It’s hard to talk about queer history in June without talking about Stonewall. You’ve surely heard the name, and you might’ve seen the controversial movie that was recently made (and reviled) about the event. But do you know the full story?
Like some of the best things about being queer, the Stonewall riots were disorganized, decentralized, and chaotic. They came at the end of the upheaval of the 1960s, at a time when many Americans were experiencing a sexual awakening but homosexuals continued to suffer. The government tracked the movement of gay people, bars were forced to shut down and newspapers publicized people arrested for being gay.
Various groups formed to combat stigma and oppression: among them were the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, and a branch of that group in Washington D.C. led by Frank Kameny. In New York, the corrupt mayor Robert Wagner pushed a crackdown on gay citizens, compelling the police to entrap anyone even suspected of being gay by accusing them of solicitation (basically offering or attempting to purchase sex). At the time, the few “safe” places for gay people to gather were often bars run by organized crime, which paid off the police to prevent raids.
The Mafia owned the Stonewall Inn and gave weekly payoffs to the police since it had no liquor license. There was also no running water and no fire exits. But there was dancing, so it drew a reliable crowd.
Every now and then, police would raid the bar: they’d check IDs and arrest anyone in drag. Patrons had grown accustomed to such harassment, but on the night of June 28, 1969, they’d had enough.
There were around 200 people present that night, and they refused to cooperate — possibly because it was later than such raids were normally performed and everyone was a bit drunker. A crowd began to form outside, people got violent, small objects were thrown (people who were there say that people threw pennies while shouting “Here’s your payoff!” and “Coppers!”) and then finally larger items (like bottles and bricks) were thrown.
By some reports, a woman (possibly Storm Delarverie) was assaulted by police and shouted to the crowd “Why don’t you guys do something?” and then the mob went “berserk.”
There was an explosion of violence at that point, and the crowd began trying to push over police vehicles. The officers barricaded themselves inside the bar, but the mob began lighting newspapers on fire and stuffing them through the window. Eventually more reinforcements arrived, and with greater numbers the cops began attacking anyone they could.
Riots continued for a second night, and many onlookers observed that for the first time, it was possible to see displays of same-sex affection in public. It was as though the riots accidentally created the first Pride event.
Rain followed on subsequent nights, dampening any further activity. But in the coming months, activists were emboldened. They began to show affection at demonstrations, something that was unthinkable before. Militant gay groups formed like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance.
The next year, the anniversary of the riots was marked with the Christopher Street Liberation Day, with marches in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In 1971, that was expanded to even more cities. The era of Pride had officially begun.Frank Kameny