The Stonewall Riots: the flashpoint that launched the gay rights movement in the US
Police raids on gay bars were not uncommon in 1960s America – so why was the one that prompted the Stonewall Riots of 1969 different? Here, Jon Savage explores the flashpoint that launched the gay rights movement in the US. What started it? Where did it take place? And what was the impact?
When it happened, it was totally unexpected. The New York City Police had done this sort of thing many times before: rousting gay bar patrons, fully knowing that in their shame and surprise they would not offer any resistance. But, in the early hours of 28 June 1969, the familiar script was torn up. When eight policemen arrived to raid the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, they proceeded as usual: checking ID documents, arresting obvious ‘female impersonators’, and generally harassing the clientele.
However, the mood quickly took an unfamiliar turn. Instead of the usual compliance, people fought back inside the club. While this was going on, a crowd of forcibly ejected clubbers gathered outside: as it happened, the Stonewall Inn was on a block with a small public space, Christopher Park.
Something snapped. As the police began to load in transvestites and young hustlers – street prostitutes – into their vans, a fierce lesbian woman fought the arresting officers every step of the way. Inspired by her ferocity, the crowd moved from insult to action.
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First it was bottles and loose change. Then it was bricks and paving stones, heaved at the police. Taken aback by the ferocity of a previously passive minority, the police ceded the streets and retreated back into the club. Once barricaded in, they were assaulted with parking meters, garbage cans and Molotov cocktails by an enraged crowd, which had swelled to several hundred people. “I was sick of being told I was sick,” one rioter remembered, while the general mood was “this has got to stop”.
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The police inside the club were in real danger. It took the intervention of the Tactical Patrol Force – a militarised section of the NYPD – to restore order to the area after several hours. The disturbances happened again on the next night and a few days later: by the time they were over, there was no doubt that a new era had been sparked. The year 1966 had seen the emergence of Black Power, but in 1969 there was Gay Power. In the months after Stonewall there were new, upfront magazines like GAY and a new agitprop movement, the Gay Liberation Front.
Up against the wall
The Stonewall was an unlikely arena for such a profound shift. Mafia owned and run, it was a very basic drinking bar without most amenities. It had no running water, terrible toilets and no fire exits. It was a location for blackmail – if the owners thought a client was rich and vulnerable – and drug dealing. And yet to many young gay men and trans people, it was home. Unlike most other gay bars in New York, it was a place where men could freely dance with other men – to Tamla Motown and soul, principally.
The location of the club in the heart of Greenwich Village – an area popular with gay people – was important, as was the street nature of the clientele. Though the raid can now be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, it had been a long time coming.
Even in 1967, when the British Parliament voted to partially decriminalise homosexuality, the legal and social situation for many Americans was still stuck in the 1950s. It was frustration at the slow pace of change that helped to trigger this flashpoint.
In 1969, legislation affecting gay people in America was pursued on a state-by-state basis. There was a great deal of prejudice against gay men: they were shut out of most bars, routinely targeted by police crackdowns (especially when there was an upcoming election), and in general subject to social disapproval, ostracism and, in certain occupations, blackmail. The American Psychiatric Association still held that homosexuality was a psychiatric disorder, which meant that in some circumstances gay people were sent to mental hospitals.
The law and the institutions and conventional morality were out of sync with reality. By 1969, years of committed, albeit small scale activism and the development of a subterranean gay market had resulted in the persistence of small gay communities in cities around the US – with particular concentrations in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. By 1969, the subject of homosexuality was in the air, with major articles in The Wall Street Journal and a front cover of TIME magazine that noted a new militancy and fresh demands for respect and equality.
It had taken a long time. The drive for homosexual equality had begun in the early 1950s, the darkest days of the McCarthy era, when the author Donald Webster Cory had identified the penalties for frankness as being “so great that pretence is almost universal”. Cory thought that only activism could break this closed loop: “Until we are willing to speak out openly and frankly in defence of our activities, and to identify ourselves with the millions pursuing these activities, we are unlikely to find the attitudes of the world undergoing any significant change.”
While Cory was preparing his groundbreaking book The Homosexual in America, the first post-war homophile (as it was termed at the time) organisation was formed in Los Angeles, the Mattachine Society. Its founder members included Harry Hay and designer Rudi Gernreich. The word came from the Société Mattachine, a medieval masque group that travelled around France dramatising injustice with songs and plays. The name was used in the 1950s context to emphasise the fact gay men and women were, in the words of co-founder Harry Hay, “a masked people, unknown and anonymous.”
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Signs of the times
From slow beginnings, the society gradually spread, with branches around the country – in Chicago, Washington DC, New York and San Francisco. Even more important than the grassroots activism were the publications issued by the Mattachine Society and its offshoots and affiliates over the next few years. These included ONE magazine, founded in 1952 by Dorr Legg and Dale Jennings; Mattachine Review, founded in 1955 by Hal Call; and The Ladder, a magazine founded by the first American lesbian activist group, the Daughters of Bilitis.
These titles had small circulations: ONE sold around 5,000 copies, Mattachine Review 2,000 while The Ladder struggled to sell 500. They also varied in approach; the Mattachine Review was sober, ONE more radical and assertive. All attempted to bring news about the legal and social status of homosexual men and women while running stories, poems and articles that illuminated the gay condition. There were book reviews, adverts for gay-oriented products and letters from readers – many of whom did not give their full name.
Over the next decade, these magazines and their affiliated political groupings did their best to pursue a policy of raising consciousness – ultimately driving for equality, the lack of legal harassment, greater tolerance and respect from the American public, and even gay marriage. These were serious minded, wordy publications that in the late 1950s and early 1960s seemed to be fighting an uphill struggle against prejudice, fear of exposure, and a lack of self-esteem on the part of gay people at large.
It was hard to counter society’s estimation that homosexuals were the lowest of the low, which was ingrained in the psyches of so many gay men. As the Eastern Mattachine Magazine observed in June 1965, noting the ‘15th’ anniversary year of the homophile movement: “The method of keeping minority groups ‘in their place’ is by having the majority oppress them, instill fear in them and convince them of their lack of worth. When the minority accepts this set of standards, they … will not fight back.”
Nevertheless by 1965 the successes of the Civil Rights movement gave the homophile movement inspiration: as the Mattachine Review noted in that year, “For the first time in history, homosexuals are on the march. Out of the shadows they have stepped in the open to march in public demonstrations, protesting the policies of hostile governments which have persecuted them and denied to them their rights as citizens and as human beings … Nothing like these demonstrations has been seen before.”
This increased assertion went hand-in-hand with the expansion of gay consumer culture. This had, for a long time, focused on physique magazines which, bought under the counter or by mail order in their many thousands, were for many gay men the only connection with others like them. Their spread was massive, compared to the homophile movement magazines: in 1965, one title, Tomorrow’s Man, had a circulation of 100,000 copies – at least 20 times that of ONE – while the estimated monthly sales of all titles was around 750,000.
Catalogues like Vagabond and magazines like Drum invited the reader into a discrete gay world. A whole range of products were offered, from togas to handkerchief sets to signet rings, records and rather skimpy beach towels. Drum featured adverts for a large assortment of gay books – authors like Oscar Wilde, topics like Ancient Greece. In fostering the idea that there was a history and even an aesthetic of homosexuality, there was an implicit encouragement for gay people to recognise that they were part of something bigger than their often-isolated selves.
The fightback begins
The first gay fightback came in 1966, a small-scale but eruptive riot that predicted the Stonewall disturbances. Sometime in August – the exact date is not known – about 50 or 60 young gay men and drag queens went on the rampage, infuriated by heavy-handed and intrusive policing inside an establishment that they felt to be a safe-haven, Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
Compton’s popularity among young gay men, hustlers and drag queens came from its status as an all-night venue and the fact that for a long while, the evening manager was a homosexual man who created a sympathetic atmosphere. When he died, the management introduced a 25 cent cover charge and hired Pinkerton security guards to harass the clientele. In July, members of Vanguard, a local organisation supporting hustlers and gay kids, picketed the venue in protest.
The trigger for August’s riot was a young transvestite throwing coffee over an aggressive cop. “With that, cups, saucers and trays began flying around the place, and all directed at the police,” Guy Strait – founder of the first gay newspaper in San Francisco – related in the August Issue of gay magazine Cruise News. “They retreated outside until reinforcements arrived, and Compton’s management ordered the doors closed. With that, the gays began breaking every window in the place.”
As they ran outside to escape the breaking glass, the police tried to grab them and throw them in their vans. “They found this no easy task, for the gays began hitting them ‘below the belt’ and drag queens [began] hitting them in the face with their extremely heavy purses. A police car had every window broken, a newspaper shack outside the cafeteria was burned to the ground, and general havoc ensued that night in the Tenderloin.”
Changing the guard
Just like the Stonewall riots nearly three years later, the fight back against prejudice and harassment began from those who had the least to lose, the lowest of the low. There was the feeling that, as Bob Dylan sang, “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”. After the riot, members of Vanguard issued a press release that stated, in capital letters: "WE HAVE HEARD TOO MUCH ABOUT ‘WHITE POWER’ AND ‘BLACK POWER’ SO GET READY TO HEAR ABOUT ‘STREET POWER’."
Stonewall pushed this militancy into the foreground of gay politics. The old guard, who had kept the flame alive during the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s, were superseded by a new generation. In late July, the Gay Liberation Front formed in New York: it immediately organised a march to continue the momentum of Stonewall, and demanded an end to gay persecution. In the UK, the Gay Liberation Front was set up in October 1970. One year after the Stonewall Riots, the first Gay Pride event was held in New York City.
The spark had been lit. These new movements were not ashamed to be gay and different. Unlike the previous generation of homophile protestors, they emerged into a different climate in both America and Britain, where the bounds of traditional morality were being loosened by a fast moving, experimental mass youth culture and determined activists from right across the spectrum of minorities. The rhetoric changed from a desperate cry in near total isolation to increased confidence and pride. As the button badge stated, ‘Gay is Good’.
While partially informed by the hippie/radical movements of the time, the Gay Liberation Front has proved an enduring idea, stimulating groups in the West and in other parts of the world specifically devoted to gay (and now LGBTQ+) rights. In that respect, the events outside the Stonewall Inn in those boiling days of late June and early July were a historical turning point. They showed that a despised minority could gain self-respect by fighting back; that a determined and courageous intervention could make a lasting difference.