As Pride Month ends this week, it seems fitting to close with the catalyst for its existence: the Stonewall Uprising. Often considered the spark in the LGBTQ+ rights movement, the six-day rebellion was a pivotal moment in U.S. and LGBTQ+ history (Library of Congress).
• Support organizations like SAGE, Stonewall Rebellion Veterans Association, and Rainbow Seniors ROC advocating for and providing services to LGBTQ+ elders.
• Support TKO Society, Alliance for LGBTQ Youth, Born Perfect, MN Deaf Queers, and the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project.
• Listen to LGBT+ elders’ stories with Not Another Second. Support initiatives to preserve LGBTQ+ history and share stories.
• Watch footage and commentary from the first pride demonstration in honor of the uprising.
What was the Stonewall Uprising?
The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a popular gay bar, one of the few that allowed homeless gay youths, “lesbians, queens, overly effeminate men, or transgender patrons through their doors” (The Modern Met). The Mafia-owned bar was familiar with police raids, with one held days before the uprising.
On June 28, 1969, police raided the bar again, using brute force and billy clubs to arrest bar employees, drag queens, and cross-dressing patrons. Driven by the fatigue and outrage at over-policing and mistreatment, the crowd retaliated by throwing trash, coins, and bottles and uprooting parking meters, causing the police to retreat and barricade themselves into the Stonewall Inn. Protests continued for several more days.
What was the lead-up to the uprising?
The LGBTQ+ community has long been subjected to hostility, discrimination, persecution, and isolation in this country (PBS). In the 20th century, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder and a threat to national security. The “lavender scare” in the 1950s led to thousands of gay men and women being discharged, fired, and eventually banned from the armed forces and federal government.
Since homosexuality and cross-dressing (or the three-article rule, requiring individuals to wear three articles of clothing of their birth-assigned sex or be arrested) were illegal in most states, including New York, members of the LGBTQ+ community carved out spaces in bars and clubs as a refuge where they could discretely build community and express themselves freely.
Police still routinely raided these spaces throughout the 50s-70s, lining up patrons and checking IDs (or genitalia) to see if they matched their gender presentation (History). These incidents often led to arrests, blackmailing, dehumanization, hospitalization, and murder of LGBTQ+ patrons (LOC).
Why “uprising” or “rebellion,” not “riot”?
Though commonly referred to as the Stonewall Riots, veterans of the rebellion often emphasize that “the reference to these events as riots [were] initially used by police to justify their use of force” (LOC).
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot,” said Stormé DeLarverie, activist, drag performer, and the “butch lesbian” considered to have thrown the first punch at Stonewall (GQ, The Riveter).
Who started the uprising?
Since most of what we know comes from conflicting eyewitness accounts, it’s unclear who threw the first “brick” at Stonewall.
Activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson is often credited, though she asserted she arrived after “the place was already on fire” (Southern Poverty Law Center).
Several witnesses say it was a woman in handcuffs, believed to be DeLarverie, calling out to the crowd, “Why don’t you do something?” after being clubbed in the face that spurred the crowd into action (New York Times).
The whitewashing and sanitizing of the LGBTQ+ liberation movement (then and today) to fit into a socially acceptable and respectable cis-white box (Washington Post) meant that trans activists and queer activists of color were sidelined and erased from their integral role in the movement.
Was Stonewall the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement?
Not exactly. Though credited as sparking the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBTQ+ rights, smaller-scale moments of civil disobedience and activism pre-dated Stonewall.
Others, like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, formed following World War II, raising awareness of civil rights violations, including employment discrimination, homophobic laws, and police brutality.
They launched public campaigns inspired by tactics from the civil rights movement, like sit-ins and “sip-ins,” which helped draw attention to anti-gay liquor laws that denied the serving of alcohol to LGBTQ+ individuals. A 1966 sip-in at a bar in NYC helped end the rule, decreasing police raids of gay bars, thus allowing the community to reclaim “their safe havens” (History).
Other uprisings and protests include:
- The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco was led by a group of trans women and drag queens against police harassment in 1966.
- Milwaukee’s Black Nite brawl in 1961 was led by a Black “gender nonconforming, self-described ‘queen'” defending the LGBT-centered bar against a gang of intolerant servicemen (Radio Milwaukee).
- Reminder Day Pickets in Philadelphia from 1965-1968 was led by homophile activists to remind the public that gays and lesbians were being denied basic human rights (History).
- The 1968 Patch Bar “Flower Power” protest in Los Angeles, where patrons from the LGBTQ bar carried large flower bouquets while occupying the police lobby until bail was set for two gay men arrested during a raid.
These, including the Stonewall Uprising, are just some of the countless recorded rebellions and actions that helped shape and propel the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
What happened post-Stonewall and the start of Pride?
Following the Stonewall Uprising, more than 1500 LGBTQ+ liberation and activist groups formed across the U.S. and internationally (Library of Congress). This included groups formed and led by people of color and trans folks often excluded and underrepresented in the predominately white mainstream gay rights/homophile movement.
More militant and resistant forms of queer activism came out of the uprising.
On the first anniversary of Stonewall, the first gay pride event was born, known then as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March (LOC). Adapted from the Reminder Day Pickets, it commemorated the uprising and was a mass demonstration for LGBTQ+ rights. Pride events were held in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago that first year but spread nationally and internationally in the years to come, transforming from the radical demonstrations to the parades and festivals we see today.