Stonewall Was A Riot

From the pamphlet, Radical Chains: sexuality and class politics, 1999:

“The rallying point of the gay liberation movement … the bar riot that ushered in the gay rights movement” … “Stonewall is the emblematic event in lesbian and gay history … Stonewall has become synonymous over the years with gay resistance to oppression.”

The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar on Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York. It stood at the heart of a three-block area which you might describe as a homosexual community, or you might call a gay ghetto. It was a two-storey building, with opaque windows, and had been operating for two or three years.

“every time we start a place, the cops break it up sooner or later”

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the State Liquor Authority instituted a ban on serving alcoholic drinks to homosexuals. In 1969, it remained illegal for men to dance with men. The police routinely raided gay bars, and met with little resistance. Sodomy was a crime in all but two American states, and ‘solicitation’ laws were frequently used against gay people. Public displays of affection could get you nicked for ‘lewd or disorderly conduct’. People who ran lesbian or gay events or publications could be arrested for ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor’. Ah, to live in the land of the free.

“The Mafia-owned and operated bars in the city were places where possible violence was always present. Gay bars were seedy, the drinks were watered, but at least they were there.”

It was widely believed that many gay bars paid protection money to either the police, organised crime syndicates, or both. The police helped to enforce the Mafia’s protection rackets. The Stonewall itself was rumoured to be Mafia-owned (although others claimed that this was an unfounded assumption based on the fact that its owners were Italian).

“It was awful when the police came. It was like a swarm of hornets attacking a bunch of butterflies.”

On the night of Friday 27 June 1969, the Stonewall Inn was raided for the second time in a week, by the New York City Police Department (Public Morals Section) and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. They had a warrant to raid the bar for allegedly selling booze without a licence. The agents arrested two bar stewards, three drag queens and a lesbian. Other customers were told to leave. Only a handful of officers carried out the raid, as they did not expect resistance. They were mistaken.

“Then, without warning, Queen Power exploded with all the fury of a gay atomic bomb … the lilies of the valley had become carnivorous jungle plants … Urged on by cries of “C’mon girls, lets go get’em”, the defenders of Stonewall launched an attack.”

A crowd of hundreds began to gather outside the Stonewall. As the police led away those they had arrested, the crowd started to throw coins, then stones and bottles, at the agents. Someone tore up a parking meter and used it to block the Stonewall’s door. The police retreated into the bar, barricaded themselves in and called for reinforcements. The Tactical Patrol Force arrived in full riot gear. The police dragged one gay man into the bar, slapped and punched him. They smashed up the bar, breaking mirrors, jukeboxes, phones, toilets and cigarette machines.

“Drag queens and kings, many African-American and Latino, hustlers, students, gays and lesbians in the area held their ground and fought back … [police] vehicles raced to the scene with lights glaring and sirens blaring. The crowd grew. Someone set a fire. More people came. People protested for three days. And for the first time, after innumerable years of oppression, the chant, Gay Power, rang out!”

By Saturday afternoon, the boarded windows of the Stonewall Inn were chalked with slogans of defiance. That night, there were 4,000 lesbians and gay men on the streets of Greenwich Village, and rioting and fighting with the police resumed. Over the next few days and nights, lesbians and gay men held meetings, formed committees and staged a Gay Power march up Sixth Avenue.

“the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago”

Lesbian and gay (known as ‘homophile’) organisations did exist in America before Summer ’69. Groups such as the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis and the Society of Individual Rights had been formed in the 1950s as social and civil rights groups. They struggled against the homophobic hysteria of the McCarthy witch-hunts, and they objected to the most overt forms of discrimination, such as police brutality. These groups also produced the first gay publications, held the first public meetings, provided legal help for lesbians and gay men in trouble with the law, published information unavailable elsewhere about sexual health, and held social events. But they shied away from active confrontation. The Mattachine Society refused even to adopt a resolution from one of its members, declaring that homosexuality was equally as valid as heterosexuality. The morning after the Stonewall riot, Mattachine posted notices around Christopher Street appealing for calm. It was not calm that was needed; it was a fightback. Within a month of the Stonewall riot, the first Gay Liberation Front (GLF) meeting was held in New York. There was plenty to keep them busy.

“We don’t like fags, we don’t like places that serve fags, and you might as well declare bankruptcy because you’re going to be closed.”

So said a Los Angeles police officer to a bar owner. The L.A. branch of the newly-formed GLF formed a Gay Action Patrol to observe the police. In early 1970, the Snake Pit bar in Greenwich Village was raided, again on a liquor-law technicality. Customer Diego Vinales feared persecution by immigration officials. (In order to obtain a visa to enter the USA, you had to swear you were not a homosexual, and you could be deported if you were found to be homosexual.) Diego jumped from a second-floor window and was impaled on five steel fence spikes. Emergency surgery saved his life; a spontaneous march and vigil was held in protest.

GLF actions also targeted bar owners. In Houston, a GLF picket broke the whites-only door policy of a gay bar. In Chicago, several gay bars did not allow dancing. Although men-with-men dancing was not illegal in Illinois, the bars were trying to stay out of trouble by maintaining an image of ‘normality’. A GLF campaign of leafleting and boycotts forced them to change policy. GLF hit out at homophobia in its many forms. In May 1970, activists invaded the national convention of the American Psychiatric Association, which considered homosexuality to be a mental illness. On the first anniversary of Stonewall, between five and ten thousand marched in New York on ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’. The following year, still bigger marches were held in New York and Los Angeles. ‘Pride’ was born.

GLF had a view of liberation much more far-reaching than piecemeal legal reform. It stressed the importance of ‘coming out of the closet’ as part of a strategy for building a mass movement. Breaking the habits of their conservative predecessors, theirs was a non-apologetic, proud homosexuality, a direct challenge to oppression and social norms. In the early 70s, coming out was rebellious, defiant, a challenge. Today, thankfully, it is a lot easier to be ‘out’ – albeit heavily dependant on factors such as where you live and where you work. In 1999, dancing and tripping at G.A.Y. on a Saturday night does not make you a rebel.

“Prior to that summer there was little public expression of the lives and experiences of gays and lesbians. The Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement that has transformed the oppression of gays and lesbians into calls for pride and action.”

The Stonewall riot was able to ignite lesbian and gay activism partly because it happened in a wider radical political context. In Sixties America, there were anti-Vietnam war protests; there was a Civil Rights movement and a militant black struggle; there was student political activism; and there was the beginning of a new women’s liberation movement. Stonewall did not invent the struggle for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights – to claim that would be an offence to the many women and men who had fought before. But it was a turning point. It set off an explosion of militancy that built the profile of sexual liberation as a political issue, and forced a sea change in social attitudes. The advances we have won since for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights could not have been won without the action of the pioneers who fought bravely against homophobic persecution when to do so was much harder than it is now. Today’s campaigners would do well to remember that Stonewall was a riot – not a letter to an MP. It signalled rebellion against both the police and the activities of bar owners able to exploit a clientele captive because of oppression. Today’s activists have a responsibility to keep up the fight, and not to retreat into the apologetic, conservative pleading of the pre-Stonewall days. We stand on the shoulders of those who stood and fought before us.

(Quotes from: Albuquerque Journal 27/6/94; preface to Martin Duberman, Stonewall, 1994; ‘Bruce’, quoted in New York daily news 6/7/69; Stonewall Veterans Organisation website; Shirley Evans, local resident, quoted in New York Daily News 6/7/69; ‘Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad’, New York Daily News 6/7/69; New York Pride Guide; gay poet Allen Ginsberg, quoted in The Village Voice, 3/7/69; Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, 1977; Stonewall Veterans Organisation website)

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