The riot at a New York City gay bar in June 1969 was the beginning of the gay-rights movement--which culminated this week in two historic Supreme Court decisions. LGBT people swarmed to the bar to celebrate.
Following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday, 84-year-old plaintiff Edie Windsor headed to the most obvious place imaginable for celebrating a gay rights victory: Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn.
“To all of the gay people and their supporters who cheered me on, thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Windsor to hundreds of people outside the historic establishment, where more than four decades ago, the nation’s first gay rights leaders emerged.
The mood was festive with drinks and rainbow flags flowing inside the bar, while out on the street, Cher’s Believe blared from the loudspeakers. Forty-four years earlier, the scene outside 53 Christopher Street looked very different.
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn, one of New York’s most popular gay bars, refused to quietly cooperate with a police raid. Back then, such sweeps were common. But on this particular Friday night, the reaction was far from routine.
“The normal thing for a bar raid would be to come in on a slow night; the normal thing would be to arrest employees, but not patrons,” said Rich Wandel, archivist and historian at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. “But for whatever reason, on this night the police decided they were really going to shut this place down, and they just began smashing things.”
In the late sixties, LGBT people had no protections in place, said Wandel. The State Liquor Authority enforced a “moral turpitude” policy that barred serving homosexuals alcohol. In addition, anti-cross dressing laws required that people wear at least three items of their birth gender’s clothing. And two people of the same sex couldn’t even dance with each other without fear of being arrested.
“Everything was very underground,” said Ellen Kahn, director of Human Rights Campaign’s Family Project. “For the few and the proud and the brave who did come out, there were often pretty severe consequences, from being fired to being physically beaten in broad daylight…What people needed was to feel like they had a community. Some way to connect so that you could live a life that felt a little more authentic.”
For many, that place ended up being a bar. Gay and lesbian couples would come together, ready to swap dance partners at the drop of a police hat so that–should an officer appear–men would be dancing with women. The Stonewall Inn, like many gay bars at the time, was very much an illegal operation.
“If the cops raided the place you used to break the bottles with a hammer,” said the current bartender at Stonewall, who goes by Tree, a fitting name for a man of his height. “Homosexuality was against the law. It was a disease.”
Tree was a regular in the gay community’s underground bar scene forty-four years ago, and had come to Stonewall for a night of dancing when the riot broke out. Neighborhood police would often raid gay bars to collect money from the owners for serving liquor without a license, he said. The cops would jot down names of the patrons, which were almost always made up (Tree went by “Fenwick Fingernail” if pressed by an officer), but would rarely dismantle the place to the point where it couldn’t reopen the next night. If the cops did arrest patrons, they would pay their fines and leave. They didn’t turn to violence.
When police officers began rounding up people at Stonewall on the night of June 28, however, they started to fight back. One woman repeatedly jumped out of the police car she was thrown into, as a crowd of people gathered on the street.
“The street people started throwing pennies at the cops,” said Wandel. “The cops got frightened, so they locked themselves in the bar with the patrons.”
The mob swelled as the police waited inside for backup. Pennies turned into bricks, and bricks turned into a parking meter, which the crowd managed to uproot in an attempt to ram the door.
“After we ran out of things to throw like bottles and bricks, we lit garbage cans on fire and started to throw those,” said Tree, who was 30 years old at the time.
It was a full-on riot and, although the participants didn’t know it, the beginning of the gay rights movement.
“It had just gotten to a point where people at the club said enough was enough,” said James Wilson, executive director at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City of New York Graduate Center. “As the excitement and the crowd grew, I think they realized how much strength they had in numbers. And in terms of the legacy of Stonewall, I think that momentum just continued to build.”
The riots raged on for another five days, and eventually became known as the Stonewall uprising. Surprisingly few people were arrested–just over a dozen–and four policemen were injured.
Exactly why the uprising began remains somewhat of a mystery. One theory is that the death of gay icon Judy Garland, who had been buried hours before the raid took place, fueled the emotions of those who had come to mourn at Stonewall. Others believe the oppressive conditions under which gays lived created a time bomb that just happened to explode on the night of the riot. But ultimately, the events that caused the uprising are less important than the ones that followed.
“People who felt 100% disempowered turned a corner,” said Kahn. “They had no idea what the ripple effect would be. But boy, do we know now.”
The uprising injected a militancy into the gay rights movement that had previously been lacking. Within weeks, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF,) which was the first organization to use the word “gay” in its name, was founded to advocate for social change. The Gay Activists Alliance followed a few months later. In just two years, gay rights groups had cropped up in nearly every major city across the country.
“We already had some organizing going on,” said Wandel, who was the second president of the Gay Activists Alliance, a group famous for staging “zaps,” or very loud, “in-your-face demonstrations,” he said. “There was the resurgence of the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, the left community in New York City, like Students for a Democratic Society, going on in the background. As soon as the riots happened, people knew how to take advantage.”
A year after the Stonewall uprising, the first gay pride marches took place in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, where they continue to this day. Although the original bar was closed down following the riots, it has since reopened and become the centerpiece of New York’s gay pride. In 2000, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark.
“If I created a history book for the gay community, it would follow so naturally in my mind that people just came to Stonewall after the marriage equality rulings,” said Cathy Marino-Thomas, board president of Marriage Equality USA, who joined the celebration in Greenwich Village after Wednesday’s landmark decisions. “That’s where we go to touch base with our legacy.”
“It’s a great way to bookend the movement,” said Kahn. “Not that we’re done.”
Days after the uprising, the Daily News covered the event in a story titled, Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees are Stinging Mad. Though the coverage was less than sympathetic, it did begin with a quote from a Stonewall patron, dressed in full drag, that managed to capture the crusade on the horizon: “We may have lost the battle, sweets, but the war is far from over.”