Out of the closets and into the streets: the legacy of the Stonewall Riots
More than 50 years ago, a riot at a grimy bar in New York City kick-started the nascent US gay rights movement. Writing for BBC World Histories magazine, Chris Parkes explores how the Stonewall Riots transformed the lives of queer people around the world
In the sweltering heat of a late June night in 1969, a police raid on a dingy bar on the West Side of Manhattan sparked a riot that became the emblem of a revolution. It was the second bust on the bar that week; the police knew that the establishment operated without a liquor licence, and was owned by a mafia mobster who ran an enormous blackmail ring targeting gay men in the city’s financial district. The bar catered to people some saw as the ‘dregs’ of the homosexual community in New York City – drag queens, street kids, drug dealers – none of whom was expected to put up much of a fight.
Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, the officer coordinating the raid, took no chances. He secured a warrant, requested the presence of an inspector from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and assembled nine officers to conduct the raid with him, including two female undercover officers to frisk suspected ‘transvestites’. He even ensured a federal agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attended, to ensure that the raid would shut down the bar for good.
Just after 1am on 28 June, Pine and his men walked across Christopher Street Park, pushed open the door of the bar and hollered: “Police! We’re taking the place!”Philip Eagles, one of the gay men inside, recalls thinking to himself: “Here we go again.”
The events that unfolded over the following hours and days transformed the social, political and cultural landscape for sexual minorities in the United States, and reverberated across borders and down generations. This moment was, as gay activist Dick Leitsch described it, “the hairpin drop heard around the world” – the phrase ‘hairpin drop’ being commonly employed to subtly indicate that its user was homosexual.
As the police frogmarched handcuffed clubgoers into paddywagons, the mood quickly changed from “skittish hilarity” to anger. After being shoved by an officer who was leading her out of the bar, a transvestite bopped him on the head with her purse. In retaliation, the officer smashed her with his nightstick (truncheon), infuriating the swelling crowd. A butch lesbian and drag king, identified by some as New Orleans entertainer Stormé DeLarverie, was led out in handcuffs and began tussling with the officers as she was hauled toward the waiting police cars. Kicking and cursing, she yelled to those around her: “Why don’t you guys do something?”
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Her cry struck a chord. Soon the crowd began pelting the officers with coins, bottles, bricks and cobblestones. Unnerved, the police retreated into the club and called for backup. The throng grew larger and began throwing Molotov cocktails, scurrying up and down Greenwich Village’s tangle of side streets and alleyways to evade the riot police who arrived to provide reinforcements. “There was never any time that I felt more scared than I felt that night,” Pine – a veteran of the Second World War – later recalled.
The crowd finally dispersed around 4am, but returned the following night, joined by thrilled and fascinated onlookers. There was a sense of disbelief that a riot of queer people had not just fought back against the police but made them run. “Everybody in America who had a beef had already rioted,” one witness recalled. “The fairies were not supposed to riot.” But they did – and for two nights and days “Christopher Street belonged to the queens”.
Listen: Chris Parkes explores the background to the Stonewall riots and shows how the episode became a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history
Love in the shadows
For the most part, life as a queer person in the 1960s was not a riot. Legal prohibitions on sodomy remained on the books in every US jurisdiction except Illinois; breaking these laws carried penalties of up to 15 years in prison. Indeed, at that time no form of same-sex relationship was legally recognised anywhere in the world.
There was a sense of disbelief that a riot of queer people had not just fought back against the police but made them run
Homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, and was ‘treated’ with hideous ‘remedies’: shock therapy, forced sterilisation, lobotomies. Queer people, particularly those who were gender nonconforming, were fired or evicted without cause, disbarred from professional associations, denied government benefits, harassed by the police and assaulted. Those who publicly revealed their sexual identities were often ostracised by their families and friends; those who stayed in the closet lived in constant fear of exposure. Some led double lives, agonising about being recognised by the wrong person or being betrayed by the smallest of gestures that might raise suspicions about their sexuality. To be queer in America in the 1960s was to live in the shadows and with a target on your back.
Yet, despite the immensity of the injustices visited upon queer people, there were relatively few outlets for resistance. The nascent homophile movement, started in Los Angeles in 1950 by ex-Communist Harry Hay, had organised pickets against federal workplace discrimination, but accomplished little. Police raids on queer-friendly establishments in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City earlier in the 1960s had provoked no backlash.
Newsletters, pamphlets and a few bookshops catering to gay and lesbian readers had sprung up since the 1950s, but they had no unified agenda and provided little of the sense of community that had helped other discriminated groups coalesce into civil rights movements. The one environment in which queer people came together and enjoyed a taste of camaraderie was the social space: in house parties, at beach resorts and on nights out at bars such as the Stonewall Inn.
Fifty years on, it can be difficult to reconcile Stonewall’s illustrious place in the pantheon of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) history with its dingy reality. Despite being widely known and highly popular among queer people (“like St Peter’s in Rome”, one patron remembered), even in its heyday the Stonewall Inn was, by any measure, a miserable dive. The combination of mafia ownership and police raids disincentivised investment in basic amenities. There were no fire exits, no cash registers, no running water and inadequate plumbing. Bartenders rinsed glasses in enormous tubs of water that by the end of the night became stagnant pools of backwash, their contents flushed down the bar’s toilets – and regularly overflowing them. Outbreaks of hepatitis were traced back to the bar. Regulars affectionately nicknamed the Stonewall ‘The Cesspool’.
Stonewall was a refuge for people with nowhere else to go: trans people, drag queens, and black and Puerto Rican men
But it was precisely because of its dinginess that Stonewall became the locus for queer resistance and liberation. Stonewall wasn’t only where the Mattachine Society – an early LGBTQ organisation – met, or where upscale men peeked out of the closet for a few hours a week. It was the refuge for queer people with nowhere else to go: drag queens and trans people turned away from ‘respectable’ gay bars, underage kids who panhandled to pay the $3 admission, and Puerto Rican and black men living in de facto segregated neighbourhoods.
By imposing no restrictions on who could enter, Stonewall became a space for queer people to explore themselves – and each other – with unusual freedom. Whether dancing, drinking, gossiping or cruising, queer patrons of the Stonewall Inn experienced liberation on a nightly basis, long before they took up arms to hurl coins and bottles at the New York Police Department. “The closet door was so tight,” one man remembered, “[t]here were no positive role models… the Stonewall’s the first place where I started to accept myself being gay.”
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Tension and release
Just what it was that set apart the Stonewall Inn, and that helped transform its eponymous riots into a touchstone moment for sexual liberation worldwide, is a subject of curiosity and controversy even to this day. Something changed in June 1969 – something that kicked off one of the most successful civil rights movements in American history – but it can be difficult to discern precisely what.
Sentimentalists note that the first night of rioting coincided with the funeral of singer and actor Judy Garland – who was already being described as a gay icon in the American press as early as 1967 – though there is little evidence to support any concrete link between the two events. More plausibly, the Stonewall Inn benefited from a coincidence of circumstances that gave it the potential to transcend its humble character and turn into something iconic.
Certainly, the widespread social and political upheavals of the 1960s helped set the stage. Years of coordinated direct action on behalf of African-American civil rights and women’s liberation, and protests against US involvement in the Vietnam War – which by this point had been raging for well over a decade – created an emancipatory atmosphere that had not existed in previous decades. By all accounts, crowds on the final night of rioting at the Stonewall Inn were augmented by activists from various radical left organisations.
More locally, New York City was (and still is) the largest metropolitan area in the United States, and had long enjoyed a reputation for libertine excess. Greenwich Village, in particular, was known for its artistic community and feisty resistance to established authorities. Small though the homophile movement was, its most intensive and extensive network of activists, literature and organisation was around New York City, providing a readymade corps of trained protesters to capitalise on sudden turns of events.
New York also had a tentative political, policing and media environment that empowered the backlash to the raid on the Stonewall Inn. Unlike in more permissive San Francisco or more repressive Los Angeles, New York City’s inconsistent pattern of police raids and blind-eye-turning established a cycle of escalating tension and release. Mayor John Lindsay, running for re-election in 1969, stepped up police raids in an attempt to win votes, earning the ire of gay activists who had assumed that he was (relatively) supportive of their cause. And when the riots broke out, the Village Voice, an ostensibly liberal local newspaper, described the event as “the Sunday fag follies” and labelled the rioters “dancing faggots”. Outraged, activists such as Dick Leitsch printed pamphlets and formed an action committee to disseminate their version of events.
Indeed, it was the effort to articulate an authentic, independent, liberated gay identity that helped transform a police raid on the Stonewall Inn into a touchstone for sexual liberation around the world. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, homophile activists formed the radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF), its named echoing the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, adopting a much more aggressive strategy for challenging homophobic laws and politicians. Though short-lived, the GLF sparked an explosion of political and community activism: for instance, it organised the first non-mafia-owned dances in New York City. Within months, gay rights groups sprang up on college campuses and in communities in the United States, Canada, the UK and elsewhere.
That same year, the Gay Activist Alliance – a political action group more moderate but much better organised than the GLF – spearheaded efforts to organise a march to commemorate the first anniversary of the riots. Previous attempts at demonstrations for gay rights, such as the ‘Annual Reminder’ organised by the Mattachine Society, had been buttoned-down, deliberately conservative and poorly attended. But on Sunday, 28 June 1970, more than 2,000 people showed up for the ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’ march. The boisterous, animated crowd marched from Greenwich Village to Central Park, chanting “Out of the closets and into the streets!” to fascinated onlookers. It was the first gay pride parade in history.
'Homosentimentalising' public memory
The memory and memorialisation of the Stonewall Riots remains a live pursuit 50 years on. Stonewall has become more than just an event in queer history: it is the event. Historians and activists have since divided queer history into two parts: before Stonewall and after Stonewall. The Stonewall Inn was declared a US National Monument in 2016. The largest LGBTQ rights organisation in the UK was named Stonewall in honour of the riots. Sustained outbursts of LGBTQ resistance in other countries, from Poland to Canada, are invariably referred to as that country’s ‘Stonewall’. The story of one of the rioters, a trans woman named Marsha P Johnson, has been commemorated in an award-winning 2017 documentary and an episode of the popular YouTube series Drunk History.
But with notoriety comes controversy. Because of its centrality to queer history, Stonewall has been susceptible to sanitising. Groups seeking to portray queer people as ‘normal’, particularly in pursuit of state recognition for legal rights to marry and adopt children, have downplayed the radical aspects of the riots themselves and sexual liberation in general.
In 1992, the first official memorial to the riots, dubbed the ‘Gay Liberation Memorial’, was unveiled in Christopher Street Park, just across from the Stonewall Inn. Its tranquil, soft-featured, ghostly white-painted figures struck a dissonant chord with those familiar with the history of the riots, prompting some academics to dub it an example of the ‘homosentimental’ style of public memory – an attempt to reconcile the violence of the Stonewall Riots with a more gentle, assimilationist image.
The riots were a primal scream from people who had for too long put up with a system that denied their humanity
The pivotal role of trans people, drag queens and butch lesbians in instigating the riots was almost immediately overshadowed by initial historical accounts that headlined the predominantly white, male, middle-class men who spearheaded the first activist responses afterwards. Meanwhile, the fact that the principal targets of the rioters were officers of a police force at whose hands they had been harassed, beaten, arrested and publicly humiliated for years has been often elided by mainstream gay rights organisations. This is particularly because Pride celebrations have welcomed ever larger contingents of police officers and soldiers to march in official parades. The bowdlerising impulse reached its apotheosis in Roland Emmerich’s critically derided 2015 film Stonewall, which portrays Greenwich Village in such gauzy, corny, saturated Technicolor that it qualifies as kitsch.
The Stonewall Riots represented a watershed moment for queer people in the 1960s and a touchstone for generations of queer people thereafter. But, perhaps more importantly, they were a primal scream from people who had for too long put up with an oppressive system that denied their humanity and treated them as second-class citizens. As US writer and historian of the LGBTQ civil rights movement David Carter wrote, “It [was] as if on the morning of 28 June 1969, America symbolically got back the anger she had created by her neglect of her most despised children: the fairies, queens, and nelly boys she had so utterly abandoned.”
Chris Parkes is a historian teaching at King's Collage London, specialising in 20th-century American political history