Now, the bar is a symbol of LGBT protest and pride for many, and the Stonewall Memorial is currently the only monument commemorating the LGBT community and movement in the US (In 2019, plans were announced for statues of prominent activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in NYC.)
June is now LGBT Pride Month in many countries, commemorating the struggle for LGBT rights in the month of the Stonewall Uprising. The impact of Stonewall is huge; although seemingly normal now in some parts of the world, an LGBT Pride Parade is a brave and radical event.
Some UK activists were involved in some of these key moments in the US movement, and they came back to Britain to form a British chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, meeting for the first time at the LSE library in October 1970, with the first UK Gay Pride Rally taking place a few years later on 1 July 1972, in London.
More acknowledged in recent years, but not nearly enough, is the fact that this was an event inexplicably tied to race, class, and gender, alongside sexual orientation. Those targeted by police, already so marginalised in a racist and classist system, tended to also be the least respected in the LGBT community by even their peers. The abuse that sparked this protest, and many others before and after, was directed at people of colour, trans women, effeminate gay men, sex workers, and homeless people. This was a riot for a group of people outside the mainstream, for those who were left out of contemporary LGBT rights campaigns.
The Stonewall uprising was not the only event of its kind in LGBT history nor the lone spark for LGBT rights as it is often perceived, but its flavour and timing make it a turning point. Stonewall was different and we remember its importance every pride month.
“Stonewall happens every day […] When you go to a Pride march and you see people standing on the side of the road watching and then someone takes that first step off the curb to join the marchers, that’s Stonewall all over again.” Virginia Apuzzo in an interview with PBS.
The LGBT community of course continue to face discrimination, and a brief timeline of key events in America can be found here.
- Franke-Ruta, Garance. A 1969 account of the Stonewall Uprising
- Hobbes, Michael, Marshall, Sarah. You’re Wrong About: The Stonewall Uprising
- Jacobs, Julia. Two transgender activists are getting a monument in New York
- Tenbarge, Kat. Stonewall Inn riots: How a history of protests led to LGBT pride month.
- Walsh, Colleen. Stonewall then and now.
- Weinmeyer, Richard, JD, MPhil. The decriminilization of sodomy in the United States
- (CW: mentions of sexual assault, police brutality, homophobia, transphobia) Sylvia Rivera’s “Y’all better quiet down” speech at the NYC gay pride rally in 1973. An incredibly powerful and cutting speech, she addresses the elitism and division within the LGBT rights movement, speaking candidly about the suffering she was going through for being queer and for the advancement of the movement.