Stonewall – A Riot for Rights

LGBT Flags

During the 1950’s and 60’s, LGBT+ Americans were in a very anti-LGBT society. Post-World War Two, many groups of people were criminalised as being ‘un-American’, including gay and lesbian individuals. It was stated by a senator that those that engaged in homosexual activity ‘lack the emotional stability of normal people’. This prompted many suspected LGBT+ people to be denied federal jobs and many were discharged from the military. The FBI also kept lists of any LGBT+ individuals and the places they frequented, allowing them to be arrested and exposed in the media.

This prompted organisations to be created to provide a safe space where LGBT+ individuals could socialise without the fear of being reprimanded. One of these was the Mattachine Society, created in 1950. Their objective was to bring together and educate homosexuals, giving leadership and assisting in legal troubles. They, however, faced huge backlash to their more radical approach, and in 1953 they changed their focus to be more about integration and respect. Soon after, another group founded for lesbians, called the Daughters of Bilitis, and although they started small, they grew to develop similar goals to the Mattachine.

Daughters of Bilitis

The first riot for LGBT+ rights was a rather small one which took place at the Cooper Do-nuts café in Los Angeles in 1959 in response to harassment by police. A larger demonstration happened in 1966 in San Francisco in Compton’s Cafeteria, due to police arresting people who appeared male dressed as women. This signposted the beginning of transgender activism in San Francisco.

The Stonewall Inn, located in Greenwich Village, New York, was owned by the Genovese crime family. In 1966, the Mafia invested money to turn the Stonewall Inn into a gay bar, after it was originally a restaurant and nightclub for homosexuals. A police officer would come once a week, as the standards of the establishment were low, and it had no alcohol license.

Youths outside the historic Stonewall Inn in New York

On the 28th of June 1969, 8 police officers raided the inn, but it did not go as they had planned. The patrol wagons that they were waiting on to seize the alcohol took longer than expected, and this caused those that were not arrested to congregate outside, and others joined them until a group of 100-150 had amassed. As people were being arrested, a scuffle broke out, and this resulted in an assault by an officer on an arrested bystander, which sparked the beginning of the riot.

The police were outnumbered by 500-600 people and they took a few onlookers and barricaded them and several of those arrested in the inn for their own safety. Recounts assure that there was no premeditation that caused this riot, that it was completely spontaneous, the culmination of years of discrimination and ostracisation being released.

By 4 am on the first day, the streets had been cleared, with many people gathering in nearby parks. Some in the crowd were hospitalised and some police officers were injured. Everything in the inn was destroyed, and one of the inspectors had intended to dismantle the whole inn that night. Throughout the day people in the surrounding area came out to look at the destroyed inn, with empowering graffiti appearing all over the building.

The next night of rioting involved thousands of people, surrounding traffic coming through the street, harassing the occupants of the vehicles until they indicated their support to the rioters. An African American street queen, Marsha P. Johnson, was a prominent figure in the riots. She climbed up a lamppost and dropped a very heavy bag on to a police car’s bonnet and shattered the windscreen. When rioters were captured, the crowd rushed to free them, with the battle raging until 4 am again.

Many people who were involved and observed the riots were encouraged to join activist organisations. On the 4th of July 1969, the Mattachine society hosted its annual picketing. The rules of this event were very strict, for example no hand holding between homosexual couples. This year, however, things were changing and the hand holding earned much more media attention. Many people now believed that after the Stonewall Riots that the Mattachine Societies methods were too mild, which prompted the first gay organisation to use the word gay in its name; the Gay Liberation Front.

LGBT Rioters in the streets outside Stonewall NY

Within 6 months of the riots, a citywide newspaper called Gay was created; the name stemming from the fact that the most liberal newspaper would not publish the word ‘gay’ . Within 2 months, two other newspapers began publishing, and readership was raised up to between 20000 and 25000.

On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Christopher Street Liberation Day – taking place on the street where the inn was located – along with gay pride marches in Los Angeles and Chicago, marked the first Gay pride marches in history. The next year, marches took places in more cities in the U.S. as well as internationally. As the years progressed, the number of cities and countries participating in Pride marches were increasing each year.

Stonewall was one of the pivotal moments in LGBT+ rights history, being compared to other acts of radical protest, such as the actions of Rosa Parks in sparking the civil rights movement. This also brought to fruition LGBT rights charities, such as the Stonewall Equality Limited charity in the UK, founded in 1989. The Stonewall Awards is an annual event that recognises people who have positively affected the lives of members of the LGBT+ community.

Written by LGBT Society President & Science Faculty Rep – Andrew Merchant
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