Stonewall '69: Gay Americans Take A Stand In The Free Love Era

Left: The 1969 Stonewall Inn raid, a tense scene between patrons and police on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Right: Exterior of the Stonewall on Pride Day 2016. Sources: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons

The passionate causes of the late 1960s weren't limited to the anti-war movement and feminism -- gay Americans were protesting for their rights as well. In New York City, the gay scene thrived despite intolerance and harassment on a daily basis. On June 28, 1969, in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Riot or Stonewall Uprising broke out when fed-up gay bar patrons decided the cops had pushed them too far. This moment was the birth of the modern gay rights movement in the United States. 

The fight for gay rights can be traced back to 1924 when the earliest known gay rights organization was formed. Twenty-seven years later the first national gay rights organization was formed by Harry Hay who is considered to be the founder of the gay rights movement. It wasn’t until 1969 when it the movement really gained momentum.

Second Class Citizens

Openly gay establishments were on thin ice in 1969, due to the many laws prohibiting homosexuality in public. In New York, almost every gay establishment was regularly raided resulting in it being shut down. One such gay bar was the Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Like many of the other businesses the Stonewall Inn was in violation of city laws because it served its gay customers alcohol. On June 28th, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn. The standard procedure in such raids was to have customers lined up in order to check identification. Unfortunately for those without I.D., those who were dressed in drag, women who were not dressed in a feminine manner, employees and management of the bar, they were arrested. This time around the Stonewall Inn raid was different.

Something Was Different This Time

Coverage of the riot in the New York Daily News was famously sneering and homophobic. A framed copy of this story hangs inside the bar to this day.

It is said that there were around 200 customers in the bar the night of raid and eight New York City police officers conducting it. After having to go through the harassment in public and now in private time and time again these customers had enough. Almost every one of these citizens refused to cooperate with police officers, deciding that it was time to stand up and stand together. 

A Crowd Gathers

Naturally the police officers “had no other choice” but to arrest everyone who failed to cooperate. Now there were two groups, those who were arrested and waiting to be taken to the police station, and those who were let go. Continuing with the unusual circumstances was the fact that those were let go stayed instead of leaving as quickly as possible. As these men and women stayed to support their friends a crowd began to form. Time went by and patrol cars had finally arrived but so had even more members of the gay community. Customers of the bar began to come out in handcuffs ready to be sent off in the patrol cars but when one woman was hit on the head after complaining, the aggravated crowd had simply had enough.

The Riot Comes To A Head

The Stonewall Inn today. Courtesy the Stonewall Inn

A full riot was underway: patrol cars were almost overturned and items such as beer bottles and bricks were being thrown. Police officers tried to save themselves by barricading themselves inside the Stonewall Inn, the very establishment they were shutting down. Being outnumbered, the police had no choice but to wait it out until backup arrived. The police were saved by the New York tactical police force and those who were initially arrested, and then some were taken to jail. 

This would have been the end in most cases but news of the intense situation at the Stonewall Inn spread, angering many other citizens. The same time for the next couple nights riots continued showing that they would no longer stand for injustice and discrimination. 

These riots go down in history as starting the gay rights movement as well as are celebrated via Gay Pride Parades.