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Why we should remember the 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn

Justin Bengry considers the importance of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969

New Yorkers outside the Stonewall Inn in June 1969.
Published: June 28, 2022 at 7:31 am
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Stonewall. One word conjures images of resistance, joy, repression, pain, activism and community. On 28 June 1969, police yet again raided the bar of New York’s Stonewall Inn, threatening and harassing its LGBTQ patrons under the pretence of alcohol license violations. This time they pushed back. The raid instigated days of riots against the police in the surrounding streets. In the face of swelling numbers of protesters throwing coins, bottles and stones, police at one point even retreated inside the bar until reinforcements arrived. Stonewall has since become a global icon for gay liberation. But how well do we know the stories of the LGBTQ people who were there?

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Contrary to the 2015 film Stonewall, we know that rioters included drag queens, trans folks, femmes and people of colour. Today, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s names are as likely to be spoken by young queer people as those of icons Harvey Milk and Alan Turing. Stonewall shows us that gay liberation was hard won by a diverse spectrum of people.

Gay activism, however, was not created in 1969. Campaigning groups in Europe and North America lobbied for legal reform and societal change from at least the 1940s. In the UK, the Homosexual Law Reform Society, Campaign for Homosexual Equality, Minorities Research Group, Beaumont Society and others worked tirelessly to build LGBTQ communities and effect change. Sexual radicals and reformers such as George Cecil Ives and Edward Carpenter promoted tolerance from the late 19th century. And new research suggests that a queer cohort of men within parliament challenged sodomy laws in the 1820s. The history of activism is as long as the struggles.

A group of formerly enslaved African-Americans around the time of the US Civil War

Stonewall did not end in June 1969. Inspired by the Black Panthers and mindful that their own momentum not be lost, activists soon founded the Gay Liberation Front. Its radical activism inspired other GLF groups around the world, including the UK, from 1970. Its 1971 manifesto demands for workplace protections for gay people and equal age of consent have been achieved, while others – including the inclusion of gay topics in sex education – remain divisive today. Though it would only last a few years, the GLF inspired generations of future activists.

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Stonewall’s significance now extends far beyond the streets of New York. Distant countries still speak of their own ‘Stonewalls’ – moments of queer resist- ance and community-building. And in recent times founder members have relaunched the UK Gay Liberation Front, joined by younger activists. They agitate for LGBTQ people of colour, queer migrants and disability rights, bringing the values inspired by Stonewall to bear on the present. For them history is too important to leave in the past

Justin Bengry is a lecturer at Goldsmiths, where he convenes the world’s first MA in queer history


This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine


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