Jump to content

A time to fight


Recommended Posts

A time to fight

Stonewall Riots sparked resistance to commonplace oppression

By RYAN LEE, Southern Voice

The June 1969 weekend that became known as the Stonewall Riots is the most frequently invoked moment in gay history, and it?s just as frequently misunderstood. The three days of rioting are often credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement, although many gay people are unfamiliar with what actually triggered the rebellion, or why the gay rights movement was born in a rather shady bar.

Some people believe there was no gay activism prior to Stonewall, while others are convinced that the death of Judy Garland on June 22, 1969, got the New York queens in a fighting mood.

?No eyewitness account of the riots written at the time by an identifiable gay person mentions Judy Garland,? writes historian David Carter in his book ?Stonewall.?

?The only account written in 1969 that suggests that Garland?s death contributed to the riots is by a heterosexual who sarcastically proposes the idea to ridicule gay people and the riots.?

Additionally, Carter notes, the young gay instigators of the Stonewall Riots were not from the conservative generation of gay men who were enamored with Garland. Indeed, a civil rights movement that is derided by some as serving only wealthy white men was jump-started by homeless gay youth, drag queens of every color, and an unknown butch lesbian who, as she was being arrested and mistreated by New York City police officers, screamed to the gay onlookers, ?Why don?t you guys do something!?


Gay life prior to 1969 was marginalized to the point of invisibility. Underground gay subcultures were developing in places like New York and California, but the vast majority of gay and lesbian Americans were closeted about their sexual orientation.

Several gay rights demonstrations occurred prior to the Stonewall Riots, including an ?Annual Reminder? march that took place outside Philadelphia?s Independence Hall beginning in 1965, a picket by the Mattachine Society at the White House the same year, and an uprising by the mostly transgender patrons of the San Francisco?s Compton Cafeteria in 1966. But gay activism was in its nascent stages, and was mostly spearheaded by groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, who were intent on showing society that homosexuals were normal, upstanding citizens.


Like many gay bars of the era, the Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-run nightspot, as most upstanding businessmen were unwilling to cater to a criminal clientele. Anti-sodomy laws and the influence of organized crime made gay bars an easy target for police officers, who regularly raided such venues in order to extort hush money from owners, or arrest and embarrass the bar?s patrons.

The Stonewall Inn featured a rather diverse clientele, including black and Puerto Rican gay patrons, homeless gay youth who were dubbed ?street queens,? Wall Street employees and drag queens.

Carter quotes people in ?Stonewall? who describe the club as the ?favorite hangout of the freest of gay people ? those most likely to be labeled ?fag? and ?drag queen? and a place where ?anyone who was in the margins of gay society would be free to go there, because they were totally accepted.?


During the early hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, New York City police were engaged in one of their routine raids of the Stonewall Inn, purportedly targeting its owners. But as the belligerent officers were harassing gay patrons inside and demanding that transgender patrons be ?examined? inside bathrooms, they encountered unprecedented hostility and resistance from the Stonewall crowd.

Determined to show force, the police officers responded to the heckling and lack of cooperation by arresting many gay patrons in addition to the employees. The conflict inside the bar created a large crowd outside the Stonewall Inn, and as gay people and drag queens were forcibly escorted into paddy wagons, those being arrested continued to resist and the crowd grew increasingly contentious.

Police increased their heavy-handed tactics as the resistance continued, until the raucous crowd began throwing change, bottles and other street objects at the officers. With violence erupting outside the Stonewall Inn, the crowd forced officers to retreat inside the gay bar for safety, then blockaded the bar?s door and set it on fire.

Heavy backup arrived for both the police officers and the gay rioters, resulting in violent clashes throughout the night. A similar showdown took place the following night, followed by several milder uprisings outside the Stonewall Inn.


Not all of the Stonewall patrons were overtaken by a rebellious spirit. Many of the bar?s more conservative gay men were compliant during the police raid, fearful that an arrest might ruin their career or relationship with their family.

Drag queens are credited with igniting the resistance to the police raid inside the bar, while the conflict escalated considerably when an unidentified lesbian put up a mighty fight against police while being taken to a paddy wagon. Gay homeless youth also played a pivotal role in the Stonewall Riots, agitating the crowd outside and brazenly throwing things at police, while effeminate gay men were reportedly the fiercest fighters throughout the conflict.

Once the riots kicked into full-gear, gays of every stripe rushed to the Stonewall conflict, along with straight allies and leftist activists.


Soon after the Stonewall Riots, gay activist Dick Leitsch dubbed the incident, ?The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World.? Word of the Stonewall Riots appeared in newspapers across the country, inspiring an energy in larger cities and the realization that gay people could challenge their oppression.

The Stonewall Riots fostered consciousness and activism that allowed the gay rights movement to crystallize, and sparked annual celebrations to commemorate the uprising. Typically held during the last weekend in June, those commemorations evolved into Gay Pride parades and festivals.

? Copyright 2007 Window Media LLC

Link to comment

I very much remember the magazine and newspaper reports on Stonewall in August of that year. In fact, it was September of 1969 that I first saw the word "Gay" on a magazine cover -- in Time magazine, as a matter of fact. I was barely 15 at the time (actually 14), and was struggling to figure out who I was.

I was affected enough by the incident to make it a part of my story Groovy Kind of Love, which also took place in the turbulent period from 1968-1969. Those were rough times for a lot of people, but I think we've come a long way in 40 years. And I'm grateful for the men and women who stuck their necks out to get fair treatment for all of us.

Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...