queer-flagThis year, 2009, marks the 4oth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a watershed moment in the history of the modern LGBTI-Q movement and, it must be argued, an important breakthrough in the history of the society itself.

Rowland is the instigator of the By Any Means Necessary blog, where this piece first appeared under the title "The History and Legacy of the Stonewall Rebellion."

by Rowland Keshena

The Stonewall Riots were a series of violent clashes between New York City cops and groups of gay and transgender people. It all began on the early morning of the 28th of June 1969, and proceeded to last for several days. The clashes became a watershed for the worldwide gay rights movement, never before had gay and transgender people moved and acted together in such large numbers to forcibly resist police harassment directed towards their community. My intent here is to tell the history of Stonewall, and to attempt to do justice to its legacy.

Contrary to popular belief these days, activists have actually been fighting for LGBTI-Q rights for sometime prior to the Stonewall Riots.

In 1950, a homosexual man named Harry Hay and a group of homosexual activists decided that they were fed up with their unequal treatment because of their sexual orientation. In order to begin acting and organizing against this type of oppression, they started the Mattachine Society, which had the effect and goal of unifying isolated homosexuals and also encouraged them to fight for their rights. The activism of the Mattachine Society served as an inspiration for the first student lead LGBTI-Q rights organizations. Students at colleges around the county began to see the importance of equal rights for people who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. The first of these student LGBTI-Q rights group was formed in 1967 at Colombia University in New York. This group was founded on the work of Stephen Donaldson, a student at Colombia who identified himself as a bisexual person. His inspiration came from the discrimination that he faced for simply being honest about his sexuality. The group was organized to be a Mattachine-like group, and it was called the Student Homophile League. Although he faced challenges in trying to get the University to accept the organization, Donaldson eventually received approval from the administration. While the SHL attracted negative attention from the media, it did inspire other LGBTI-Q activists to begin SHL chapters on other university and college campuses.

In 1968, the first of these spin-off groups was begun at Cornell University, also in New York by activist Jerald Moldenhaurer. When he decided to himself to take on the leadership role of the new group, he said to fellow activist Stephen Donaldson, “ the mere presence of such an organization…will help to stimulate a more honest, healthy attitude about homosexuality.”

The Struggle over Criminalization

Law enforcement raids on gay bars and discotheques were a common and not unexpected part of LGBTI-Q life in the major cities across the United States. It wasn’t until the 1960s that such raids on these bars and other centres became markedly less frequent. Most conclude that the decline in raids can be attributed to a series of court challenges and increased resistance from the Homophile Movement.

Prior to 1965, the police would sometimes record the identities of all those present at a raid, occasionally providing the information to newspapers for publication. Police used any convenient justification to make arrests on charges of indecency including kissing, holding hands, cross dressing - even merely being in the bar at the time of the raid. To say the least, it made life hell at times for members of the LGBTI-Q community who were simply trying to live their lives peacefully, not attempting to harm others.

In the year 1965, two major figures came onto the scene. The first of them was John Lindsay, a liberal Republican who was elected mayor of New York City on a reform platform. The other was Richard Leitsch, who became president of the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society. Leitsch was considered to be militant compared to his predecessors and believed in the direct action techniques commonly employed by other movements in the 1960s.

In early 1966, administration policies changed because of allegations by Mattachine that the cops were on the streets, entrapping gay men and charging them with indecency. The police commissioner, Howard Leary, instructed the police force not to lure gays into breaking the law and also required that any plain clothes officers must have a civilian witness when a LGBTI-Q person was arrested.

In the same year, in order to challenge the State Liquor Authority (SLA) regarding its policies over gay bars, Leitsch conducted a “sip in.” Leitsch had called members of the press and planned on meeting at a bar with two other gay men—a bar could have its liquor license taken away for knowingly serving a group of three or more homosexuals—to test the SLA policy of closing bars. When the bartender at Julius turned them away, they made a complaint.

The question then remains why the Stonewall bar was raided then if such LGBTI-Q institutions were now legal and on the rise. Some point to the fact the city was in the middle of a mayoral campaign and John Lindsay, who had lost his party’s primary, had reason to call for a cleanup of the city’s bars. There were a number of reasons that made the Stonewall Inn an easy target: it operated without a liquor license; had ties to organized crime; and, offering scantily clad go-go boys as entertainment.

The Stonewall Inn was frequented mainly by African-American and Hispanic homosexual men. Many of those present were also transgender and/or drag queens.

Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid on the bar that first night, claims that he was ordered to close the Stonewall Inn because it was the central location for gathering information on gay men who worked on Wall Street. The cops hypothesised that the recent increase in the number of thefts from brokerage houses on Wall Street were being carried out by LGBTI-Q men, forced to do so by blackmail.

This was far from the first time that the bar was going to be raided, indeed the patrons of the Stonewall were used to such raids and the management was even generally able to reopen for business the same night or the following day.

Saturday Morning June 28, 1969

On Saturday morning, June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn. Due the fact that raids had occurred many times in the past, and were to be expected, the Stonewall’s managers usually knew what was coming when a raid was to take place. Likewise, raids tended to occur earlier in the evening, which allowed the bar to continue with normal business for the busiest hours of the night. On June 28th, however, an unexpected raid took place at the Inn. At approximately 1:20 am, eight police officers entered the bar with a warrant authorizing a search for illegal sales of alcohol. Of the eight policemen, only one of them was a uniformed officer. The police questioned the customers and made many of them identify themselves.

The cops proceeded to escort many of them out of the bar, and some were even put under arrest. The escorted crowd became very angry and began to create a seen outside of the Stonewall. While the police loaded arrested patrons into a police van, the existing crowd initially responded with catcalls, but shortly thereafter, it exploded. They threw bottles at the officers, and even used a parking meter as a battering ram.

Heterosexual folk singer Dave van Ronk, who was walking through the area, was grabbed by the police, pulled into the bar, and beaten. The enraged crowd’s attacks were unrelenting on the cops. Word quickly spread of the riot and many residents, as well as patrons of nearby bars, rushed to the scene. When the police officers went inside the bar, the now swelling crowd blockaded the Inn and then lit it on fire. Eventually, the crowd became so large and strong that each time the police would attempt disperse them, a new group would re-form behind the police’s back, preventing them from breaking up the riot. Over the course of the next five days, the crowd of 400 protesters continued throwing bottles and lighting fires around the Inn. Police attempted to capture some of the violent rioters. If the rioters did not act fast enough, they were pushed and shoved and even clubbed to the ground by officers. Protesters in the crowd began to scream “Gay Power” and some activists dressed as drag queens started chanting:

We are the Stonewall Girls We wear our hair in curls We wear no underwear We show our pubic hair We wear our dungarees Above our nelly knees

Throughout the riot the police purposely targeted those were identified as transgendered and gender non-conformist, such as butch women and effeminate men, often clubbing them to the ground and beating them relentlessly. On the first night alone 13 people were arrested and four police officers, as well as an undetermined number of protesters, were injured. What is known, however, is that at least two rioters were severely beaten by the police. Bottles and stones were thrown by protesters who chanted “Gay Power!” The crowd, estimated at over 2000, fought with over 400 cops.

The police sent additional forces in the form of the Tactical Patrol Force, a riot-control squad originally trained to counter Vietnam War protesters. The tactical patrol force arrived to disperse the crowd. However, they also failed to do so, as the crowd sprayed them with rocks and other projectiles.

Eventually the scene became quite and less intense, however the crowd returned again the next night. While less violent than the first night, the crowd had the same energy as it had on the previous night. Skirmishes between the rioters and the police ensued until approximately 4:00 a.m.. The third day of rioting fell five days after the raid on the Stonewall Inn. On that Wednesday, 1,000 people congregated at the bar and again caused extensive property damage.

After the riots, the force and energy that was simmering beneath the surface burst to the surface. The community created by the homophile organizations of the previous two decades had created the perfect environment for the creation of a new organization, the Gay Liberation Movement. By the end of July the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had been founded in New York and by the end of the year the GLF could be seen in cities and universities around the country. Similar organizations sprung up around the world including Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.

The Beginning of Something Historic

The following year, in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, the GLF organized a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Between 5,000 and 10,000 men and women attended the march. Many gay pride celebrations choose the month of June to hold their parades and events to celebrate the riots. Many major American cities including New York City, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Columbus as well as other cities such as Toronto hold Gay Pride Marches on the last Sunday of June, in honor of Stonewall. Other cities such as Anchorage, Baltimore, Boston, Des Moines, Detroit, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, DC hold their pride parade in June but not on the last Sunday of the month. Still others, such as Dallas, Texas and Palm Springs, California, hold their celebration in another month entirely.

In 1998, an LGBTI-Q rights group in the United States formed a grouping called the Stonewall Democrats, which was obviously affiliated with the Democratic Party (I have no clue why, the democrats are only slightly better on LGBTI-Q rights than the Republicans). The group was founded by Barney Frank, a gay Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Massachusetts’s fourth congressional district.

In 2006, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Iceland enacted a law to grant same-sex couples legal rights equal with those of heterosexual couples, but the fight still continues, and the memory of Stonewall will not fade until our LGBTI-Q brothers and sisters are treated like the rest of us. Almost anywhere one looks, LGBTI-Q people have less rights than their straight counter-parts, and it goes much farther in some nations. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, the theocratic dictatorships execute people accused of as being homosexuals, often using the most horribly inhuman of methods, such as in Iran where they use slow hanging by crane which is designed to cause a slow death by strangulation, and causing the most possible suffering. And in the heart of the west, the United States, he have just witnessed the inauguration of a crypto-homophobic regime with Barack Obama, who among other things gave a place of special prominence to Rick Warren (a man who said Christians should follow Jesus like the Nazis followed Hitler and who is outspoken in support for queer killing “Christians” in Uganda and his opposition to California’s proposition 8 ) at his inaugural circus.

The fight will only end when the unjust system of capitalist patriarchy is torn down and members of the LGBTI-Q community treated like human beings!

In the Spirt of Crazy Horse and In the Spirit of Total Resistance,

Rowland Keshena

Justice, Equality, Peace, Reason, Liberty

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Caleb T. Maupin

    Yes, Long Live Stonewall!

    Here is a speech by a participant at a WWP Forum.

  • Guest - Nick R

    Stonewall means fightback! Great article, it summarizes things well, it's especially good to build the context since many people don't know about Harry Hay and the Homophile groups.

    I think it is odd some Democrats would want to be associated with a riot. Could you imagine if a group of black Congressmen named themselves after one of the many 60s urban rebellions?

    It's important to point out that Queers experience many sorts of informal oppression. There is a lot of discrimination and harassment. We are more likely to suffer from bullying while in school and it is often more severe. Queers make less money then straight cisgendered folks, this is especially true for lesbians who are doubly discriminated as gay and women, and for transfolk. There are still large amounts of violence and many hate crimes, though few make national media attention. And LGBTIQ folks are just about the only group which can experience the primary form of oppression from their own family members. there is some startling stat about how homeless youth are almost half LGBTIQ. This is from getting kicked out and running away from abusive homes.

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