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The Stonewall Riots were a
series of violent protests and street demonstrations that began on the 28th
of June 1969, around the esteemed gay bar ‘The Stonewall Inn’ located in the
Greenwich Village section of New York City. This was set to be the catalyst of
change within the gay civil rights movement in America and around the world.
This was only a few decades ago, the situation of gay men and lesbians was
radically different from what it is today – fifty years ago, homosexual sex was
illegal in every state but Illnois. There were no openly gay politicians, no television
show had any identifiable gay characters – there were no openly gay policemen,
public school teachers, doctors or lawyers (Carter, 2004, Pg.1). Tremendous
gains were made for lesbian and gay rights in the early 1970s, these were
inspired by the Stonewall Riots of 1969, in which gay men, transvestites and
lesbians fought the police during a routine raid on a popular gay club in
Greenwich Village. The riots, which continued on and off for six days, marked
the beginning of the gay rights movement. I will be analysing the significance
of this event and how it played influence in the developments of the gay civil
rights movement in America in decades that follow.

In 1969, America was
undergoing extreme social turmoil, following major developments from the
African- American civil rights movement and which dominated American culture
for the last century, which ended the legalized racial segregation and
discrimination laws in the United States – spurred by the likes of Martin
Luther King and Rosa Parks (HISTORY).  Due to this, protests were prominent
throughout the last few decades. Amongst these civil rights protests, little
were on behalf of the LGBT community- advocating for LGBT rights. These rights
were considered of low priority for most Americans at the time, but that didn’t
mean advocating wasn’t taking place. Many groups had been formed following WWII
attempting to legitimise homosexuality in American society – a major one of
these was the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.

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The Mattachine Society begun
in 1950 in the home of Harry Hay, this organization focused on assisting men
who had been arrested as “sexual deviance”, but over time, the group began to
focus more on having gays accepted into society. (Charles River Editors, 2015,
Pg. 6) They fought employment discrimination, police entrapment, bar raids and
generally attempting to legitimise being gay. They hypothesised that they would
change more minds regarding homosexuality by providing that gays and lesbians
were normal people and no different from heterosexuals (Adam, 1995, Pg. 63). Not
long after the Mattachine Society became active, a group of lesbians in San
Francisco formed the Daughters of Bilitis to assist women with similar goals as
the Mattachine Society, to simply integrate into society. Over time, these
organisations and others like them succeeded in bringing the topic of
homosexual awareness to the attention of the American people. However, gays and
lesbians were still seen by most people as perverts.

During this time, the New
York State Liquor Authority mandated that any bar catering to even one openly
homosexual customer could be closed down for being disorderly (Carter, 2004,
Pg. 48). As in 1940, the courts ruled that the NYSLA can legally close down
bars that serve ‘sex variants’ (Chauncey, 1995, Pg. 399). As a result,
organised crime ran the bars; mobs will buy the gay bars and serve over-priced,
watered-down drinks. However they also paid off police to prevent frequent
raids (Duberman, 1993, Pg. 181). By the early 1960s, undercover police officers
worked to arrest as many homosexual men as possible. This was usually done by
undercover officers approaching men in bars, engaging in conversation and if
the conversation headed towards the possibility of leaving together- he was
arrested for solicitation. Whereas when John Lindsay was elected as Mayor of
New York in 1965, the Mattachine Society was able to persuade him to end much
of the police harassment aimed at the gay community up at the time. However the
NYSLA was not flexible so they continued to target bars that were known to
serve gay customers.

One of the most popular gay
bars in New York was the Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in
Greenwich Village. Run by the Genovese family, a mafia family who also owned
several other bars in the city (Duberman, 1993, Pg.183). Once a month a police
officer would collect envelopes of cash as a payoff as the Stonewall Inn had no
liquor licence, it had no running water behind the bar – used glasses were run
through tubs of water and immediately reused (Duberman, 1993, Pg. 181). It was
the only gay bar for gay men in New York City where dancing was allowed and
that was its main appeal. Bar management typically knew about raids beforehand
due to police-tip-offs and occurred early enough in the evening that business
could commence after the police had finished. During a typical raid, the lights
were turned on, and patrons were lined up and had their identification cards
checked. Those without ID or dressed up in drag were arrested. Women were
required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if
found not wearing them – management and employees were also arrested (Duberman,
1993, Pg. 192-193).

On the 28th of
June, 1969, policemen, alongside Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector
Seymour Pine arrived at the Stonewall Inn and raided. Whereas this time, no
employees recall being tipped off. The officers begin to go through routine of
sending those dressed as women into another room with two female officers to be
examined to determine their gender and checking other patrons ID’s. Yet, the
raid didn’t go as planned as drag queens and transgendered customers that night
refused to go with the officers and the men refused to show their ID’s. Both patrons
and police recalled a sense of discomfort spreading very quickly, spurred by
police beginning to assault some of the lesbians by ‘feeling some of them up inappropriately—while
frisking them” (Carter, 2004, Pg. 141).

Those who were not arrested
were released from the front door, but didn’t leave as quickly as usual,
instead they stopped outside and a crown began to form – within minutes, 100 to
150 people were outside. Although the police were forcefully pushing/ kicking
some patrons out of the bar, it was first a festive affair, with people cheering
for friends inside emerging from the door. Performing for the crowd by walking
past the police in a feminine fashion, the crowd’s applause encouraging this
further. “Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause
were classic” (Teal, 1995, Pg. 2). The festive nature quickly turned darker
when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door to the police wagon
several times, she escaped repeatedly and fought with the police. She had been
hit in the head by an officer with a baton; the woman sparked the crowd to
fight when she shouted ‘Why don’t you guys do something?’ It was at that moment
the scene became explosive (Salon, 2017).

Police attempted to restrain
the crowd outside the Stonewall Inn, but the commotion attracted more people who
learned what was happening. Coins sailed through the air towards the police as
the crowd shouted ‘Pigs!’ and ‘Faggot cops!’ Beer cans and bricks were thrown
towards the police, outnumbered by around 500 to 600 people barricaded
themselves inside the Stonewall Inn for their own safety.  Multiple accounts state there was no
pre-existing apparent cause for this demonstration, Michael Fader explained, “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of
shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind
of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular
night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration…
Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the
last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from
us…. All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total
outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran
its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were
really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at
last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to
be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like
standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s
what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a
long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms,
but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t” (Carter, 2004, Pg. 160).

Following this, bins,
bottles, rocks and bricks were all hurled at the building, breaking the windows
and setting fire to the inside of the Stonewall . Witnesses’ claim that those most
outcasted people in the gay community such as the homeless youth were
responsible for spurring on the violence in the streets. The Mattachine
Society, offered its explanation of why these riots occurred “It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or
cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering… The Stonewall
became home to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and
the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and
broadminded gay place in town, explains why” (Teal, 1995, Pg. 13).

Quickly after the pinnacle of the riots, the Tactical
Patrol Force of the New York City Police Department arrived, freeing the police
and patrons trapped inside the Stonewall. Witness Bob Kohler, a gay activist
and considered by many to be the father of the Stonewall Movement saw the
patrol force enter, he stated “the cops were totally humiliated – this never,
ever happened – they were angrier that I guess they had never been, because
everybody else has rioted, but the fairies were not supposed to riot, no group
had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous. I mean,
they wanted to kill us” (Charles, 2015, Pg. 29). From this the police began to
retain order and formed into a phalanx – standing together and moving in close formation
in order to disperse the crowd.  The mob
was openly mocking the police by forming kick lines in opposition.

The night following this, riots occurred again
around Christopher Street, many of the same people returned from the previous
evening, street youths, drag queens, but they were joined by curious bystanders
and even tourists. The sudden exhibition of homosexual affection in public was
described as remarkable for some. As one witness recalls “From going to places
where you had to know on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in
order to get in. we were just out. We were in the streets” (Carter, 2004, Pg.
185). Although now the actions that took place are now considered monumental in
developments of the gay civil rights movement, not everyone in the gay
community considered the revolt a positive development. Especially to older
homosexuals and members of the Mattachine Society who had worked throughout the
60s to promote homosexuals as no different from heterosexuals, the display of
violence was embarrassing.



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