Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Across the world, the month of June is also known as Pride Month, a month of festivals and parades celebrating the history, culture, and lives of the members of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning) community. Nowadays, especially in Europe and the United States, Pride Month is most often associated with flashy parades and raucous parties attended by both members of the LGBTQ community themselves, and cisgender heterosexuals. But this wasn’t always the case. Back at the outset of the Gay Rights movement in the 1960s, Pride parades were often met with violence and attacks from both police and the heterosexual mainstream culture. For many, the first Pride parade was a riot.
Greenwich Village and the Stonewall Inn
In the 1960s, the LGBT community, especially in New York City, faced immense discrimination under the law. Bars and restaurants were allowed to refuse service to those who they suspected were sexually attracted to people of the same gender, citing a section of the legal code which allowed them to refuse “disorderly patrons.” For being unashamed of their non-heterosexual sex lives, lesbians, gays and bisexuals were branded “disorderly.” Police officers disguised as civilians would often go into bars and attempt to lure lesbian, gay, and bisexual patrons into having sexual relations with them, only to arrest them for their “disorderly conduct.” Even more shocking, transgender people were often openly arrested on the streets for no reason other than their being “transvestites” (the term most widely used in the 1960s and 1970s both inside and outside the LGBTQ community to describe transgender people, now considered offensive). As such, many transgender and gender non-conforming people such as legendary activist Marsha P. Johnson self-identified as “drag queens” in order to hide their transgender status from the public.
By 1969, New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood had become the epicenter of gay culture in the city. Many bars in Greenwich Village refused to follow the discriminatory city laws and allowed LGBT patrons to drink, eat, and socialize there. One such bar was the Stonewall Inn at 43 Christopher Street in Manhattan. The Stonewall was unique in the sense that it catered to the members of the LGBT community who were the most discriminated against, both by cisgender heterosexuals and members of the LGBTQ community themselves. These groups included butch lesbians (extremely masculine-presenting non-feminine lesbians), feminine gay men, drag queens, male prostitutes, transgender people, and homeless LGBT teenagers.
Police raids on gay bars were frighteningly common. In fact, in the weeks prior to the riots of June 28, 1969, police had already shut down the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star, and two other gay clubs in the neighborhood. The Stonewall, owned by the Genovese crime family (yes, the Mafia!) paid off local law enforcement in order to stop the bar from being raided using payoffs jokingly called “gayolas.” The bar soon became one of the most popular gay nightclubs in the city, due to its wide acceptance of transgender and gender non-conforming patrons such as butch lesbians and feminine gay men, its range in patrons aging from teenagers to those in their thirties, and its mix of people from different ethnic backgrounds, including white people, black people, Asians, and Latines. For many people, especially the homeless LGBTQ teens of Christopher Park, the Stonewall was home.
The Stonewall Riots of June 1969
TRIGGER WARNING: This section contains details of violent homophobia, transphobia, and police violence. If you are uncomfortable with any of these topics, please skip to the next section.
At 1:20 in the morning on June 28, 1969, eight police officers, including Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, arrived at the Stonewall Inn announcing “Police! We’re taking the place!” The bar’s owners, who were normally tipped off to any planned raids before police would arrive, were caught off guard. The nearly 205 patrons present in the bar descended into panic. Those who had never experienced a raid before stood helpless, while those who had prior experience attempted to escape via the doors and windows in the bathroom only to find that the exits had been barred by police. The raid did not go as planned, as transgender women and drag queens refused to go with police to the toilets in order to verify their sex, and patrons in line refused to provide ID.
As the cops waited for patrol trucks to arrive to transport arrested patrons to the local police station, patrons who weren’t arrested were released and allowed to leave the club. However, instead of dispersing, the released patrons waited outside the bar’s front windows. In minutes, the crowd outside the Stonewall numbered between 100 and 150 people, made up of both released bar patrons and passersby attracted by the police cars and the noise. By the time that the patrol wagons arrived, the crowd had grown to about 400, made up of mostly other members of the LGBTQ community.
As arrested employees were loaded into the trucks, the amusement and the hostility of the crowd towards the cops began to grow. When an officer shoved a transgender woman, the crowd began to boo, and bystanders began to debris at the police trucks as reports that patrons still inside the bar were being beaten spread through the crowd. A minor fight then broke out between four cops and a woman who had managed to escape their hold as she was being escorted outside. Described as a “stone” (hyper-masculine) butch, the exact identity of the woman remains unknown, however many accounts identify them as Stormé DeLarverie, African-American butch lesbian and “Rosa Parks of the gay community.” According to bystander accounts, as they attempted to fight off the cops, DeLarverie turned to the crowd and shouted “Why don’t you guys do something?” Within seconds, the crowd exploded into violence.
The policemen outside, outnumbered by 500 people, struggled to hold back the rioters. As the crowd began throwing beer cans and other garbage at police, both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ patrons from nearby bars began to join the rioters after hearing what was happening. One such rioter was Dave Van Ronk, folk singer and mentor of legendary singer-songwriter and activist Bob Dylan. While not LGBTQ, Van Ronk had experienced police violence before as an anti-Vietnam War protestor. After police retreated by barricading themselves and their prisoners inside Stonewall, rioters began throwing garbage cans, glass bottles, rocks, and bricks, breaking the Inn’s windows. The mob then threw flaming garbage into the Inn, lighting it on fire. Eyewitness accounts report that it was mainly drag queens, hustlers, prostitutes, and homeless teens, the most outcast members of the LGBTQ community, who led the attack.
As the NYPD’s Tactical Police Force arrived to rescue their fellow police officers trapped inside the Inn, put out the fire, and disperse the protestors, the attitude of the police became more and more bitter, violent, and angry, while the attitude of the crowd became joyous and celebratory. The police force was humiliated. No other protest group had ever managed to force the police into retreat, and the fact that it was a group of LGBTQ people, generally seen as weak and “unmanly,” only rubbed salt into their wounds. Even as the TPF forced the mob down Christopher Street and away from the Stonewall, the crowd continued to make fun of the cops. The group even began an impromptu kick line, doing the can-can towards the cops as they were pushed back towards 7th Avenue. Even when the cops managed to disperse the crowd, they struggled to keep them under control as the protestors ran through the twisted streets of Greenwich Village. By 4 in the morning, 3 and a half hours after the riots started, the streets were finally cleared.
The Aftermath of the Riots
The riots outside the Stonewall continued to flare up and die down over the next few days, but none would be as strong as they were on the 28th. The Stonewall Riots soon became seen as the first sign of unity within the LGBTQ community. Before Stonewall, LGBTQ rights activist groups were mostly segregated by sexuality or orientation, such as in the gay men’s Mattachine Society and the lesbians’ Daughters of Bilitis. However, the protests at Stonewall, which involved members from throughout the LGBTQ community, showed the value of uniting the entire community behind a common cause. After all, they were fighting for many of the same goals, and it would likely be easier to achieve those goals if the entire community rallied together.
In November 1969, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists began to entertain the idea of hosting an annual march every last Saturday of June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. The march was to be called Christopher Street Liberation Day, and would be open to all members of the LGBT community (the term “queer” as we know it today was not widely used as an identifier). While other march organizers worked to drum up fundraising for the event and set a date, the person who is the most responsible for the celebrations and parades of Pride Month as we know it today is a bisexual woman named Brenda Howard, dubbed the “Mother of Pride” for her role in organizing the Christopher Street event, as well as for her proposal of a week of activities and events centered around Pride, the precursor to our modern-day Pride Month. Along with bisexual activist Robert A. Martin and gay activist L. Craig Schoonmaker, Howard popularized the word “Pride” to describe events that celebrate the life and culture of LGBT people all over the globe.