“The door of the Stonewall had wrought-iron bars across this little peephole, a little wooden thing that slid open. And the man inside would look at you and, if you looked like you belonged there, would let you in.” ~ Chris Babick, describing the entrance to The Stonewall Inn
The Stonewall Inn, a small bar located in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, was the unlikely site for the birthplace of the modern gay right’s movement. On the night of June 28, 1969, it became a battlefield between homosexual (gay, same gender loving) patrons and local police. This battle was the first of many that were fought throughout the world in the struggle for the dignity and equality of homosexuals everywhere. “Gay Liberation” was born here on this night.
“There was no Gay Pride before Stonewall, Edmund White has written, ‘only gay fear and gay isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred.’ ” John Strausbaugh in The Village
The image below shows the Stonewall Inn as it appeared in 1969. The message that is written across the window encourages all homosexuals to behave orderly and to help keep the neighborhood quiet and respectable.
The Stonewall Inn (the bar only, it was never a hotel) opened as a gay bar in 1967. Prior to that, it had been a stable (for horses), a French bakery, a tearoom and lastly, a restaurant that was burned out of business. When it initially opened as a homosexual bar, the management was Mafia-affiliated and closely connected to organized crime. The gay night-club consisted of two main rooms, each with its own dance floor. The front room was popular with older gays and the back room attracted the younger ones.
At the time of the Stonewall Riots (as they would later be identified), it was unlawful for homosexuals to gather in public and homosexual intimacy was illegal in every state in the United States except Illinois. Same gender loving persons could be fired from their jobs without any legal recourse. They were ridiculed and attacked publicly often without any consequence. Simply being a homosexual was considered an antisocial and criminal act. Everyone was required, by law, to wear clothing appropriate for their birth gender. The only exception was for Halloween.
Because of this discriminating, restrictive and oppressive environment, most homosexuals (as they were known at the time), hid their sexuality. They were known only to their closest friends as such. To their families, coworkers and employers, and society at large, they tried to fit the heterosexual model. Hence the phrase “living in the closet.” Only a very few dared to live their life as openly homosexual.
Friday evening, June 27, 1969, was a hot, muggy start to a weekend. Most of the patrons gathered inside the Stonewall Inn were looking forward to a night of dancing with their friends, relaxing with cocktails and enjoying a summer’s night in New York City. They had no idea that they were about to witness a historical event that would change their lives, and the homosexual world, forever.
Both the dance floors at the Stonewall Inn were full of dancing men, having a good time and happy to be alive. The crowd had partied their Friday evening and it was now after midnight. The new day, June 28, 1969, was now in its infancy. As the music surged through the bar, everyone was scarcely aware that the date had changed. Suddenly, the music stopped. The lights that were dimmed to enhance the atmosphere came back on in a glare that caught everyone by surprise. Almost at once, the realization dawned on the festive crowd: the police were raiding the bar.
The New York City Police Department was long familiar with conducting raids on gay and lesbian bars. Their process was fairly routine and they all recognized homosexuals as a relatively compliant and passive crowd. For this reason, only one police transport vehicle (paddy wagon) and one marked squad car were involved in the raid. Less than a dozen officers were assigned the task of managing and segregating the patrons, confiscating all the alcohol and arresting the Stonewall employees.
“The police weren’t letting us dance. If there’s one place in the world where you can dance and feel yourself fully as a person and that’s threatened with being taken away, those words are fighting words.” ~ Tommy Lanigen-Schmidt, participant in the Stonewall Riots
The arrival of the police raiding party caused pandemonium to erupt inside the Stonewall Inn. Patrons searched in vain for an escape route or a place to hide. The police immediately began confiscating both liquor and beer as evidence against the establishment and segregating the crowd: bar employees, cross-dressers (transgender persons) and then the “regular” homosexuals. The bar employees and cross-dressers were to be arrested for their violating the law. The mainstream population, once they showed officers their proper identification, would be permitted to leave.
The year, 1969, was at the end of a decade that had witnessed massive social unrest. The African-American protests for civil rights, the birth of the feminist and women’s rights movements, the anti-Vietnam war protests and the equal pay demonstrations for the primarily Latino immigrant farm workers were underway during this time. The homosexuals who had participated in some of these public protests were energized and many wondered when their time for equality would happen. Little did they, and the police raiding the Stonewall Inn, realize that that moment had arrived.
As the police began checking the identities of those inside the Stonewall Inn, those with proper credentials were released and herded outside the bar. Only this time, instead of simply leaving the premises, they congregated on the sidewalks and at a nearby park. Once law enforcement attempted to disperse them, they grew confrontational and refused to disperse.
The police, unaccustomed to homosexual defiance, continued to press the order to vacate the area. The crowd, emboldened by their frustration with being treated as “deviants” and second-class citizens, began to chant and to empty trash cans and hurl the garbage at the officers.
At this time, passers-by, curious as to what was happening, started to join the upset bar patrons and express their dissatisfaction with the raid. The crowd outside the Stonewall Inn began to grow in both number, anger and curiosity. Once the word of what had transpired inside began to spread, even more homosexuals started to descend into the Greenwich Village neighborhood and congregate in the bar’s vicinity.
“You could hear screaming outside, a lot of noise from the protesters, and it was a good sound. It was a real good sound to know that, you know, you had a lot of people out there pulling for you.” ~ Raymond Castro, a Stonewall Inn patron being detained inside the bar during its siege
By this time, the police trapped inside the bar understood that the situation had gotten beyond their control. They tried to call for reinforcements but were unable to reach any source for assistance. They had secured the facility but were trapped inside and the crowd outside was swelling in both size and fury. A few hundred bar patrons had now grown to a mob of several thousand and more were joining by the minute.
No one in the New York City Police Department had anticipated the homosexuals, always believed to be meek and mild, to fight back. The years of oppression, ridicule and abuse had taken its toll and the frustration now became revolution, and the time for retribution was at hand. Unfortunately for the police, all the years of frustration at the hands of law enforcement was now being released and returned in kind. The police were now prisoners inside the Stonewall Inn.
Less than two hours after the raid had begun, the police raiders, and their “detainees,” were trapped and no relief was in sight. The two-way communication devices between the raiding party and their office weren’t working and the only working pay-phone inside the Stonewall bar wasn’t able to connect with any local police precincts. All of a sudden, after almost a decade of African-American civil rights demonstrations, anti-Vietnam War protests, and feminist equality actions, the “harmless” homosexuals had finally achieved a “first” in their spontaneous riot: the police were contained, surrounded and they were all very nervous. By this time, the crowd outside the Greenwich Village bar now numbered several thousand.
In an effort to relieve the inflammatory situation, the police decided to send the detainees and half the officers trapped inside the Stonewall in the two police vehicles to the closest precinct. There, the detainees would be processed into the custodial system and the officers could make arrangements for a police riot force to rescue the remaining law enforcement personnel. This relief effort finally returned to the bar and dispersed the angry mob of homosexuals and curious onlookers over an hour later.
“I was sure we were gonna be killed.” ~ Howard Smith, reporter for the local newspaper, Village Voice, recalling the siege of the Stonewall Inn
Despite damage to the Stonewall Inn and the loss of the license to sell alcoholic beverages, the bar opened for business (primarily dancing) the following night. By Saturday night, June 28, 1969, word of the disturbance the previous evening had spread throughout New York City’s closeted homosexual community (mostly by word-of-mouth). A larger than usual crowd had gathered both inside and outside the Greenwich Village establishment. Most didn’t expect a repeat of the raid the night before and a significant number of those who showed up mostly wanted to see the damage from the night before.
The City’s police department, however, had different ideas. They were outside the Stonewall Inn in full force with a large number in riot gear. They had learned their lesson from the previous evening and were determined to remain in full control should the crowd become unruly again.
The homosexuals had been empowered by the riot the night before and weren’t about to be bullied into submission again. As the large police presence attempted to disperse those gathered outside the bar, they were confronted with verbal insults and an array of street-savvy tactics that saw law enforcement chase off onlookers, only to have them run around the block and return again. Silent obedience to uniformed policemen was no longer a fact of life for New York’s homosexual citizens. They were tired of suffering abuse, disrespect and treatment as second-class citizens.
The second night of the last June, 1969, weekend wasn’t as disruptive as the one before. No further damage was done to the bar facility. However, an awakening consciousness was raised within the City’s homosexual community that would change the way that society viewed them and also the way that they perceived themselves.
“I was angry, and it’s funny, the immediate gay consciousness that happened to me.” ~ Kevin Brew, recollecting the impact of the Stonewall riots
What was widely ignored in the general media was widespread news within the underground homosexual network that existed in the late 1960’s world. For the first time, the often assumed “meek and mild” homosexuals stood up for their rights and demonstrated that they, as a community, had “had enough.” They were now prepared to make a stand for not only their collective rights as human beings but their communal rights as well. For gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (GLBTQ) people throughout the world, the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969 became their “D-Day.” There was no turning back now.
Ann Bausum: Stonewall: Breaking Out for Gay Rights
Martin P. Duberman: Stonewall: A History
John Strausbaugh: The Village
Historic photograph credits:
Bettman Archive, Google Images