I’m sure almost everyone reading this site already knows about what is arguably the single biggest turning point in LGBT+ history: the Stonewall riots. Buckle up, this one is long but it couldn’t be more important.
First, let’s talk about the Stonewall Inn itself. The Stonewall Inn was (and is, to this day) located at 51 and 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York. It was owned by members of the Genovese crime family because, backtracking a bit, during Prohibition when the sale of alcohol was forced to go underground, organized crime had essentially taken over the gay bar industry. There really weren’t any gay-owned and operated nightlife establishments, not like we see now. On the one hand, this was good because that meant the police were often paid not to raid these bars — on the other hand, it meant that the owners of these operations were only in it for the money and so they overcharged for watered down drinks and generally treated their customers badly. In fact, it’s theorized that the owners of Stonewall were making more money off of blackmailing their wealthier regulars than from their liquor sales. But their customers did not have many other places to go. Some of the patrons of the club were homeless, gay eighteen year-olds who literally had nowhere else to go. For them, Stonewall wasn’t just a bar — it was home. In every sense of the word.
To prevent any cops from coming into the establishment, a bouncer peered through a peephole at anyone trying to come in. Anyone who was permitted in either needed to “look gay” or be someone the bouncer recognized. All visitors had to write their names in a guest log, although it was very rare for anyone to use their real name. On weekends, there was a $3 cover charge that came with two drink tickets. (The 1960’s definition of “overcharging for drinks” is not the same as our modern definition of “overcharging for drinks”. If I get a drink ticket with my cover charge, I am extremely happy. Especially on a Saturday night!) If a cop was spotted, bright white lights would turn on — the bar was kept intentionally as dark as possible, but these lights would signal that everyone needed to stop dancing together and stop touching at all.
Police raids were increasingly common in the period leading up to June 28 1969, but the Genovese crime family was always — up to that point — tipped off before a raid happened. At 1:20 am, however, they discovered that there was a first time for everything. Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the door with four plainclothes officers and two uniformed patrolmen, banged on the door and shouted “Police! We’re taking the place!” The Genoveses had not been tipped off, which they would later learn was because the raid was actually ordered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, who suspected them of bootlegging their liquor (correctly, I might add.) There were also four undercover police (two male and two female) who were already inside the bar.
From the beginning, the raid did not go as planned. In a typical raid, the patrons were lined up and asked to show their identification, and anyone dressed as a female was sent to the bathrooms with a female officer in order to verify their sex. (Why, yes, that was as invasive as it sounds!) The patrons of the bar refused to line up — some attempted to flee from the bar immediately, but the police blocked off the doors. Others lined up but refused to present their IDs, and still others refused to go to the bathrooms with female officers. Some of the lesbians present were inappropriately touched while being frisked by male police officers.
The police decided that they were simply going to make arrests of anyone who did not cooperate. The patrol wagons hadn’t arrived yet, so the police lined up the people they were arresting. The patrons who were not being arrested were released by the front door. Instead of leaving, however, they waited and watched. A crowd began to form, which quickly grew to be over 100 people in size. Deputy Inspector Pine would later say it was “ten times the number of people being arrested”. The crowd began singing “We Shall Overcome” and shouting “Gay Power!” and other various catchphrases to deter the police from their current course. As the patrol wagons arrived, pennies and beer bottles were thrown at them.
The police attempted to force a woman into one of the arriving wagons — by most accounts she was “typical New York butch” Stormé DeLarverie. She was clubbed over the head for complaining her handcuffs were too tight — and that set her off. She fought four police officers for ten minutes, before looking at the crowd and saying “Why don’t you guys do something?” At that point, she was tossed into the patrol wagon — but they were too late. She’d struck the match.
The popular version of events holds that Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick — which would have been right at this moment. Johnson’s own telling of the events says she wasn’t there until about an hour and a half later — after she’d heard about the riot, she went to find her friend Sylvia Rivera before joining in. The other two names often given for the possible “first brick thrower were Jackie Hormona (also unlikely, in my opinion) and Zazu Nova (that’s who my money is on!) There are countless different versions of what happened, depending on who you ask. There was no organization except — according to Michael Fader, who was present — “a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit.” According to various accounts, including Fader’s, there was a feeling in the air that this night was going to change things and “we were never going to go back”. That could not have been more true.
The police were ultimately forced back into the bar by the crowd, where they were essentially captives. Garbage was set on fire and forced through the windows of the bar. The NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) was called in, in order to help free the stranded police officers and get them medical treatment (which a few of them needed). The TPF also tried to clear the streets by forming a phalanx and pushing the crowd back — but the crowd made a joke of it. They formed a kick line in response to the police’s formation. Those in the kick line sang a parody of the popular vaudeville song “Ta-ra–ra Boom-de-day” with lyrics that went “We are the Stonewall girls/We wear our hair in curls/We don’t wear underwear/We show off our pubic hair.” The TPF did not appreciate the humor, and launched into a full-scale assault on the kick line, hitting them with nightsticks and bats.
That enraged the crowd even more. The mob started chasing the police, flipping cars, By four in the morning, however, the streets had been cleared. News of the riot appeared in several local papers, and rumors flew about what had caused them. That night, the riots picked up again — many people came back from the night before, but this time they were joined by activists who had been present, by people who enjoyed provoking the police, and even by some tourists. Thousands of people gathered outside the Stonewall Inn. Accounts vary on which night was more violent but there was one notable change — homosexual men and women were making out with each other openly on the street. One witness described it: “From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets.” Traffic trying to get through Christopher Street was stopped, with cars and buses being blocked and harassed until the occupants would announce their support for the demonstrators. Police cars were vandalized. More than a hundred police officers were sent — but every time someone would get arrested, the mob would rush out and recapture them from the police. By 4 am, the second night of rioting had died down.
For the next several nights, there were smaller altercations between police and the LGBT community in New York City. Less than a week later, a bus was chartered to get activists from New York safely to Philadelphia for what would be the last of the Annual Reminders. Following the riots, many of the people present became members of the newly formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in order to further fight for equality for the queer community.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)