How the Stonewall Riots Worked

The Stonewall Inn, like many other gay bars, was raided in 1969. But on one June night, a raid turned into a riot. Ben Hider/Getty Images

In West Village of Manhattan, New York City, the neat grid of streets collapses into a tangle of odd angles and jagged alleys. A few blocks from Washington Square Park, the streets converge like the center of a spider's web, appearing to meet at one place: the Stonewall Inn.

The Stonewall was never showy. It was a dive bar with one significant feature — it catered to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people. On a hot summer night in 1969, the police raided the place, lining up gay men, transgender people, lesbians and even the bar's Mafia-connected owners, demanding to see ID before filing them off to paddy wagons waiting outside. Police had raided LGBTQ bars hundreds of times in other cities across America [source: Armstrong and Crage]. But something was different that night: The crowd vehemently fought back.

The resulting riots galvanized the gay rights movement in the U.S., which until then had been quiet and slow to anger. But exactly what happened that night? Why did the LGBTQ people of New York react so differently than they had during so many other police raids? And why did this incident take on such a prominent role in the history of gay rights in America?

First, we'll unravel the conditions in the LGBTQ community that led to the Stonewall riots and their legacy as a pivotal moment in the gay liberation movement.