A retrospective on the Stonewall Riots
Today marks the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. On this day in 1969, at around one in the morning, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a New York bar on Christopher Street that was a haven for the LGBTQ+ community.
As patrons were released from the bar, a crowd swelled in front, cheering and applauding as each new person walked free. As people began being brought out in handcuffs however, the mood shifted and the boos began. A woman repeatedly escaped from a squad car and eventually yelled to the gathered crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” The hovering tension broke. The police were pelted with anything the crowd could get their hands on; insults, pennies, bottles, stones. Squad cars were pelted with rocks, smashing the windows. An on-fire trash can was thrown through one of the front windows of the Stonewall where police were hiding. People ran to payphones to call people to join the fight. This went on until around four in the morning, when rioters were finally dispersed by the police.
In the evening of June 28th, people gathered at the Stonewall again, eventually growing to fill a five-block area. Shouts of “Gay power!”, “We want freedom now!” and “Equality for homosexuals!” could be heard. Vehicles attempting to drive through the area were stopped and mounted by rioters yelling, “Christopher Street belongs to the queens!” By the time the police showed up, there were over two thousand people gathered. Once more, the police were pelted with insults, garbage, rocks and fists until around five in the morning. Altercations continued throughout the week in varying levels of size and violence.
The spark that lit the flame
These were the Stonewall Riots, a spark that lit the fire of revolution for the gay rights movement. They were a catalyst that proved that the LGBTQ+ community did not have to quietly accept police brutality and social ostracization as the price they paid for their identity. In the aftermath of the Riots, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance were formed. 1970 saw Christopher Street Liberation Day celebrated in New York on the anniversary of the Riots, with Gay Pride marches occurring in Los Angeles and Chicago that same day. 1971 saw Pride marches take place in New York, Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm. In 1972, there were even more.
To say that Stonewall marked a turning point does not ignore the rich and storied history of the LGBTQ+ community prior to the Riots. Indeed, the Riots themselves were not embraced by all in the community, with some rejecting the violence and preferring a more conformative approach. However, it is a fact that the Riots marked a change in the way the LGBTQ+ community expressed their desire for change and equality, and even in the way they related to each other. Historians Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney write:
“[Before Stonewall] homosexuals had no physical or cultural markings, no language or dialect which could identify them to each other, or to anyone else… But that night, for the first time, the usual acquiescence turned into violent resistance…. From that night the lives of millions of gay men and lesbians, and the attitude toward them of the larger culture in which they lived, began to change rapidly. People began to appear in public as homosexuals, demanding respect.”
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin Luther King
We are currently living in a moment where we are seeing riots and protests in support of Black and trans liberation across the world. When I look back at the Riots, I also look at the people we honour for their involvement: Stormé DeLarverie, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera. Black, trans and gender non-conforming people played – and continue to play – a vital role in the fight for gay liberation; it is only right and fitting that we join the fight for their liberation as well. As poet Emma Lazarus – whose words are on the Statue of Liberty – wrote:
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Riots and protests are necessary and effective ways to move the needle forward. As someone who has benefited from such acts of resistance, my feeling is that their time is not yet done. When oppression still exists, it is only natural that that anger and pain will spill forth onto the streets.
Melissa Gilmore is a volunteer for StoneCrabs’ ‘Out On An Island’ Heritage project looking at 100 years of LGBTQ+ history on the Isle of Wight. ‘Out On An Island’ is funded by the National Heritage Fund.