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The history and impact of the Stonewall Riots

Posted by mandyf on August 28, 2012

Centered around the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City, the Stonewall riots (Often regarded as “The hairpin drop heard around the world”) between the New York police department (NYPD) and local members of the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) community began. The Stonewall riots are considered as the worldwide impetus for the global modern LGBT rights movement. What exactly was Stonewall and why was it so significant?

Stonewall was not the first time the banner for gay rights had been taken up, in fact the struggle had been fought unsuccessfully for some twenty years primarily led by Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society he founded. The Mattachine society’s formation along with the Daughters of Bilitis (A lesbian society) founded in 1955 led to the formation of the of the first student gay rights organization founded by bisexual student Stephen Donaldson in 1967 at Colombia University called the Student Homophile League (SHL). In 1968 Jerald Moldenhaurer founded a second SHL at Cornell University. What this has to do with Stonewall is that it all set the tone for Stonewall and provided a large pool of demonstrators for the Stonewall rebellion. Had these organizations have not existed and thrived in New York, the rebellion may likely have never carried forward.

To understand what life was like for an LGBT person in 1960’s New York City (Or most anywhere) you must understand what daily life was like. Being closeted (Not publicly known as a homosexual or transgender person) was generally the only way to safely navigate life. Until the mid 1960’s raids on gay establishments were a part of weekly life along with the shakedowns of owners and patrons known as “gayola.” In fact in New York City and many other cities across the U.S. it was illegal to serve an alcoholic beverage to a table in which three known homosexuals were seated together. Failure to comply would result in a fine and the closing of the establishment for the remainder of the business day most times. Consider that for a moment. For the LGBT person in question they could face a fine, an overnight stay in lockup, and often had their name printed in the daily newspapers police blotter along with a record of their “criminal” activity. So vigilant were the police in carrying out this task they often arrested patrons of gay establishments for indecency charges which may mean nothing more than the person was a crossdresser, seen kissing, dancing, or even holding hands with a same sex person. Generally just being present was enough in their minds to warrant an arrest. Of course when this appeared in the newspaper they were tabbed as having committed a “Crime against nature.” Many lives were ruined in this manner.

By 1969 gay life in NYC had improved somewhat as the police began laying off the LGBT community establishments and set in house rules in place concerning the entrapment of gay men. However mayoral candidate John Lindsay was fighting a losing re-election battle and took a gamble that a campaign based on morals would get him back over the top. He reasoned the Stonewall was a prime target to focus on as it was frequented by a crowd made up primarily of blacks and Hispanics, many of whom were transgendered or drag queens which would appease the straight white male voter base he was courting. Furthermore police deputy inspector Seymour Pine felt that a number of thefts on Wall Street were directly linked to gay men who frequented the nearby Stonewall Inn. His reasoning for this was thin as best as he assumed the thefts were gay men trying to pay off blackmailers to protect their secret. That was the extent of his investigation and speculative powers. Satisfied with this scenario, Lindsay gave the go ahead to take down the Stonewall. beat him. Word quickly spread up and down the street and increased the number of demonstrators. Police would disperse the crowd only to see it reform even bigger. Eventually when the police re-entered the bar the angry mob blockaded them in and torched the Inn.

Police corralled a few particularly violent protesters but there were simply too many to subdue. Some protesters chanted “Gay Power” while others repeated the refrain:

We are Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees

Throughout the riots many transgender people along with those labeled as gender non conformist’s (Butch lesbians and effeminate men) were singled out from the crowd, beaten, and then arrested. On the first night there were thirteen arrests, and an unknown number of injuries. With the battle tipping the scales at two thousand protesters versus four hundred police officers, the NYPD sent in the Tactical patrol Force which was known as the riot squad. Unable to disperse the crowd, the riot went on into the morning and resumed for four more nights.

While the Stonewall Inn closed it’s legacy lives on. This occasion led to the first instance of all factions of the LGBT standing together, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and most notably the oft overlooked transgender community. It was not until the twenty fifth anniversary of Stonewall that Gay Pride organizing committees saw fit to include the transgender community in the remembrance of that day, a day in which they were the primary target for arrests. The Stonewall Riots led to the formation of many gay rights groups, most notably the Gay Liberation Front, and the annual commemoration of the event led to todays Gay Pride Parades held every June around the world. This year and each after when Pride rolls around in your city, enjoy your friends, the music, and all the wonderful activities, but also take a moment to remember those that paved the way for the limited but growing rights we of the LGBT enjoy today. It is our duty to remember those that took a stand for basic human equality and continue the struggle for not only ourselves and those in the future, but for those who lived in the dark days before us.

The raid itself was on June twenty eighth of 1969 at 1:20 A.M. This raid was unlike others that the Stonewall or most any bar had faced before in that the police carried a warrant to investigate underage alcohol sales and not the usual morals clause violations concerning homosexuals. Eight officers arrived unlike the normal two, and of those only one was uniformed. Each patron was identified, mostly logged in the police officers notebooks, and questioned before being led outside or arrested. For the most part white male patrons were simply released without so much as having their name logged. Those arrested were the staff along with three drag queens and two male to female transsexuals. Onlookers began making catcalls aimed at the police. As the arrested parties were led to the paddy wagon they began getting violent. Many believe the first action taken against the police was carried out by a transgender person although nobody can seem to exactly remember.

Officers were pelted with bottles, coins, and rocks, but what really sent things over the edge was when singer Dave van Ronk, a heterosexual that just happened to be passing by was dragged off the street and into the Stonewall where NYPD officers savagely


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