How the Stonewall Riots Worked

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.