Trigger warning: mentions of violence, homophobia, transphobia, assault
June is celebrated worldwide as Pride month, honouring the members of the LGBT community and their struggles. However, many often don’t know how Pride month came to be. We’ve heard about the legalisation of same-sex marriage and several other political rights for the community, yet we miss out on the revolution that brought on this change.
20th century USA: Homophobia vs Homosexuality
In the 1950s and 1960s, gay Americans faced an anti-gay legal system. Very few establishments welcomed them, but the ones that did were often bars owned by crime groups, with owners and managers rarely being from the community. Throughout this period, the FBI and police department were said to keep a list of known gay or lesbian individuals, their favoured places, and friends. The US Post Office kept track of houses where “material pertaining to homosexuality” was mailed. Cities performed sweeps to rid their neighbourhoods, parks, beaches, and bars of gay people. Universities expelled professors on the assumption of their sexuality. These factors played a huge role when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) listed homosexuality in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) as a mental disorder.
However, this didn’t stop people from speaking up for their rights. Groups in the USA sought to prove that gay people belong to society and deserved the same education, healthcare, and other essential services as straight people. Two groups formed in response to the homophobia were the Mattachine Society and Daughter of Bilitis. Their objectives were to unify, educate, provide leadership, and assist gay people with any legal troubles. Frank Kameny, the founder of the Mattachine Society, founded the organisation after being fired from the US Army Map Service for being gay. He wrote that there wasn’t any difference between gay or straight people, aiming his efforts at mental health professionals at times.
One of the first challenges to these organisations came in 1953. An organisation named ONE, Inc. published a magazine named ONE. The US Postal Service refused to mail the August issue, saying it was obscene even though the magazine was wrapped in brown paper packaging. The issue concerned LGBT people in heterosexual marriages. The case went to the Supreme Court. Five years later, it was ruled that ONE, Inc. could mail its materials through the US Postal Service.
What is Stonewall?
The Stonewall Inn, located at 51-53 Christopher Street, was owned by the Genovese crime family. In 1966, three Mafia members invested $3,500 to convert Stonewall from a restaurant and nightclub into a gay bar. Although there was little to no hygiene or safety exits, it gained a lot of attraction because its main appeal was dancing. Visitors to the inn were greeted by a bouncer who inspected them through a peephole in a door to make sure no one under 18 or a cop was getting in. The dance floor was dark with pulsing gel lights or black lights. However, if the police were spotted in the crowd, the regular white lines would be turned on, motioning everyone to stop dancing. Of course, this was a lesser concern amongst the employees who would get tipped off about police raids.
Was Stonewall the First Clarion Call for Gay Rights?
The Stonewall riots are considered the event that started the modern gay liberation movement. However, several other demonstrations took place during these years. September 19, 1964, marked the first gay rights demonstration in the USA where a small group, led by activist Randy Wicker, boycotted the Whitehall Street Induction Centre after the confidentiality of gay men’s army draft records were violated. In April 1965, activists protested at the White House and the United Nations after learning that Cuba was placing people from the LGBT community in forced labour camps.
During these first few events, organisations formed and protested, rioted and boycotted with no luck. The demonstrations usually lasted a few days, after which the opposition would learn how to protect themselves. At that point, the organisations would give up, admitting defeat in the situation.
The Night Of: Raid
On the Saturday night of June 28 1969, cops entered the bar undercover to gather evidence as the Public Morals Squad waited outside as backup, waiting for their call through Stonewall’s payphone. None of the employees that night remembered being tipped off about a raid. One employee had heard a rumour, but since it was much later in the night than they would usually occur, they shrugged it off as inaccurate. Around 1:30 AM, the backup officers, consisting of policemen, patrol officers, and detectives, barged in on a crowd of 205 people. Those who were new to the experience stood confused, but a few realised and ran for the windows and washrooms but had no luck.
The standard procedure for raids was to line up the patrons, check their identifications, and send anyone dressed femininely to the washrooms where female officers would check if they’re physically male or female. Anyone found to have cross-dressed would be arrested. That night, however, didn’t go as usual. People refused to produce identification, while those dressed as women refused to go to the washrooms. The police decided to arrest everyone after separating those suspected of cross-dressing in the bar.
A sense of discomfort settled over both parties, spurred by the officers who assaulted women while frisking them. Customers who were released did not leave the venue, creating a crowd that grew to a hundred people within minutes—some having been released, others who saw the public and the police cars. When the first patrol wagon arrived, Inspector Pine recalled that the crowd had grown to at least ten times of the people arrested. The Mafia members, followed by bar employees, were led into the wagon. Officers started to get restless and used violence. One officer pushed a transgender woman, only to be hit by their purse. Another hit a woman who kept escaping from the police wagon on the head with a baton, complaining that the handcuffs were too tight. The woman yelled out — “Why don’t you guys do something?” — prompting the crowd to fight.
Violence and Escalation
The police tried to restrain the crowd but ended up knocking a few people down, enraging the public further. Some of those handcuffed in the wagon escaped as the police left them unattended. A few of the police vehicles left immediately despite having slashed tires. The commotion attracted people who learned what was happening. One of them was folk singer Dave van Ronk, who drew to the revolt from a bar two doors away. Although van Ronk was not gay, he had experienced police violence when he participated in anti-war demonstrations. But, he claimed, “As far as I’m concerned, anybody who’d stand against the cops was all right with me, and that’s why I stayed in.”
Ten police officers barricaded themselves, Van Ronk, Howard Smith (a column writer for the local newspaper, the Village Voice) and several handcuffed detainees inside the bar. Garbage cans, bottles, rocks and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows. Through these broken windows, garbage lit on fire was thrown in. While the police officers grabbed a fire hose, there was no water pressure, proving ineffective against the protestors.
Craig Rodwell, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop owner, reported watching police pursue demonstrators on the streets, only for them to come out the other end following the police. By 4 AM, the streets were finally cleared out. 13 people were arrested, some in the crowd were hospitalised, and four police officers were injured.
People started gathering in front of Stonewall, night after night, rioting. Surrounding Christopher Street, the crowd was wary towards any occupants passing by as well as the police. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman and activist, was also present amongst the crowd. Poet and Greenwich Village resident Allen Ginsberg noticed the chaos, and after learning of the riot, stated, “Gay Power! Isn’t it great! It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.” He visited the Stonewall Inn for the first time after that, which reopened within two days. While walking home, he declared to his friend, “You know, the guys there were beautiful— they’ve lost that wounded look they all had ten years ago.”
The Media and The Riot
During the inn’s closure, Craig Rodwell called major newspaper headquarters, informing them of the events, all of whom covered the event. News of the riot spread quickly, fueled by rumours that the Students had organised it for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, or it was triggered by “a homosexual police officer whose roommate went dancing at the Stonewall despite the officer’s wishes”. Regardless, people started feeling a sense of urgency.
On July 2, 1969, The Village Voice ran reports of the riots and gave unflattering and disappointing descriptions of the events and the participants. Many descended onto Christopher Street and threatened to burn down the offices of The Village Voice. Between 500-1000 people gathered on this day, and another battle broke out between the police and the demonstrators, with injuries to both sides and five arrested. The incidents of this night were summarised by one witness as, “The word is out. Christopher Street shall be liberated. The gays have had it with the oppression.”
Aftermath of Stonewall
A sudden urge for action spread throughout the Village, even in those who didn’t witness the riots. Many were moved by the rebellion and saw the need to take action. The Mattachine Society had existed since the 50s; however, their methods seemed mild after the riots. When a Mattachine officer suggested a “sweet and amicable” candlelight vigil demonstration, people in the audience fumed. Soon after, flyers were being distributed, announcing: “Do You Think Homosexuals Are Revolting? You Bet We Are!”
This marked the start of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the first LGBT organisation to use ‘gay’ in its name. Previous organisations like the Mattachine Society or Daughters of Bilitis and various other organisations avoided the word ‘gay’ in the title, choosing obscure names to mask their true purpose. The GLF borrowed tactics from and aligned with black and anti-war demonstrators with the idea that they “could work to restructure the American society.” They took on the causes of the Black Panthers and other radical New Left causes.
June 28, 1970, marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with Gay Pride marches in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — marking the first Gay Pride march in US history. The parade in New York covered 51 blocks, from Christopher Street to Central Park. This time, The Village Voice report describes the “out-front resistance that grew out of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn one year ago.”
Within two years of the Stonewall riots, there were gay rights groups in every major American city as well as in Canada, Australia, and Western Europe. The 70s saw significant successes for the community. One of the first instances was the ‘zap’ in May 1970 by the Los Angeles GLF at an APA convention. At a conference on behaviour modification, a film demonstrated electroshock therapy to decrease same-sex attraction. GLF members in the audience interrupted the film with shouts of “Torture!” and “Barbarism!” They took over the microphone to announce that medical professionals who recommended this therapy to their patients were complicit in torturing them. While some psychiatrists in attendance left, the GLF explained how homosexuality is not a mental illness to those still there. Finally, in December 1973, due to the efforts of gay activists, the APA voted unanimously to remove homosexuality from the DSM.
The mid-90s marked the inclusion of bisexuals as a represented group within the community. Moreover, in June 1999, the US Department of the Interior designated 51 and 53 Christopher Street and the surrounding area in Greenwich Village to be on the National Register of Historic Places, the first of significance to the LGBTQ community. In a dedication ceremony, Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior, John Berry stated, “Let it be remembered that here— on this spot—men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire.”
In June 2009, former US President Barack Obama declared June to be Pride Month, citing the riots as a reason to “commit to achieving equal justice under law for LGBT Americans.” This year marked the 40th anniversary of the riots, giving journalists and activists cause to reflect on the progress made since 1969.
From a small community of gay people fighting for their rights to now having inclusion of many different sexualities.
From a time when people were scared to let their identity be known to a time where people could feel comfortable opening up to some, if not all.
From homophobia all around the world to same-sex marriages and rights existing in different parts of the world.
The situation isn’t ideal, but it has improved. The road for liberation and acquiring socio-political rights isn’t straight — it is filled with steep turns, potholes and pit stops. And while there’s still a lot more to protest, riot, and boycott for, I wonder if we could’ve reached where we are in the gay rights movement if it wasn’t for Stonewall.