The confrontations between demonstrators and police at The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village over the weekend of June 27-29, 1969 are usually cited as the beginning of the modern movement for Lesbian/Gay liberation. What might have been a routine police raid on a bar patronized by homosexuals, became a signal event which sparked a movement. The Stonewall riots have developed into the stuff of myth, about which many of the most commonly held beliefs are probably untrue.
In 1969, it was illegal to operate any business catering to homosexuals in New York City — as it still is, today in 1991, in many places in the United States and eleswhere. The standard
procedure was for the New York City police to raid such establishments on a semi-regular basis, to arrest a few of the most obvious ‘types’ and to fine the owners prior to letting business continue as usual by the next evening. It has been suggested that the majority of the patrons at the Stonewall Inn were black and hispanic drag queens, but perhaps the goddess has always valued these rare creatures much too highly to ever let them become a majority. In fact, most of the patrons that evening were most likely young, college-age white men expecting to spend the rest of their lives in the quiet desperation of the middle-class closet. They knew that it was reasonably safe to enter the Stonewall Inn precisely because there were a few colored drag queens, butch bulldykes and others whose double-minority status made them far more likely candidates for arrest; this gave everyone else time to cover their faces and run for the nearest exit.
After midnight June 27-28, 1969, four men and two women from the New York Tactical Police Force called a raid on The Stonewall Inn at 55 Christopher Street. After leaving the bar, many of the patrons decided to wait around outside while the police dispatched the ‘usual suspects’ into the vans. It is said that this was the first time where Lesbians and Gay men fought back; in fact, there had already been several incidents in both Los Angeles and New York where sizable groups of Gays had resisted arrest. More to the point, the queens
targeted for arrest had always fought back, alone and unsupported as they were led time and again to the vans. What was unique about Stonewall and gives it a resonance which continues to inspire today was that it was perhaps the first time when Lesbians and Gay men as a group were able to see beyond the lipstick and the high heels, beyond the skin color and recognize the oppression which threatens us all.
The greatest great myth concerning the Stonewall riots is that it was a Lesbian/Gay event. It is likely that many of those who began pitching pennies, then beer bottles, at the police that night weren’t even homosexual. The only publicly reported arrest was a straight folk singer who was appearing next door and who joined the melee after leaving work. The streets of Greenwich Village were home to many young people whose politics were defined by the blossoming anti-war movement, left-wing political ideologies and the successes of the Women’s liberation and Black Civil Rights movements. Like their Lesbian/Gay brothers and sisters, they were prepared to recognize oppression and thus willing to respond to it. (Anyone who thinks being able to see oppression is easy has to only remember the
Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.)
In all, some 300 to 400 people became involved in the attempt to stop the arrests, erupting into violent protest. The police and the bar owners, who were percieved to be part of the repressive system at work, barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn for protection.
While they awaited reinforcements, the crowd outside attempted to burn the bar down with the cops inside. Eventually, a squadron of patrol cars arrived and chased the crowd away from the bar, and then around the narrow village streets for several hours. The following night, a new crowd assembled outside the Stonewall and rioted when the police attempted to break it up. Provocative articles appearing in the NY Post, Daily News and especially The Village Voice helped to consolidate Gay willingness to fight back.
Within a few days, representatives of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis organized the city’s first ever “Gay Power” rally in Washington Square. On July 27, 1969, speeches by Martha Shelley and Marty Robinson were followed by a candlelight march to
the site of the Stonewall Inn. Five hundred people people showed up, thought to have included almost the entire ‘out-of-the-closet’ population of Lesbians and Gay men in New York, as well as their supporters from the political left. The rest as they say is history… STONEWALL: The Movement
Before Stonewall, there were a number of groups working for homosexual rights, ever since the concept had been defined in nineteenth century Germany, home to the world’s first poltically organized movement. In the United States, since April 1965, Frank Kameny of Washington, DC had been organizing Homosexual Reminder Days on the ellipse across from the White House and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These were sedate affairs of a few dozen picketers with the men in jackets and ties and the Lesbians in skirts and dresses. Their prinicpal demand was for civil service protection and the right of homosexuals to hold government jobs. The New York delegation that attended the July 4th picket in 1969, one week after Stonewall, held hand and shouted down the other marchers. This was the last Homosexual Reminder Day and a clear sign that the Stonewall riots had set something new in motion.
During the first year after Stonewall, a whole new generation of organizations emerged, many identifying themselves for the first time as “Gay” meaning not only a sexual orientation, but a radical new basis for self-identification and with a sense of open political activism. Older groups such as the Mattachine Society or the Westside Discussion Group whose members had used first names or altogether fictitious ones to protect their identities soon made way for the Gay Liberation Front and the various regional Gay Activists Alliances. The vast majority of these new activists were under thirty, new to political organizing and believed everything was possible. Many groups were affiliated with specific colleges and universities, again
with “Gay” replacing “Homophile” in the names of most older groups and almost all new ones. By the summer of 1970, groups in at least eight American cities were sufficiently organized to schedule simultaneous events commemorating the Stonewall riots for the last
Sunday in June.