The History of Stonewall

Thursday, June 28, 2018, will mark the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall Riots were a series of spontaneous, often times violent, demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that took place in early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States.

Gay Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s faced an anti-homosexual legal system, which declared homosexual acts as criminal, and thereby homosexuals as criminals. Society as a whole viewed homosexuals as deviants, subject to discrimination and violence. The end of the 1960’s, however, was very contentious, with many social movements, the counterculture of the 1960’s, and antiwar demonstrations, changing the way American Society viewed itself. These influences, along with the liberal environment of Greenwich Village, served as catalysts for the Stonewall riots.

Very few establishments welcomed openly gay people in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Those that did were often bars, although bar owners and managers were rarely gay. One of those bars, the Stonewall Inn, was owned by the Mafia. The bar catered to an assortment of patrons and was known to be popular among the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: effeminate young men, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960’s.

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a group of gay customers at a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn, who had grown angry at the harassment by police, took a stand and a riot broke out. As word spread throughout the city about the demonstration, the customers of the inn were soon joined by other gay man and women who started throwing objects at the policemen while shouting gay power. Police reinforcements arrived and beat the crowd away. Tensions between New York City Police and gay residents of Greenwich village erupted into more protest the next evening and again several nights later. Each night the crowd returned, even larger than the night before, with numbers reaching over one thousand. For hours, protesters rioted outside the Stonewall Inn and officers quickly lost control of the situation until the police sent a riot-control squad to disperse the crowd.

After the Stonewall riots, Gays and Lesbians in New York City faced gender, race, class and generational obstacles to becoming a cohesive community. Within weeks, village residents quickly organized into activist groups to concentrate efforts on establishing places for gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of being arrested. Within six months, two gay activist organizations were formed in New York concentrating on confrontational tactics, and three newspapers were established to promote rights for gays and lesbians.

On June 28, 1970, the first Gay Pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago commemorating the anniversary of the riots. Similar marches were organized in other cities. Within a few years, gay rights organizations were founded across the U.S. and the world. Today, Gay Pride events are held annually throughout the world toward the end of June to mark the Stonewall riots.

The ongoing struggle for equal rights for the LGBTQA community has made amazing progress in the years since Stonewall. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1963, the penalties for sodomy in the various states varied from imprisonment for two to ten years and/or a fine of up to $2,000. By 2002, 36 states had repealed all sodomy laws or had them overturned by court rulings. The remaining sodomy laws were invalidated by the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. On February 28, 1994, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) became the official United States policy on service by gays and lesbians in the military. On September 20, 2011, it officially ended. The U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, attempting to define marriage for the first time solely as a union between a man and a woman for all federal purposes, and allowing states to refuse to recognize such marriages created in other states. On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court, stated that “DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment”. Currently same sex marriages are legal in many states and recognized by many federal departments.

As we celebrate Stonewall, we celebrate all of the achievements since those riots. But we also must challenge ourselves to continue to work for equal rights for all.

Transgendered people are facing new prejudices as they own their identities. In many places people can still loose their jobs because of who they are. And most importantly, way too many people lose their lives because of bullying and intolerance.

In the 1960’s the letters “LGBTQA” began to be used to replace the term “the gay community”.In the 1990’s we added the letter “T” to include transgendered persons. In 1996 some have added a “Q” to reclaim and own the term “Queer”, (while others use it as questioning) and some are now adding n “A” to represent our allies. As we recognize the diversity of our community, we also acknowledge that the legacy of Stonewall is not just about bars, white guys and drag queens. Our community includes male, female and transgendered. It is made up of people of many races, cultures and ethnic identities. It is now a worldwide community where we know many are still murdered and discriminated against for being true to their own identities.

Stonewall is not just about our past, it is about the future! It is a rallying cry to demand equal rights and justice for all. As we celebrate, we unite our voices in joy, in hope and in determination.