In the early hours of 28 June 1969, New York City police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn. The raid sparked a riot between the bar-goers and neighbourhood residents against the police, who were violently handling and arresting employees and patrons from the bar.
The riot escalated into six days of violent clashes and protests against police brutality and the treatment of queer people in the US. Though the riots were short-lived, their legacy is immeasurable, since they served as a catalyst for gay rights movements both in the US and around the world.
But how and why did the Stonewall riots happen, and why do they matter today?
Gay rights in the US were very limited
After World War Two ended, many US citizens felt that the country should be restored to pre-war social order and stave off the forces of change. This included a clampdown on gay people and homosexual activity, and in 1950 a Senate report stated that gay people were ‘perverse’, lacked ‘the emotional stability of normal persons’ and constituted ‘security risks’.
Government intelligence agencies monitored the activity of suspected homosexuals, who could be fired from their jobs and discharged from the military simply for arousing suspicion. Bars catering to the queer community were shut down, their customers were exposed in newspapers, and more widely, cities performed ‘sweeps’ of neighbourhoods, parks, bars and beaches to find and prosecute gay people.
New York City passed numerous laws against homosexuality in public and private businesses, along with other laws against behaviour such as the solicitation of same-sex relations and holding hands, kissing or dancing with someone of the same sex.
Gay bars were constantly raided
After the mass migration caused by World War One, Greenwich Village and Harlem in Manhattan became home to large queer populations. Over the following two decades, a significant gay and lesbian subculture emerged in the area.
Prohibition (1920-1933) actively benefitted these subcultures, since drinking alcohol was similarly pushed underground along with behaviours that were considered to be ‘immoral’. They became a place of refuge for the queer community. However, authorities then penalised and shut down establishments that served alcohol to suspected LGBT+ individuals.
Though these regulations were overturned in 1966, engaging in gay behaviour was still illegal, so police raids upon gay bars continued.
The Stonewall Inn was a hub for queer people
Because of Prohibition, speakeasies were run by the mafia. Crime bosses saw huge profit in catering to queer clientele, both because of the desire for places to gather and because of the potential to blackmail wealthy patrons with the threat of publicly denouncing their sexuality.
By the mid-1960s, the Genovese mob controlled most gay bars in Greenwich Village. This included the Stonewall Inn, which was opened in 1967 as a gay bar. By this point, New York officials were revoking liquor licenses of suspected gay bars. As such, the Stonewall Inn operated under the guise of being a ‘private club’, rather than a ‘public bar’. Patrons were required to sign in upon entry and bring their own liquor.
The mob bribed New York police to ignore the activities taking place within the club, and the inn quickly became an important institution in the village, welcoming drag queens (who were shunned elsewhere), serving as a home for homeless queer youths and being one of the only bars that allowed dancing.
Raids were commonplace. However, corrupt police would normally prewarn the mob, who would hide the alcohol and other illegal activities. The New York police had stormed Stonewall Inn just a few days before the riot-inducing raid.
The riots went on for days
When police raided the Stonewall Inn on the morning of 28 June 1969, the mob had not been tipped off in advance. The police entered the club, harassed the patrons and arrested 13 people for charges ranging from carrying bootlegged alcohol to violations of the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute. Female officers would even take “suspected cross-dressing patrons” into the bathrooms to check their sex.
Patrons and neighbourhood residents remained outside the bar and became increasingly angry as the police resorted to violence to control the growing mob. After an officer hit a lesbian woman over the head while forcing her into a police van, the mob began to throw pennies, bottles, cobblestones and other objects at the police.
The police called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar. By this time, some 400 people were involved in the riot. The bar was set on fire but was ultimately put out. The officers inside escaped and the crowd was forced to disperse – albeit briefly.
Riots outside the inn continued for the next five days, with fires, clashes with the police and picketing characterising the movement, which was one of the first widescale uprisings in which lesbian, gay and transgender people recognised the value in uniting behind a common cause.
A publication called the Village Voice further publicised the riots, leading to even greater numbers participating in the uprising.
The legacy of Stonewall is immeasurable
Though the Stonewall uprisings didn’t invent the gay rights movement, they were a galvanising force for the international queer community. Numerous gay rights organisations were founded in the wake of the riots which have since gone on to change the course of queer history forever.
On the one-year anniversary of the riots in 1970, thousands of people marched from Stonewall Inn to Central Park in a parade which was then called ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’. It marked America’s first gay pride parade, and used the official slogan ‘say it loud, gay is proud.’
In 2016, former US president Barack Obama designated the site of the riots and the surrounding area a national monument in recognition of its contribution to gay rights.