The Stonewall Riots
The Stonewall Riots began on 28 June 1969 in the Greenwich Village area of New York City after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn. This was a watershed moment for gay rights, following years of oppression of and hostility towards the LGBT community by wider American society. Gay men and lesbians were forced to live on the fringes of society due to an intrinsically homophobic legal system. Homophobia was rife and few establishments welcomed openly gay customers. Those that did were routinely raided by the police, which was the main catalyst for the Stonewall Riots.
It also helped that this was a time when other civil rights movements and protests were happening, making the atmosphere ripe for change. The Stonewall Inn itself was actually owned by the Mafia and was popular with some of the most marginalised groups within the gay community, including drag queens, male prostitutes, homeless youths, effeminate men and members of the transgender community.
Greenwich Village had become a popular area with members of the LGBT community after World War One. Prohibition drove drinking underground along with other perceived ‘immoral’ behaviour and in the 1950s a cultural revolution took place in Greenwich Village, attracting the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who both wrote about homosexuality, to the area. In the early 1960s there was an attempt to shut down all the gay bars in Greenwich Village, with undercover police officers trying to entrap as many gay men as possible by engaging in conversation with a male customer and then arresting him for solicitation if he suggested they leave together.
There were few places for gay men and lesbians to meet and socialise openly and the establishments they frequented tended to be run by those involved in organised crime. The customers were treated badly, but the criminals paid off the police to prevent frequent raids, which was obviously important to the gay clientele who were frequently arrested and harassed. The Stonewall Inn was the only gay bar where dancing was allowed and it came to be known as ‘the’ gay bar in the city, although this obviously made it a primary target for the police.
On 28 June, 1969, an unexpected raid took place on the Stonewall Inn. Bar staff were usually tipped off before a raid due to police officers being bribed, but they weren’t in this instance. Everyone in the venue was expected to line up and produce their identification whilst anyone dressed as female was taken to the toilets to have their gender verified. However, people were unwilling to cooperate and when they were taken outside, so they could be loaded into a police van, a crowd gathered around the Stonewall Inn. The crowd became increasingly restless and hostile, which was only exacerbated by the behaviour of police officers at the scene.
As police tried to restrain people, the violence escalated. People threw beer cans and coins at the police and shouted at them in what was a spontaneous act of defiance. More police turned up and dragged people into police vans, although the transvestites in the crowd refused to be taken away. The police set about clearing the streets of people, and used brute force in some instances to ensure there were was no one around who could cause any more trouble. The night’s events were reported in the newspapers and rumours abounded in Greenwich Village as to what had caused the uprising.
The next evening even more people turned out, as certain sections of society outside the gay community decided to pay a visit to the Stonewall Inn, which was once again open, despite being badly burned the previous night. Christopher Street was crammed full of people and for the second night running there was violence, which carried on until four in the morning. The next few nights saw sporadic incidents of violence, but the main thing was that the gay community had at last found its voice.
Older gay men may have been less sympathetic towards those who used violence, as they had been campaigning on the basis that gay and straight people were the same. Thus, if gay men were open about their sexuality, especially those who were effeminate, this case seemed to be undermined. However, the Stonewall Riots were the start of something bigger. It let the world know that the LGBT community was no longer prepared to remain invisible. Indeed, the following year saw the first gay pride event take place in the United States, which went on to inspire other pride events throughout the world.