How the Stonewall Riots Worked


Introduction to 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.

LGBTQ Life Before Stonewall

LGBTQ Life Before Stonewall
Members of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, pose for a picture. Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Gay rights in the U.S. can be divided into two eras: before Stonewall and after Stonewall. While LGBTQ people face many challenges today, life as an LGBTQ person before the Stonewall riots was particularly challenging.

That's because of a web of local and state laws made that restricted the rights of gay people before 1969. Those mandates included anything from the restriction of dancing in public with a same-sex partner to anti-sodomy laws that criminalized private sexual acts performed in people's own homes. Police used these laws to harass and intimidate LGBTQ people, raiding gay clubs and enforcing "gender-appropriate" clothing laws. The laws also required people to wear a minimum of three pieces of clothing deemed appropriate for their gender, and they were designed to target transgender people, cross-dressers or anyone who didn't conform to a set of gender signifiers [source: Carter]. In every state but Illinois, which became the first to repeal its sodomy laws in 1961, it was effectively illegal simply to be gay.

A culture of silence and fear surrounded LGBTQ life in the mid-20th century. There were no contemporary federal laws or court precedents that protected the civil rights of LGBTQ people in the United States. They could be fired from their jobs if it was revealed they were gay. (Indeed, people in many U.S. cities can still be fired for being gay, as there is no federal law against anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination.) LGBTQ people were under constant pressure to conform, to keep things hidden and to "act straight." Until 1973, homosexuality was listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a disorder. Being gay was viewed as a mental illness for so long that many LGBTQ people truly believed that they were sick and had a problem they needed to hide or overcome.

The 1950s were especially brutal, due to a witch hunt sometimes known as the Lavender Scare. During this period, from around 1945-69, the anti-communist scourge of McCarthyism also targeted LGBTQ people as criminals or perverts. In fact, this anti-gay hysteria regressed gay rights and attitudes toward LGBTQ people, which had gradually become more relaxed since the beginning of the 20th century.

But the pre-Stonewall era was not entirely without hope. A movement in favor of gay civil rights began to grow in the 1950s. Known as the "homophile movement," it emphasized a quiet, conformist version of gayness. The most prominent gay rights group at that time was called the Mattachine Society (named after a secret society in the Middle Ages). While the specific successes achieved by the homophile movement were limited, the movement helped craft a positive LGBTQ identity, and also established a nationwide network that allowed LGBTQ people to communicate, mostly via newsletters.

Life for LGBTQ people in the 1950s and '60s was filled with oppression and harassment. There were few places where they could meet other gay people and enjoy the emerging gay culture, and they were often disowned by their parents and shunned by their community. But one place where the LGBTQ community in New York did feel relatively free to do those things was the Stonewall Inn.

The Stonewall Inn

The Stonewall Inn
The Stonewall Inn opened as a gay bar in 1967. Roger Gaess/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The Stonewall Inn was originally a pair of brick buildings that housed stables, then a bakery, on Christopher Street in Manhattan's West Village (the western part of Greenwich Village). The Stonewall Inn Restaurant opened at the location in 1934.

But since the laws of the era made being gay in public practically illegal, and many bars refused to serve LGBTQ people, organized crime figures saw an opportunity to exploit a market that wasn't being served by legal establishments. So, in 1967, a small group of Mafia-connected investors opened the Stonewall as a gay bar. In fact, several gay clubs and bars in New York City in the '60s had Mafia owners.

Primarily gay men went to the Stonewall Inn, although lesbians and transgender people did as well. There was an informal segregation between the main bar, populated by masculine gay men, and the back room's dance floor, home to the queens and other LGBTQ groups that were more vulnerable or held a lesser status according to contemporary stigmas. It was a multiethnic crowd.

But despite the bar's popularity, its Mafia connections created a lot of tension. It's likely the owners dealt drugs and operated a prostitution ring out of the Stonewall, and it was no secret that they paid bribes to the cops of the 6th Precinct to look the other way. There's evidence that at least one Mafia-connected owner, Ed "The Skull" Murphy, ran a homosexual blackmail racket. Taking advantage of the oppressive, secretive life of LGBTQ people at the time, he would obtain incriminating photographs and coerce them into making big payoffs to avoid being outed. The owners also didn't invest a lot of money or effort into the Stonewall Inn. It was a grimy, dark place, and the drinks were usually watered down [source: Carter].

Even with its flaws, the Stonewall Inn was a refuge for LGBTQ people. It was one of the few places where they could be accepted and feel relatively safe from harassment, even if only for a few hours of dancing to Motown hits. June 28, 1969, the day the Stonewall riots occurred, was no exception — until the police showed up a little after 1 a.m.

The Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Riots
The crowd tries stop police arrests during the riots. NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine of Manhattan's First Division of Public Morals had several undercover officers inside the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969. He arrived at the door to the bar after 1 a.m. (so, technically, the raid and riot occurred on the 28th).

It's notable that Pine and the officers initially participating in the raid were not part of the 6th Precinct, the police department that covered the Stonewall Inn's neighborhood. Pine's officers entered the Stonewall with the intention of shutting it down permanently and arresting the Mafia guys who ran it for selling liquor without a license. They'd raided it already that summer, as part of a plan to shut down all the Mafia-owned gay bars in Manhattan. But, for a variety of reasons, this raid went differently than the others.

First, the officers wouldn't let people out of the bar without seeing ID, one of many tactics to intimidate and humiliate gay people. Patrons exited the bar one by one, slowly growing into a crowd as they waited for their friends to emerge. The crowd grew — a lot of disenfranchised street kids, many of them LGBTQ people who'd left home with nowhere else to go, joined the gathering.

But the high-spirited crowd erupted into a full-scale riot, for several reasons:

  • Pine repeatedly requested backup officers, but the 6th precinct never sent them. There's evidence that this was intentional, because the 6th was getting kickbacks from the Stonewall and resented someone barging into their jurisdiction to conduct a raid. As a result, there were far too few officers on-site to control the growing crowd [source: Carter].
  • Because of the prior raids on the Stonewall and other gay bars in Manhattan, LGBTQ people felt like their last refuge was threatened and they were being backed into a corner. The patrons and LGBTQ youth in the neighborhood were unwilling to put up with police harassment any longer.
  • A few people physically resisted police arrests, which transformed the incident from a shouting match to one of physical confrontation. Most accounts describe one lesbian woman who had been in the Stonewall as fiercely battling cops who tried to stuff her into a patrol car, inciting the crowd as she fought. Some accounts cite Jackie Hormona and Marsha P. Johnson as key players in inciting the riot. A few other physical altercations led to the crowd throwing things at the cops, escalating the riot.

The crowd started out throwing coins at the cops, then bottles, then bricks either pried from the street or taken from a nearby construction site. At that point, Pine sensed the danger and retreated into the Stonewall Inn with the other police officers. A few of the bar's patrons and one reporter were also inside the Stonewall at the time. The rioters grew even angrier that cops now occupied the bar, and they battered open the door using a parking meter ripped from the street. Some of them even tried to light garbage near the Stonewall's windows on fire. But from the cops' perspective, it was a surprise that anyone even fought back.

The End of the Riots

The End of the Riots
The NYPD was ill-equipped to deal with the riot when it started. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In multiple accounts of the incident, police who were involved express astonished that LGBTQ people responded at all. They were used to gay people living in shame and fear of being exposed, and many saw them as stereotypically effeminate and passive. It was inconceivable to them that LGBTQ people (whom the police often described using derogatory terms like "fairies") would ever stand up for themselves [source: Carter].

Eventually, fire trucks and officers from the 6th Precinct and others arrived, including officers from New York City's Tactical Patrol Force (TPF). They were specifically equipped to deal with riots, and Pine and the officers with him were able to leave the Stonewall Inn. However, the crowd outside had swelled, attracting local residents and LGBTQ people from across New York City who were drawn to the event by phone calls from friends. Estimates of the crowd's size range from 500 to 1,000 or more people [source: The Leadership Conference].

A protracted series of street skirmishes and chases between cops and the crowd lasted a few hours and resulted in property damage and some injuries. The tangled geometry of the neighborhood's streets made it difficult for the police to control the crowd, even after more cops had arrived. Multiple witnesses reported police attacking rioters, who in many cases were simply dancing and singing in the street, with billy clubs.

Eventually, the crowd dispersed and the riot ended. But the feelings of anger in the LGBTQ community and its refusal to accept harassment and oppression in silence did not end.

The Aftermath of the Riots

The Aftermath of the Riots
People march to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, whose legacy is enduring. Barbara Alper/Archive Photos/Getty Images

If nothing else had happened after that riot, it may have been an isolated incident with minor importance in LGBTQ history. But on Saturday night, news of the riots drew hundreds or possibly thousands of people to Christopher Street. The Stonewall Inn reopened and served as a central point and signboard. The crowd was made up predominantly of LGBTQ people, but it also became something of a counterculture event, drawing hippies, civil rights protesters and even tourists.

While the crowd on the second night threw bottles and garbage at the police and also engaged in street chases with the TPF, it was much more political. People gave speeches; chants of "gay power" were prominent; and groups handed out pamphlets and worked to organize the crowd's anger into a more cohesive movement. Gay rights in general were a matter of primary concern, but police corruption and Mafia involvement in gay bars were also major issues for the protesters.

By Sunday night, the crowds were smaller. The police outnumbered the protesters, who mainly gathered at a nearby park, holding hands, kissing each other and dancing. The riots lasted six nights.

But the repercussions of the Stonewall riots were not confined to one week in 1969. A few months later, a commemorative march took place in New York, and similar marches were held in cities across the U.S. On the first anniversary of the riots, thousands of people marched from Christopher Park to Central Park. It was the first LGBTQ pride parade in the U.S., creating a precedent for annual celebrations around the world. And following the riots, groups like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance organized, held meetings and made a prolonged and focused push for gay rights in a far more visible and vocal way than the gay rights groups of the pre-Stonewall era. (Indeed, the Mattachine Society called for an end to protests and a return to peace and quiet the weekend of the riots.)

Work for the civil rights of an oppressed group is always an ongoing process, and the Stonewall riots were just one part of the long and difficult process of expanding the rights of LGBTQ people in the U.S. But the riots are considered a pivotal and instrumental event in that process. Next, we'll explore the legend and legacy of the Stonewall riots.

The Stonewall Legacy

The Stonewall Legacy
The riots inspired global demonstrations, like this queer pride march in New Delhi in 2009.  MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

The Stonewall riots weren't the first time LGBTQ people reacted violently to police harassment. Uprisings due to law enforcement raids and misconduct occurred in San Francisco in 1965 and 1966, and in Los Angeles in 1967. Mainstream newspapers virtually ignored all of them, including the Stonewall riots — only smaller independent and counterculture newspapers gave them much coverage [source: Armstrong and Crage]. But the Stonewall riots are viewed as the start of the gay rights movement, while other LGBTQ protests and riots did not take on as much significance.

There are a few reasons for the Stonewall riots' noteworthiness. For one thing, the Stonewall riots were somewhat larger in scale and lasted longer than other incidents. Also, gay rights activists tried and succeeded in finding an effective way to commemorate the riots using a march, which became an inclusive parade that allowed a wide range of LGBTQ people and allies to participate. But an ironic reason the Stonewall riots are considered the start of the gay rights movement is precisely because the riots were not the start of the gay rights movement.

One of the most important factors of an event's legacy is the existence of a community with the desire and capacity to remember it. Those quiet gay rights organizations that were working in the '50s and grew stronger in the '60s created an organized nationwide community of LGBTQ people who communicated with each other. That existing infrastructure is a major part of the story of Stonewall.

"A longer view of gay and lesbian history works to decenter Stonewall as the all-important turning point, as does recognition of the impact of young liberation activists who moved homophile organizations toward greater militancy," Susan Freeman, associate professor and chair of the department of Gender and Women's Studies at Western Michigan University, says via email. "Stonewall as an event took hold of people's consciousness largely because of the grassroots organizing that followed it, plus the annual commemorations and organizations that adopted the name."

Controversy Over Stonewall's Legacy

Controversy Over Stonewall's Legacy
The Stonewall Inn was declared a national monument in 2016. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There is a lot of disagreement over the proceedings of the Stonewall riots. Some of the debate and conflicting claims are focused on who was involved, including the identity of the lesbian who fought the cops, or the person who threw the first brick that landed on a cop car and inflamed the crowd.

More important are disagreements over what groups were involved. The people involved in the riots were LGBTQ in every sense: gay men, lesbians, transgender women, effeminate men, etc. Black, Hispanic and white people took part in the riots, forming a diverse crowd. By many accounts, the people who suffered from police harassment the most (lesbians, transgender women and cross-dressing men, along with LGBTQ street kids) were at the forefront of the riots. These groups often feel that the Stonewall story has been falsely depicted as an event focused on masculine, gay white men. "Similar to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, there was a much broader social movement context in which the Stonewall riots took place. That broader movement context often gets erased with an overly simplistic retelling of individual or even collective acts of resistance," says Freeman.

Since 1969, several documentaries and two fictionalized feature films — both called "Stonewall," from 1995 and 2015 — have been made about the Stonewall riots. Neither critics nor moviegoers liked either of the movies very much, with most complaints centering on lack of historical accuracy and failure to show the importance of transgender people and people of color.

The Stonewall Inn is still a privately owned bar. In 2016, the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park and some nearby streets were designated a National Monument by President Barack Obama — the first dedicated to gay rights. The annual New York City Pride March still ends on Christopher Street every year on the anniversary of the riots.

Author's Note: How the Stonewall Riots Worked

I didn't know the details of the Stonewall riots when I started researching this, so it was fascinating to discover not only what a compelling story it is, but also how complex both the riots and their long-term outcome really are. My favorite part of studying history is untangling the various conditions and factors that lead to major events, and the riots are a perfect example. It's also nice to write about something that ultimately feels like a positive story — no one was killed in the riots, and they led (eventually, gradually, requiring a lot of work by a lot of people) to more rights in the U.S. for LGBTQ people.

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Sources

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