New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969.

So how exactly did the liberation movement for gays and lesbians begin? Was it a long-thought out scheme, a coup devised in some dingy basement by like-minded revolutionaries determined to change the way society thinks and functions? Or was it a simple bar raid that got a bit out of hand?

Surprisingly the latter event was the catalyst for the long road to gay and lesbian equality. This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the events that spread out like a ripple across the world and turned the LGBT community around. We owe it to ourselves to learn a bit more about the Stonewall Riots of 1969, so that we can appreciate the freedoms that many of us take for granted daily.

In post World War America, paranoia and suspicion were rife. Anything that was deemed un-American or subversive was seen as a security threat. As Cold War tensions began to grow, the government’s anti-communist rampage roared on, and the “perverse” nature of the homosexual became a perfect target. According to “official” research, homosexuals were prone to blackmail, and lacked “the emotional stability of normal persons.”

The FBI, together with the local police, would compile lists of known homosexuals, their friends and their favoured establishments. Even post offices would track mail pertaining to homosexuality, keeping the addresses on file. Bars that catered to homosexuals were often shut down and their patrons arrested and exposed in the newspaper. Cities performed anti-gay “sweeps” to rid neighbourhoods of homosexuality. Thousands of innocent gays and lesbians were jailed, fired or institutionalised just because of their sexual orientation.

Gay bars were usually underground establishments, a place where homosexual people could go and be themselves. In a society where they lived in fear of being discovered and where they constantly felt unwelcome, this was a Godsend for many.

Running these bars was seen as a lucrative business, and the mafia spotted the demand in the market. As soon as organised crime took over most of these establishments, the quality decreased. Patrons were treated badly, alcohol was watered down and drinks were over-priced. But this did not deter many, because something was better than nothing.

In 1969, the Greenwich Village area of New York City housed a shabby little mafia-run bar on Christopher Street called the Stonewall Inn. Greenwich was home to many gay residents, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, and had need for a place where people who had to put on a daily façade could rip off their masks and have the opportunity to enjoy themselves. Stonewall catered for this need.

Something triggered the gay community to react against
years of oppression.

The mafia would pay-off the cops weekly in order to keep raids to a minimum, especially since the bar did not have a liquor license. For $3 patrons gained entry after being examined through a peephole by a bouncer, who determined if they were gay by looking at them, and received two tickets which they could exchange for two drinks. It was one of the few clubs that actually allowed dancing, and drew a multi-racial crowd from throughout the neighbourhood.

During the early hours of Saturday, June 28th, Stonewall was a happening social gathering of gays from around the community. Some called the Inn a “sleaze joint”, as queers of all types gathered there for a party. Vagrants from the nearby Christopher Park often visited the bar, to try and get a drink out of one of the gay patrons. The night started off like any other weekend bar excursion, but undercover policemen in the bar sparked off a police raid at around 1.20am.

It was a normal police operation, with several cops rushing in and closing the place down, putting on harsh white lights and killing the music. But something must’ve been in the air that night, as the outcome proved to be a revolutionary step for the LGBT movement.

Over two hundred people were crowded into the bar that night, and many were confused and frustrated at having to line up against the wall while police searched them and demanded identification. The women were taken to the bathroom and checked by policewomen, ensuring that they were not in drag as this would warrant an arrest. Those in drag, however, refused, and men in line also started refusing to produce identification.

Police waited for back-up, and the impatient crowd started getting irritated. Those that were not arrested were eventually let out the front entrance, but many lingered outside the bar. A crowd grew as passers-by stopped to see what was going on. Soon the audience had swelled to around 200 people. More gathered, and it is thought that over 2 000 people participated that night.

One of the first to fight back was a transvestite who was shoved by a policeman; she responded by hitting him on the head with her purse. But it’s claimed that the incident that finally lit the spark of violence involved a woman, described by some as “a typical New York butch”, who had been hit by a policeman for complaining about the tightness of her handcuffs. As she struggled against the cops who were trying to force her into a police van, she called out to the bystanders “Why don’t you guys do something?” The crowd reacted with anger.

To shouts of “gay power” the mob began hurling insults and cans at the police as they tried to exit the bar with the more drag queens and several others who had been arrested. Something triggered the small gay community to react against years of oppression and anger.

Soon police re-enforcements arrived, and they unwisely began beating back the crowd. The masses reacted with bricks, and the police, who were outnumbered, grabbed a few people from the crowd and ran back into the bar and barricaded themselves for protection. The spontaneously unorganised riot escalated.

Christopher Park, near the Stonewall Inn, now features four white
sculptures by George Segal to commemorate the riots.

Parking meters were uprooted and used as battering rams on the doors of the Stonewall Inn. Some attempted in their fury to set the bar on fire. More reinforcement arrived and the riots continued with street battles and ongoing resistance against the authorities until around 4am with police eventually dispersing the crowd. Thirteen arrests were made that morning and four police officers were injured. A number of protestors were hospitalised. The Stonewall Inn was wrecked.

Shortly after the riots, Ginsberg commented on the aftermath, telling his friend as they walked past the battered remains of the Inn: “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” The riot had changed the gay residents of Greenwich. Revolution had lingered in the morning air, and for the next few nights the streets outside the bar were filled with protestors demanding change and fair treatment.


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