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What Happened at Stonewall?

How an unremarkable bar became a historic LGBTQ+ landmark.  

police clash with stonewall inn patrons in the only known photo of the Stonewall riots
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  • The only known photo of the Stonewall riots.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

For the LGBTQ+ community, the month of June marks a meaningful time that allows space to celebrate the advancements made toward equality, acknowledge the imperative work that remains to be done and provide the opportunity to rally to express self-love and acceptance in their identities. 

Pride Month allows anyone who is on the LGBTQ+ spectrum to honor their determination to live authentically in a society that continually presents heteronormativity and cisnormativity as the social norm. Programs and events are held throughout June, including marches, art exhibits and film festivals that highlight LGBTQ+ activists working to educate the masses and obtain justice for those who have been disregarded, exploited and brutalized throughout history. 

LGBTQ+ activists have worked tremendously hard to secure recognition for the community, and though June is now associated with this achievement, this wasn’t always the case. 

Although those individuals back in 1969 who had decided to go out for a fun night of dancing and drinking could not have anticipated their lasting impact, a transformative act of rebellion that began on the summer night of June 28th, known as the Stonewall Uprising, would eventually lead to the first Pride march and establish an entire month to remember, rejoice and express pride.

Read on to learn how a drab, dingy bar run by a New York mafia member became a space where LGBTQ+ patrons formed community and became a location well-known for helping propel the movement forward.      

America’s First LGBTQ+ Organizations 

Before the Stonewall Uprising, LGBTQ+ activists had already been organizing to fight against the oppression they were constantly facing while living in the U.S. The first documented gay rights organization in America was founded by a German immigrant named Henry Gerber in 1924 and was called the Society for Human Rights, which published the newsletter Friendship and Freedom, the nation’s first gay-interest newsletter, before they were forced to disband in 1925 due to police raids. 

Following World War II, gay and lesbian rights activists referred to themselves as being a part of the Homophile Movement, which was formed in the early 1950s alongside groups such as the Mattachine Society, a gay activist organization, and The Daughters of Bilitis, America’s first lesbian-rights group, which would also go on to publish The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian magazine. 

The Mattachine Society began as a secret organization in Los Angeles in 1950 where gay men could meet and discuss how to address discrimination as well as find friends and create connections in a safe space. While donning a black suit and tie, an intentional political tactic to garner respect and authority, the members of the Mattachine Society would use legal avenues, grassroots campaigns and civil disobedience tactics to garner attention from news outlets in the hope of improving gay rights. 

Even though the Mattachine Society was criticized by some activists for their more conservative views on gender expression, having been known to turn away prospective members dressed in drag, and for using tactics that appeared to work within the system rather than trying to dismantle it, by 1966 the group decided to implement more “radical” strategies. During this time, the New York State Liquor Authority prohibited bars with liquor licenses from serving patrons suspected of being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, stating that having one gay patron deemed the bar “disorderly” and could result in the business shutting down. 

In response, on April 21, 1966, members of the Mattachine Society staged a “Sip-In,” having been inspired by the civil rights movement’s “Sit-Ins,” to visit a few bars in Lower Manhattan, make it known to the bartender they were gay and refuse to leave until they were sold alcohol. After trying to order alcohol at an establishment called Julius’ Bar in Greenwich Village, the bartender, who had already poured them drinks, placed his hand over their glasses, refusing them service once he was made aware of their sexuality, which a newspaper photographer captured. 

Although this small act of rebellion is often overlooked due to the more well-known Stonewall Uprising, which would take place three years later in the same neighborhood, the Mattachine Society’s activism forced the New York State Liquor Authority to admit that there was no state law explicitly denying service to gay patrons and the group ended up winning a state Supreme Court ruling in New Jersey that declared that being homosexual should not automatically make them criminals, though discriminatory practices persisted.

An Atack on Human Rights 

People who showed signs of being any identity other than cisgender and heterosexual in America throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were subjected to tremendous mistreatment from law enforcement and were often ostracized from their social circles. Not only was it common practice to refrain from serving LGBTQ+ individuals in public establishments, but the police were also known for implementing “masquerade laws,” which had been initially used in 1845 to deter rural farmers from dressing like Native Americans to avoid tax collectors. 

These “masquerade laws” were rules set in place that were never official laws and allowed police to arrest LGBTQ+ citizens who violated the three-article rule, stating that a person was required to wear at least three gender-appropriate articles of clothing, not including socks, to avoid imprisonment for cross-dressing. For police to confirm an individual’s biological sex, they would force them to go into a private setting where they would, through sight or touch, decide if the person violated the code—an appalling invasion of privacy and dehumanization tactic that was normalized. 

Within the PBS American Experience documentary Stonewall Uprising, William Eskridge, a Professor of Law, explains, “At the peak, as many as 500 people per year were arrested for the ‘crime against nature,’ and between 3,000 and 5,000 people per year arrested for various solicitation or loitering crimes…every year in New York City.” LGBTQ+ people were targeted not merely by society members who viewed their existence as a threat but by law enforcement, who had vowed to protect all citizens.

An Unlikely Ally: Why Did a New York Mobster Run the Stonewall Inn? 

By 1969, the only state in America that had decriminalized non-heterosexual behavior by “consenting adults in private” was Illinois. As a result, LGBTQ+ individuals in New York were unable to show public displays of affection like their heterosexual counterparts and instead tried to find refuge in the community forged within gay bars and clubs. 

However, police bar raids were frequent, during which enforcement would confiscate alcohol and arrest patrons who violated “masquerade laws” or were seen dancing and showing affection toward those of the same sex. Consequently, many bar owners were unwilling to host LGBTQ+ patrons due to their homophobic ideals or out of fear of being shut down by police.

As a result, one group’s unfortunate reality became another’s golden opportunity. During this time, various New York mobs controlled the nightclub business, and it wasn’t long until they realized that they could take advantage of LGBTQ+ patrons' ostracization. In 1966, a member of the Genovese crime family, Tony Lauria, otherwise known as “Fat Tony,” purchased the Stonewall Inn and turned the bar and restaurant that was once exclusively catered to straight patrons into a gay bar. The Genovese family controlled Manhattan’s West Side bar scene, so the Stonewall Inn became yet another stream of revenue to line their pockets. 

Was the Stonewall Inn a Haven? 

The Stonewall Inn, located in Greenwich Village in New York City, is often described as a refuge and oasis for young, homeless LGBTQ+ youths and proud drag queens, and for many, it was. It was among a handful of places in the 1960s that welcomed them and allowed them to mingle, dance and express themselves. 

That being said, many patrons acknowledge that the Stonewall Inn was run under horrid conditions. Since the mob family knew they could get away with it, they drastically cut costs: there was no running water, glasses were “cleaned” in tubs of dirty water left out all day, there was no fire or emergency exit and the overpriced drinks (that were rumored to be stolen) were always watered down. The mob was also not above targeting wealthy patrons whom they would blackmail by threatening to “out” them and employed bouncers who’d exploit underage patrons. 

To ensure they weren’t shut down, the owner designated the Stonewall Inn as a private “bottle club” that did not require a liquor license and made it mandatory for patrons to sign their names (which were often pseudonyms) in a membership book to appear exclusive and legitimate, all while stashing bottles of alcohol in nearby cars or secret compartments within the bar. 

Bribing New York’s Sixth Police Precinct with around $1,200 a month in exchange for allowing them to remain open also helped. But these bribes didn’t prevent police raids; they only meant that, usually, they would tip off the bar owner before dropping in, giving time for patrons to stop participating in “indecent conduct” and for the owner to hide his unlicensed liquor.

Despite the filthy environment and obvious maltreatment, the LGBTQ+ patrons used the Stonewall Inn as a place where they could foster friendships and even find love for the first time among those who had also been excluded from the rest of society.

The Stonewall Uprising 

On Tuesday, June 24, 1969, the NYPD oversaw an evening raid of the Stonewall Inn, arresting some employees and seizing illegal liquor. They were planning a second raid for the following Friday that they were certain would be as successful as the one prior, while hoping to eventually shut down the Stonewall Inn indefinitely. 

The eight undercover police officers had no idea that when they arrived unannounced at Stonewall after midnight on the early morning of June 28th, ready to conduct their raid as usual, the LGBTQ+ patrons had had enough.

Police began arresting employees for selling unlicensed liquor and roughed up patrons who weren’t adhering to the three-article rule. They began arresting 13 people. But rather than disperse, as the community usually did, patrons and other passersby who noticed the commotion remained gathered outside the Stonewall Inn’s door. Meanwhile, more NYPD arrived at the scene by foot and in three patrol cars.     

Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall? 

The following events have been debated; some claim that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women of color who became prominent activists of the LGBTQ+ movement, threw the first bottle, brick or stone that incited the rebellion, but Johnson later clarified in a 1987 interview that she had arrived after the uprising had already begun.

Other accounts claim that it was lesbian activist Stormé DeLarverie who after being clubbed in the head by a police officer and then handcuffed, yelled to the crowd, “Why don't you guys do something?" which incited the large group that had formed around Stonewall. DeLarverie would be remembered as the “Rosa Parks of Stonewall” for reportedly throwing the first punch. 

Regardless of who truly was responsible for being the first to jump into action—which is impossible to discern since various individuals were beginning to defend themselves and protect those around them at the same time—soon everyone at the site began clashing with police. People began screaming “Pigs!” and “Coppers!” at the officers while throwing pennies, bottles and stones at them, while police continued to use batons attempting to push back the crowd.

NYPD Forced To Seek Safety Within Stonewall 

By around 4 a.m. the NYPD officers who had been a part of the original eight on the scene, a reporter from the Village Voice and some patrons who were being held by officers were forced to barricade themselves within the Stonewall Inn. Outside, one drag queen reportedly attempted to pick up a parking meter by herself, before others quickly joined in to help and began ramming the front door. 

At one point, people outside the bar started a fire in an attempt to burn the building down but were ultimately unsuccessful. Those stuck inside Stonewall were relieved to hear sirens signaling the arrival of police backup and the Tactical Patrol Force (the city’s riot police). However, while the officers marched down Christopher Street, protesters circled the blocks, outsmarting the police by coming back up behind them.

Amid the chaos, the police were met with forms of protest that they’d never faced before. Several drag queen protesters had formed a kick line and began singing unabashedly, demonstrating that officers’ intimidation tactics would no longer stifle their right of expression.

It wasn’t until sometime after 4 a.m. that people began dispersing. Astoundingly, no one died or was critically injured, though many sustained some kind of injury.

LGBTQ+ Activists Understood Stonewall’s Opportunity 

Later that day, the Stonewall Inn was reopened, though this time without serving alcohol, despite having been destroyed in the skirmish by police. The LGBTQ+ community and allies arrived and chanted slogans in support, while a larger group of riot police came prepared with tear gas and batons to disperse the crowd. However, those who had returned to Stonewall were once again willing to fight as they had earlier that day—perhaps even more fervently than before, as many believed they had nothing more to lose. This confrontation ended in the early hours of the morning, when the crowd eventually dispersed. 

As the days passed, the large-scale quarrels were replaced by smaller incidents, though LGBTQ+ activists utilized this crucial moment to educate those willing to listen to their demands for human rights and to build a stronger community. 

Newspaper Coverage

Even though this was a major historical moment, few news reporters covered the story, and those who did only mentioned it briefly, including The New York Times, which wrote an article titled “Police Again Rout ‘Village’ Youths,” or ran stories like those of the Village Voice, which used homophobic rhetoric when describing the event. Journalist Lucian Truscott IV notoriously wrote the piece “Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square,” which referred to LGBTQ+ activists as “forces of faggotry,” resulting in outraged protesters gathering outside the paper’s offices on July 2, 1969, setting off another round of demonstrations that concluded by midnight. Their efforts caused the newspaper to begin using the term “gay” rather than homophobic slurs.            

Stonewall’s Effect on the LGBTQ+ Movement 

The First Gay Pride Parade 

Not wanting to lose the momentum created by the Stonewall Rebellion, LGBTQ+ activists met to discuss their plan. The Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations and the Christopher Street Liberation Day Umbrella Committee decided to host a protest march on June 28, 1970—the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising—to commemorate the day they banded together and stood up for their rights. 

Those who decided to join the Christopher Street Liberation March, which was set to begin on Christopher Street and end in Central Park, were worried that only a few people would show up, but instead, they found hundreds of people who had assembled, and as they continued walking, the group eventually grew to thousands that stretched to around 15 city blocks. 

The official chant that had been suggested by activist L. Craig Schoonmaker was centered around the idea of pride. Schoonmaker expressed years later that he understood the root of the LGBTQ+ struggle: shame. A feeling repeatedly fed to LGBTQ+ people throughout their lives, he explained that “the poison was shame, and the antidote [was] pride.” Other activists appeared to agree, and as a result, on the day of the march, the chant heard throughout New York’s streets was, “Say it loud, gay is proud.” This would become known as America’s first Gay Pride Parade. 

Since then, Pride parades have been celebrated throughout the world. According to research from the human rights organization OutRight Action International, 101 countries worldwide held Pride and other LGBTIQ visibility events in 2023, while 92 countries refrained. 

On the 30th anniversary of Stonewall in June 1999, President Bill Clinton officially made June “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month,” and in June 2009, the more inclusive name “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month” was selected by President Barack Obama.   

LGBTQ+ Organizations After Stonewall 

Following the events of Stonewall, LGBTQ+ activists became more politically organized, leading to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, which branched off into other groups like the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an LGBTQ+ activist organization founded by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and the Third World Gay Revolution, an organization that emphasized the importance of intersectionality to combat heterosexism, racism and classism. 

These early organizations paved the way for later organizations such as GLAAD (formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to work to improve coverage of the LGBTQ+ community in the media and entertainment industries, which continues to complete integral work. 

The Persistent Fight for Human Rights 

The courage and resiliency of LGBTQ+ activists are what led to various significant accomplishments throughout history, including the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court case ruling that declared same-sex marriage legal throughout all 50 states in America.  

But despite the community’s successes, LGBTQ+ individuals’ rights remain under attack as discrimination persists within education, housing, the workplace and the foster care system, while business owners continue to refuse service to LGBTQ+ customers based on their beliefs, a reality that serves as a reminder of the importance of continued activism that places LGBTQ+ issues at the forefront.

In 2016, President Barack Obama declared the Stonewall Inn (which remains a safe space that celebrates LGBTQ+ identities) and the surrounding area a national monument to honor the location that enabled the LGBTQ+ movement to expand their community, generate hope and reinforce their pride.