Updated: Mar 23, 2021
It’s a celebration! June 28–July2 are remembered as the five days 50 years ago when those considered to be the lowest members of society stood up and let it be known that they were people, they had rights, and they were just as American as anyone else. They were New Yorkers, and they were not going to take it anymore. It was a night that galvanized a movement that had been germinating across the country, in other bar confrontations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in small organized groups such as The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. These riots launched what has come to be known as PRIDE: events traditionally held in June celebrating the rainbow of humanity that is the LGBTQ community, almost always culminating in a giant parade.
It was 1969. The civil rights movement was in high gear with fists in the air shouting “Black Power!” and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Women’s rights demonstrations had become front and center and the citizenry was conflicted over the war in Vietnam. Protesters chanted at large rallies, “Hell no! We won’t go!” There was the moon landing and Woodstock, the largest music festival in the country. Hairnwas longer. Skirts were shorter. Hippies espoused flower power and free love. It was the age of Aquarius: Let the sunshine in.
It started late at night on June 28. The mood in the city was dark and dour as the world mourned for America’s musical sweetheart Judy Garland, whose massive funeral was earlier that day. The mourning of this singer was worldwide, but nowhere more devastating than with homosexuals. There was no conclusive evidence that any one of the patrons of The Stonewall Inn were actually mourning, but Garland’s death would turn out to underscore one giant step over the rainbow of attainable human rights as more and more homosexuals, drag queens, trans people, bisexuals, and gay youths would come out, stand up, and speak out.
The Stonewall Inn was considered a somewhat seedy bar, and that night the riff-raff were hanging out, having cocktails, and dancing to the jukebox. Suddenly the police arrived, which was not supposed to happen. Raids in gay bars were not uncommon, but in this case regular payments had been made to avoid this kind of trouble. Having sex with someone of the same sex was illegal in 1969, and so it was prudent to have a tightly locked closet door. Trans? Almost no one was transitioning in 1969. If you were uncomfortable with your gender you sucked it up, cross dressed when you could get away with it, or became a drag queen or transvestite (the term of the day). There were very, very few visible genderqueer people and practically no one was seeking surgical corrections. These were dire secrets with the most dramatic of consequences if disclosed.
So when the lights came on and the police came in at Stonewall that night, the music was turned off. IDs were being checked, which meant one could lose their job and family if names were published under these circumstances. Yet this time there was resistance that built as the police lined up people to check to see that they were the sex they were dressed as. A policeman got overly familiar with a lesbian and fists began to fly. A crowd had begun to gather when a paddy wagon arrived. And when a policeman got rough with a drag queen and tried to shove her into the paddy wagon, she hit him with her purse and he clubbed her. The crowd went wild, pelting police with coins, empty bottles, and stones as they also watched a policeman bodily heave a lesbian into a patrol car. bodily heave a lesbian into a patrol car. The police retreated back into the bar and the angry crowd rushed the entrance, bashed in the windows, and tried to set fire to the building. A young hustler uprooted a parking meter to ram the doors. Trash was set on fire. Reinforcements pushed the crowd back and managed to disperse it, and the days of silent invisibility had violently turned a corner. That was not the end of it. The next four days saw larger crowds of vocal protesters gather in the streets, leading to more violent and bloody conflicts with the police.
In Search of Stonewall is a collection of essays edited by Richard Schneider, Jr. In it
archivist and author Toby Marotta writes:
“All day Saturday as word began to
spread, the crowd gathered across the street in and around Christopher
Park to gossip, share impressions, and speculate on what would happen next.
By the afternoon, the Stonewall had reopened as a juice bar. Its employees
were handing out balloons, blaming the police for the raid. But already
they, too, had been put on notice that there was a new force in town –
what the eye-catching graffiti chalked onto their storefront called ‘Gay
Power’ and ‘Queen Power.’ As evening arrived, friends greeted one another
with shameless hugs. Improvised wisecracking, singing, and dancing gave rise
to more choreographed cheers, chants, and kick lines. For the first time, in group slang,
campy performance, unspoken lusts, and even long-suppressed resentments were
being aired – all this in an officially patrolled public place.”
Renowned gay author Edmund White writes in the same collection of essays,
“[They heard] the sound of inmates in the women’s prison banging their tin cups against
the bars and shouting encouragement to the rioters. What changed that night was
that gays who’d long thought of themselves as a sin, a crime, or an illness suddenly saw
themselves as a minority.”
Celebrated author Rita Mae Brown was also there and wrote in her essay, “I would dip in and out to see what was going on. Before that we had been trying to organize women at the bars. We were called The Lavender Menace of the women’s movement. But a lot
of gay women even in the Village were content with their duplicitous lives. They’d
made their peace with that. But once the Stonewall riots happened, people sort of
woke up, including women.
”Editor Richard Schneider, Jr. notes, “By the time of Stonewall we had 50-60 gay groups
in the country. A year later there were at least 1500. Two years later, to the extent
that a count could be made, it was 2500, according to Frank Kameny, a Washington
But not everyone is able to celebrate their sexual freedom all across the land
of the free and home of the brave. Only 21 states and Washington D.C. prohibit
discrimination in employment, according to the Human Rights Campaign. All but
five states have laws that address hate crimes, but 15 states do not include sexual
orientation or gender identity. Thirty four states have not banned conversion therapy.
Marriage equality is the law of the nation, but we know that law is not always respected,
and many Republicans are working very hard to overturn it. Homosexuality is still
illegal in 35 percent of countries in the United Nations. In 12 of those countries it
is punishable by death.
Yes, our enemies are still many, and progress yields backlash. Here they come,
slithering out from the dark into the bright light of day, voting to end civil rights to
the disenfranchised: women, people of color, people of different sexual identities,
and immigrants. Fifty years post-Stonewall, racism is rearing its ugly head and swinging
a mighty fist. Where are The Avengers when you need them?
The rallying cries of 1969 are still the rallying cries of the present. “Out of
the closets and into the streets!” is still shouted on National Coming Out Day in
October. “What do we want? Gay rights! When do we want them? Now! What do
we want? Trans rights! When do we want them? Now!” falls on Trump’s deaf ears as
the Bigot-in-Chief declares a disgraceful ban on trans people from serving in the
military. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” showers the homophobic vice president and his
wife, who accepted a teaching position in a school which bars LGBTQ students.
“We Shall Overcome” is dedicated to the Republican congress members doing their
best to reverse every law of protection for women and LGBTQ people.
But do not despair! We have come so very far since June of 1969. Perhaps
most importantly, more and more, people are embodying their sexual fluidity or
gender nonbinary identities and living openly. Not only have we made great
legal strides including marriage equality, and many politicians now court our vote
(or are themselves out of the closet), but mainstream culture increasingly celebrates
LGBTQ people. Our icons have evolved with us. For example, A Star is Born has
been remade twice since Judy Garland starred in it: once with Barbara Streisand
and once with Lady Gaga. Celebrities and Hollywood in general openly advocate for
LGBTQ rights. Television shows depict gay characters and many major movies have
brought to light historic contributions of gay people like Alan Turing, who broke
the German code to help win WWII, Assemblyman Harvey Milk, and Sir Elton
Bud Light, Stoli, and other popular brands produce limited-edition Pride-themed label designs to grace the shelves of retailers across the nation announcing,
“Pride is here, people, whether you like it or not.” A Washington D.C. brewery is
launching a limited-edition brew featuring Marsha P. Johnson on the can with 28
flowers symbolizing the U.S. trans deaths in 2018.
Yes, there is still much work to be done, so get out your handbags. Pull
up your parking meters. Help others to vote, because there are right-wing
marauders coming for you and they are bold (and not so beautiful). Special events
commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots are being celebrated
across the country this Pride season, including major events in New York City
and Provincetown. Let’s all stand up, cheer loud and long, and raise our rainbow flag
high enough to embrace every one of the diverse letters in our alphabet of sexual and
In the words of the 1969 film, The Madwoman of Chaillot, “There may be an
army of them, and only a handful of us. And how can a poor little band fight a mighty
regime? There may be a legion of them and only a parcel of us. But it isn’t the size
of the fist; it’s the size of the dream.” We will celebrate The Stonewall Riots, and we