• Rebecca Schneider

STONEWALL RIOTS: THE SPARK THAT IGNITED AN INTERNATIONAL GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Stonewall riots, also called Stonewall uprising, series of violent confrontations that began in the early hours of June 28, 1969, between police and gay rights activists outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. As the riots progressed, an international gay rights movement was born.

By the late 1960s, the gay rights movement was building momentum across the United States.

  • Local chapters of the Mattachine Society, which started in 1950, provided a community for gay men and forums for public discourse. The Daughters of Bilitis, started in 1955, offered a similar support network for lesbians.

Before the Stonewall riots, members of the LGBTQ community clashed with police at Cooper's Donuts and the Black Cat tavern in Los Angeles; San Francisco's Compton's Cafeteria; and at Dewey's restaurant in Philadelphia, among other skirmishes.

  • They staged pickets in Washington to protest the exclusion of homosexuals from military service, and gathered in Philadelphia each year on July 4 for "annual reminders" demanding legal protections.

Mattachine-New York helped end policies permitting police entrapment. But police raids of bars and bathhouses continued, and a spate of violent homophobic attacks put the LGBTQ community on edge.


In 1969 the solicitation of homosexual relations was an illegal act in New York City (and indeed virtually all other urban centres).


Gay bars were places of refuge where gay men and lesbians and other individuals who were considered sexually suspect could socialize in relative safety from public harassment. Many of those bars were, however, subject to regular police harassment.


One such well-known gathering place for young gay men, lesbians, and transgender people was the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, a dark, seedy, crowded bar, reportedly operating without a liquor license.


Because it served gay customers, police raids were common. Management typically bribed police to tip them off in advance so they could turn on the lights and interrupt dancing, which could risk arrest.


But there was no tip the night of the raid that launched the six-day uprising.


the Stonewall Inn

The Stonewall Inn opened as a gay club in 1967 in the heart of Manhattan's bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood. Despite progressive winds sweeping the nation, New York was notorious for its strict enforcement of anti-homosexual laws that made it risky for gay people to congregate in public, let alone at a bar.


None of the bars frequented by gay men and lesbians were owned by gay people

  • Almost all of them were owned and controlled by organized crime, who treated the regulars poorly, watered down the liquor, and overcharged for drinks. However, they also paid off police to prevent frequent raids.

The Mafia stepped in to reap the benefits at Stonewall. To get around state regulations that prohibited gay people from being served alcoholic beverages, mafioso "Fat Tony" Lauria operated the Stonewall Inn as a private club, taking its name from the previous bar-restaurant so he wouldn't have to change the sign.


Stonewall was not the only gay bar in Greenwich Village and it wasn't the nicest. It had no running water and its windows were boarded so no one could see inside. The drinks were watered down and overpriced.

Transgender people were occasional customers, but in that era, they self-identified as drag queens or transvestites, not transgender. And they rarely dressed in full garb, mindful not just of street harassment, but of a law that forbade wearing more than three pieces of clothing associated with the opposite sex.

"At first it was just a gay men's bar. And they didn't allow no women in. And then they started allowing women in. And then they let the drag queens in," Marsha P. Johnson said in an interview in 1979.

The Raid


In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, nine policemen entered the Stonewall Inn, arrested the employees for selling alcohol without a license, roughed up many of its patrons, cleared the bar, and—in accordance with a New York criminal statute that authorized the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing—took several people into custody. It was the third such raid on Greenwich Village gay bars in a short period, and no tip of the raid was given on the night that launched a six-day uprising.


The raid did not go as planned. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any people appearing to be physically male and dressed as women would be arrested. Those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station, after separating those cross-dressing in a room in the back of the bar.


Maria Ritter, then known as male to her family, recalled, "My biggest fear was that I would get arrested. My second biggest fear was that my picture would be in a newspaper or on a television report in my mother's dress!"

Both patrons and police recalled that a sense of discomfort spread very quickly, spurred by police who began to assault some of the lesbians by "feeling some of them up inappropriately" while frisking them.


Fights broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon several times. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described as "a typical New York butch" and "a dyke–stone butch", she had been hit on the head by an officer with a baton for, as one witness claimed, complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown (Stormé DeLarverie has been identified by some, including herself, as the woman, but accounts vary), sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, "Why don't you guys do something?"

After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went "berserk". Accustomed to more passive behaviour, even from larger gay groups, the policemen called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar while some 400 people rioted.


The police barricade was repeatedly breached, and the bar was set on fire. Police reinforcements arrived in time to extinguish the flames, and they eventually dispersed the crowd.

The riots outside the Stonewall Inn waxed and waned for the next five days.

Many historians characterized the uprising as a spontaneous protest against the perpetual police harassment and social discrimination suffered by a variety of sexual minorities in the 1960s.


Although there had been other protests by gay groups, the Stonewall incident was perhaps the first time lesbians, gays, and transgender people saw the value in uniting behind a common cause.

Occurring as it did in the context of the civil rights and feminist movements, the Stonewall riots became a galvanizing force.


Word of the riots spread across the city the next morning. The first night drew 500 to 600 people, including folk singer and mentor of Bob Dylan,Dave Van Ronk—who had been attracted to the revolt from a bar two doors away from the Stonewall

But an estimated 2,000 showed up outside the bar on Saturday night.

  • Members of the crowd held hands in bold displays of public affection. They chanted "gay power," "we want freedom now" and "Christopher Street belongs to the queens."

  • To block off Christopher Street, they formed a human chain and turned over a car, attracting riot police that led to more clashes.

  • A crowd swarmed a taxi and the driver had a heart attack, the only death over six nights.


By the third day of the riots, messages filled a boarded-up window of the Stonewall Inn.



By Wednesday, protesters were back -- inflamed by media coverage of "gay cheerleaders" and "Sunday f-- follies." News of the clashes had also spread to other leftist groups, who saw an opportunity to align themselves with the insurgent movement.


Overall, 21 people were arrested -- most of them on the first night -- and many police and rioters were injured. But a spark was ignited.

What happened next?

The energy from the uprising manifested within weeks.

  • Weeks later, Mattachine-New York led a "gay power" march from Washington Square Park to Stonewall that drew hundreds of people.

  • Other Stonewall veterans favored more radical action. A new group that included former Mattachines and feminists anointed themselves the Gay Liberation Front.

  • They held dances to raise money to show they didn't need the Mafia for entertainment. The proceeds funded an underground newspaper, a bail fund for members and lunches for the poor. They questioned mayoral candidates at forums about their views on homosexuality.

The group began to unravel within months. But from its ashes another group formed, the Gay Activist Alliance.


Meanwhile, activist Craig Rodwell and his friends came up with another way to harness the energy from Stonewall. He proposed moving the annual July 4 reminder in Philadelphia to New York for the riots' anniversary.



On June 28, 1970, Rodwell and thousands of people returned to Greenwich Village for the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march. It became an annual event and evolved into the Pride parade, which is marked every year in New York and other cities across the world.




"There were no floats, no music, no boys in briefs. The cops turned their backs on us to convey their disdain, but the masses of people kept carrying signs and banners, chanting and waving to surprised onlookers," Rodwell's partner, Fred Sargent, said of the first march.

"It was only after the march that these gay pioneers realized what might be possible."

After that first Pride march, the speed of progress went up a notch.


In the decade that followed, the federal exclusions on gays and lesbians were lifted, and the medical profession reversed its long-held belief that homosexuals needed psychiatric treatment.

  • Harvey Milk became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US, in 1977 in San Francisco. Two years later, about 100,000 people took part in a national march on Washington - probably at that point the biggest gathering of gay people in history.

  • Many of the anti-sodomy laws were struck down in the 1980s, making homosexuality effectively legal, although it was decades before gay marriage became a federally-recognised right in 2015. The legal progress was matched by a change in attitudes - three-quarters of Americans are today accepting of gay relations.

  • In 2019, there are still battles to fight - gay people can still be fired from their jobs in many states. And campaigners say the Trump administration is taking the country backwards again by rolling back some of their hard-fought freedoms.

  • But the arrival of the first openly gay candidate for president suggests the general direction of travel is still one way. Perhaps the biggest sign of progress is that it's Pete Buttigieg's unusual surname and his Norwegian language skills that seem to provoke more curiosity than his sexuality.

  • No one fighting the police that night or marching on the streets could have predicted the strides made since. It's therefore worth reflecting on how much came out of that police raid on a Mafia bar, says David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, which is regarded as the definitive account of what happened.

"It's very unexpected and very rare in human history that something that's a totally spontaneous act changed the course of human history for the better."