What Are The Stonewall Riots? | LGBTQ+ History
Why do we celebrate Pride?
What does the Mafia have to do with it?
Did trans people of color create Pride?
What are the Stonewall Riots?
It’s the 1960’s and being gay has been officially marked as a mental disorder determined by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952. Homosexuality was also illegal in 49 states which meant you were getting fined or thrown in jail if you were out and let’s not forget about the violence and unfair treatment that came with it. Gays of all ages were getting kicked out of their homes, leading them to move to big cities with the hope of finding people like them, and more opportunities. Sadly they soon found out that big cities did not accept the LGBT+ community either.
In NYC, Mayor Robert F Wagner Jr put through a brutal campaign to shut down gay bars in NY. The NY state liquor authority jumped onboard this idea, by saying they’ll shut down those bars that didn’t follow the rules.
But what group was scary enough to get away with breaking the law?
Tucked away in a busy Manhattan street was a small dingey bar named the Stonewall Inn. This was no ordinary bar in the 60’s, this was a gay bar. The only gay bar in NY that allowed dancing. The cops would still come through to shut the party down since all of that was illegal. But how was it able to still run while breaking the law?
Well, Stonewall inn was run by the Italian mafia. Fat Tony bought the Stonewall Inn in 1966 and it turned the straight restaurant into a gay bar? You might be thinking, why would they do that? Was this mafia member a gay ally? Absolutely not. Fat Tony was a businessman and saw a cruel way of getting money. He knew the gays would be desperate to find a gay spot so he created it.
The Stonewall inn was filthy, had expensive water down drinks, cups were washed in dirty water and the mafia bullied people if they felt like it. Rich customers were a prime target for the mafia, they’d get them to send them money or the mafia would threaten to out them to their family, friends, and job. Which would leave most people abandoned, lonely, and fired. Threatening the rich actually gave more money to the mafia than the bar.nThe mafia treated their customers like crap, but they knew they could get away with it. They also knew that they could pay off the cops to avoid shutting it down.
This is what made The Stonewall Inn a hot spot for the LGBTQ+ community. However, there were times when the cops did come in to shut it down. Staff would turn on the bright white lights to warn everyone that their bar was about to be raided by cops. This was a cue to stop dancing, kissing, holding hands, dressing in drag or the cops will get you. Unfortunately, many people did not act quickly enough.
The cops charged people with “solicitation of homosexual relations.” Men dressed in women’s clothes were taken to the bathroom to verify their gender, same for women who dressed in men’s clothes. They were later arrested and beaten, along with those who didn’t show ID.
Sometimes the newspapers would even expose the customers and out them when they were caught by the cops. On top of that, the cops would beat and abuse them. But one night, the people of Stonewall Inn fought back.
The date is June 28th, 1969. It’s a Saturday night and Stonewall inn customers were dancing the night away. What they didn’t know was that undercover cops were there checking to see if people at the gay bar were doing gay things.
They quickly found out, yea… they doing gay things…in the gay bar.
Those cops spread the word about this and 9 police officers stormed in to shut down the place. Everyone was pretty surprised because usually, the cops would come at the very end of the night, but it was 1:20 am, and in NY time this was still early for a night out. The cops came in aggressively, yelling and pushing the crowd. Those who weren’t caught in a homosexual act were forced out of the bar and told to go home. For the crowd that was caught flirting or crossdressing, the police demanded ID and told others to go to the bathroom to prove their gender. But this time the crowd said no.
And for the crowd outside, they did not go home, the crowd of people got bigger and they all stood in front of the stonewall inn. Then the cops started beating the people in the bar. The more the crowd saw how badly beaten their peers were, the angrier they got. One lesbian drag king was clubbed over the head and dragged out of the bar, she yelled to the crowd, “why don’t you do something?” This is when the crowd fought back. This person was known as Storme Delarverie and was said to be the one who kicked off the riot.
People started throwing things at the abusive cops. Pennies, bottles, rocks, they threw whatever they could find. People from nearby bars came out to see what was going on and they ended up joining in. A construction site was nearby and then bricks started to be thrown.
Some say trans activist Marsha P Johnson was the first to throw a brick but she responded: She got there after. (clip)
Then activist Sylvia Rivera was said to have thrown the brick but she jokingly responded, she threw the second. (clip)
I’ll talk more about them later.
It’s a Stonewall mystery, to this day no one has an official answer, but what we do know is during that fight the cops were scared and outnumbered, so they ran back inside the bar for safety. They dragged in a few gay customers as hostages to keep them safe. That didn’t work though, because someone set the bar on fire. A huge army of police showed up as the cops inside called for help, but there were already over 100 angry people outside. Everyone in the burning building was able to get out.
The tactile police force came and formed a line to block the crowd. But to their surprise, the crowd also formed a line. But this line was different. It was a kicking line that mocked the cops. The crowd danced and sang, “we are the stonewall girls we wear out hair in curls.”
Eventually, the night calmed down. Many people in the crowd were hospitalized, 13 were arrested and 4 cops were injured.
The next day Stonewall was all over the news. The cops thought that this was over, but the news drew so much attention to that night. Protestors started arriving outside of the Stonewall Inn in a fight for equality. The crowd grew from hundreds to thousands of people, from gays to allies, to tourists to people that just wanted to experience that moment.
The newspapers described the LGBTQ+ community as wild and that they were causing a riot. But you hear a different story from those that were there. This lasted for 5 days, some even stayed for about 7 days. Many new movements happened because of The Stonewall Riots.
The Gay Liberation Front and Pride were all the outcomes of these events. And many more came after that. All these groups made huge changes for the LGBTQ+ community.
The first Gay Pride was organized on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, June 28th, 1970. It was celebrated in NYC, LA, San Francisco, and Chicago also joined the movement. People were kissing in the street, marching for equality and they marched with Pride. Pride for who they are and letting go of the self hatred.
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Activists like Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera marched for their rights as well. Although these two women didn’t start the riot they are important figures in the queer community. Trans people received hate even within the gay community. They were actually told not to come to Pride, but Marsha and Sylvia came and marched for their community. They even created the STAR program, which stood for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaires where they would provide housing and support to homeless LGBT youth and sex workers.
More and more activists started to take action and fight for their people. The world couldn’t believe it. LGBTQ+ people were demanding their rights and slowly getting what they demanded. There were gay groups that fought for justice like the Mattachine, but it was never done like this before.
That’s not to say that groups like the Mattachine weren’t important, because they did help give us the rights that we have today, but their approach was way more traditional and peaceful. Whereas the newer generation of activists was in your face and fearless. They wanted all their rights, rather than just a few rights to fit into society’s standards. They knew that they were normal, and it was the society that had to fix their homophobic views.
The point of pride is to recognize that we are still fighting that fight today, but acknowledge that we have come a long way. We’re celebrating those who fought for us years ago, to make it possible to say, “yea I’m gay and I love myself.”
The Stonewall Inn is still up and running. Don’t worry the mafia doesn’t own it now. It’s a safe space to celebrate, mourn and gather to make changes. And on June 24th, 2016, President Obama named Stonewall inn and the area surrounding it a national monument. It’s the first national monument to celebrate gay history in The US.
As for Pride, it’s celebrated not just in NY, not just in The US, but around the world. We’ve come a long way from being arrested for holding hands. So make sure you remember that next time you celebrate Pride.
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