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The Events of Stonewall, 53 Years On

Between July 28th and June 3rd 1969, the Stonewall Inn saw a series of violent clashes between the police and LGBTQ+ activists. These clashes are now seen as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, and the first incarnation of pride.

Before the storm

Persecution is nothing new to members of the LGBTQ+ community, phobia has been the root of prejudice and aggression on a global scale for centuries. In 1969 the solicitation of homosexual relations was illegal in New York, gay bars were, and still are, a safe space for self-expression away from harassment. Unfortunately, these bars, and their patrons, were still subject to near constant police harassment.

The 1960s saw some small amounts of progress, Illinois becoming the first state to remove its anti-sodomy laws in 1961, which essentially decriminalised being homosexual. A law used in many states that ruled anything seen as homosexual as criminal. The term 'transgender' was brought to popularity from 1965 as Dr. John Oliven published a book titled Sexual Hygiene and Pathology. Despite these small steps, members of the LGBTQ+ community were still treated extremely poorly. Not only facing homophobic and transphobic abuse on a public level, but still facing legal barriers and human rights violations that effected their everyday lives. In the context of the Stonewall Riots, the New York City liquor laws prohibited the serving of alcohol to gay men and women as they were perceived as 'disorderly'.

The events of the uprising

Greenwich Village, NYC, is home to the Stonewall Inn. The original Inn at this location was open at the address 51-53 Christopher Street between 1967 and 1969, closing shortly after the uprising. Police raids and undercover officers within the Inn's premises were regular, to the point that the lights on the dancefloor would be flashed as a warning to patrons. Police were able to arrest anyone in these locations for the smallest of things, for example, not wearing 3 articles of 'gender appropriate' clothing. The bar had a seedy reputation and operated without a liquor license.

In the early hours of Saturday, June 28th, 1969, nine policemen entered the Stonewall Inn and arrested several employees and violently assaulted patrons, taking several into custody due to their clothing. One such patron was Stormé DeLarverie, a well loved member of the NYC LGBTQ+ scene. This was the last straw for many, who were sick of persecution and police brutality. A large amount of bystanders did not flee, vocalising their frustrations at the unfairness of their situation.

It soon escalated, bottles being thrown and a jostle between patron and police began. The police soon called for backup and barricaded themselves in the bar while many of those crowding the area sang and danced amongst the chaos. Things were thrown, violence from police and the crowd alike followed and the crowd attempted to free those arrested. It is estimated 400 people rioted in the following five days. The events of the Stonewall Riots have been characterised as a vocalisation of the suffering the members of the LGBTQ+ community endure, and the galvanising force for the civil rights movement.

The aftermath

After the riots, those five days quickly became a catalyst for further uprising and civil movement. Not only have the events of Stonewall become a monumental point in LGBTQ+ history, but also a stark reminder of the historic prejudices and aggressions everyone in the community has to live in constant awareness of. Each year, the anniversary of Stonewall is seen as 'pride season', where major cities hold pride parades and celebrate LGBTQ+ identities.

As well as having a large social impact several organisations have been founded over the decades since, here is just a few examples:

  • GLF (Gay Liberation Front), founded in July 1969 as a movement to continue Stonewall's momentum and the principles of those who stood to fight for their right to be themselves. They quickly took on a stance similar to anarchism, and stood with other movements such as the Black Panther Party. They had a really interesting history of protests and campaigns over their time as an organisation, such as Friday of the Purple Hand.

  • GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), founded in 1985 to counter LGBTQ+ discrimination. GLAAD took a stand against the defamatory portrayal of those within the community during the AIDS epidemic, and continue to fight to ensure a fair representation of LGBTQ+ in media.

In 1999 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2019 NYC's Police Commissioner issued an official apology for the department's actions, calling them "wrong - plain and simple".

It is important to understand events such as Stonewall, as it is recent history for everyone, not just the effected groups. Stormé DeLarverie passed in 2014 aged 90, having been the first patron arrested that night and Marsha P. Johnson passed in 1992 after falling victim to hate crime. The brutality faced by the LGBTQ+ community is a horror still endured on a daily basis, across the world. Stonewall may have happened in America, but the struggles of those involved is not a uniquely New York 1960's experience by any stretch of the imagination. In understanding these key events, we are able to educate ourselves on very human struggles, and do better in future.


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