Pride Month 2020: How the Stonewall Riots sparked the beginning of LGBTQ+ movement 51 years ago

The riots caused an uprising in its wake and led to major clashes between police and thousands of protesters, prompting a generation of activists into establishing a civil rights movement. 

                            Pride Month 2020: How the Stonewall Riots sparked the beginning of LGBTQ+ movement 51 years ago
(Getty Images)

June 1 marks the beginning of Pride Month, an essential inclusion in our calendar dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community and celebrating gay pride in all its ambient glory. The month sees an abundance of festivities, with symbolic rainbow flags flapping high up in the wind and hoards of people taking to the street to not only express themselves but also to reinstate the fact that at the end of the day, 'love wins' above all else. And as Taylor Swift famously sang in 'Welcome to New York', "You can want who you want, boys and boys and girls and girls." But amid all this celebration, freedom and rights, it's crucial for us to remember the march that started it all, and to commemorate those whose sacrifice and determination got us here. 

In the late 1960s, being gay was still illegal in most states and not a single law safeguarded the rights of lesbian and gay people, neither did it protect them from discrimination. There were no openly gay politicians or pop culture icons either. The media at the time would provide coverage based on the era's homophobic attitudes, which included absurd statements from law enforcement and inexplicable consequences if a gay person were to openly express their sexuality. The Stonewall Riots, as it is now known, was a single revolution that paved the way for a paramount change when in 1969, Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the police. It caused an uprising in its wake and led to major clashes between police and thousands of protesters, prompting a generation of activists into establishing a civil rights movement. 

Gay bars, a hotspot for police raids

A march to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, New York City, USA, 26th June 1994. The banner reads 'The 1994 International March on the United Nations to Affirm the Human Rights of Lesbian and Gay People' (Getty Images)

The latter half of the 20th century wasn't exactly the most appreciative of LGBTQ+ Americans. States were governed by anti-gay laws, like New York City for instance, that deemed same sex-relations illegal. Despite the various progressive movements and revolutions sweeping the nation, the community knew it wasn't safe from the eyes of the law, neither was it free from the rampant homophobia. The mafia saw great benefit in this and operated gay bars disguised as private clubs to get around the state regulations that unfairly prohibited gay people from being served alcohol. Gay bars and clubs became a safe haven for the community, who flocked the establishments to bask in their liberating ethos, and where they had no qualms about expressing themselves, being openly gay and socializing.

However, the New York State Liquor Authority started penalizing and setting down recreational establishments that served alcohol to LGBT individuals in the argument that homosexuals coming together in one place was "disorderly." By the late 1960s, the gay rights movement was building momentum in the US and in 1966, the regulation was done away with, courtesy of the efforts of some activists that rebelled, and LGBT patrons were now permitted to make merry with alcohol. Yet engaging in "gay behavior" like holding hands, kissing or dancing with the same sex was still illegal and the police continued to harass the community and raid gay bars and clubs. 

Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn 

Spontaneous demonstrations at New York City's Stonewall Inn by members of the LGBT community were sparked by a police raid during the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 (Getty Images)

In the mid-1960s, the Genovese mob family controlled most of the gay bars in Manhattan's bohemian Greenwich Village locale. They purchased Stonewall Inn, which was initially a restaurant, remodeled it a bit, and opened it as a gay club in 1967. The new club was registered as a type of private “bottle bar,” which was not regulated by a liquor license, and patrons were expected to bring their own liquor. The attendees had to sign their names in a register at the entry to maintain the club's exclusivity facade, while the Genovese mobsters bribed New York's Sixth Police Precinct to turn a blind eye to the club's activities.

Stonewall wasn't the only gay bar in the vicinity, neither was it the nicest. There was no running water at the club, its windows were boarded up so people from outside couldn't look in and the drunks were diluted and overpriced. But frankly, these trivial matters concerned no one because it happened to be one of the only few gay bars that still allowed dancing. It was a large establishment, and the entry fee was relatively cheap. What's more is that it welcomed drag queens, who at the time struggled with bad reception at other gay bars and clubs. It became a nightly refuge to many runaways and homeless youths who were gay and panhandled or shoplifted in order to pay the entry fee.

Raid and violent uproar

On June 6, 1989, AIDS activists protest during the dedication ceremony of Stonewall Place on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York (Getty Images)

Police raids were common at any gay bar, including the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood. Every time there was a police raid on the establishment, the staff at the Stonewall Inn would usually be tipped off because of the club's mafia affiliations. However, that didn't happen in the early hours of June 24, 1969. Everyone at Stonewall was caught off guard by the raid when the police burst into the club with warrants and started manhandling club-goers. They found bootlegged alcohol in the premises and arrested 13 people, including the staff and people who violated the state's gender-appropriate clothing regulation. The raid may have been justified on the basis of there being bootlegging in the club, however, New York's gay community had already been rankled by the police department constantly targeting them and closing down gay clubs. It riled up the patrons to the point they turned violent and coupled with local sympathizers, a riot against the police ensued. The angry mob of protestors subsequently spread to the neighboring streets, and the police were repeatedly targeted by bottles and bricks being thrown at them.

This continued until 4:00 am, that Saturday morning until some order was restored. Word about the raid had spread like wildfire across the city by the next night and at least 2,000 people held a demonstration outside the bar. They boldly held hands as a display of public affection while chanting "gay power," "we want freedom now" and "Christopher Street belongs to the queens." The media coverage inflamed the riots further using terms as "gay cheerleaders" and "Sunday f** follies", and other leftist groups allied themselves with the insurgent movement and stood alongside the protestors. 

Legacy of Stonewall

A sign marking the spot of the Stonewall National monument in Greenwich Village, New York. The Stonewall Inn was the scene of riots in 1969 which was the catalyst for the global Gay Pride movement (Getty Images)

The demonstrations and protests continued for several days, which spurred the formation of the Gay Liberation Front as well as several other LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations. The following year, New York hosted its first official gay pride parade titled 'Christopher Street Liberation Day', which kicked off from Stonewall and marched up 6th Avenue. The parade’s official chant was: “Say it loud, gay is proud.” Later, June was declared the official LGBT Pride month in commemoration of the uprising. In 2016, President Barack Obama cited Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park and the surrounding streets that became a part of the riot as a national moment, in recognition of the areas as a contribution to gay rights. In 2019, NYPD issued a statement in a formal apology for its role in the Stonewall Riots and for the discriminatory anti-gay laws.

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