A Complete Overview of the Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Riots happened on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NY. There were a series of spontaneous protests and demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against numerous police raids. The Stonewall Inn was a gathering place for gays, lesbians, and drag queens, and when police raids occurred, men could simply be arrested for dancing with other men, and men could be arrested for wearing women clothes. The act of homosexual sex could merit 20 years in prison. Raids at the Stonewall Inn usually went along these lines: people in the bar were lined up, and made to show their identification. If they didn’t have identification, or the men were dressed in drag, they were arrested. If women did not have at least 3 feminine items of clothes, they were arrested. If any bar had even one known homosexual in it, it would be considered disorderly, resulting in bars not allowing gay people in. Realizing that the gay community wanted a place to gather, the Mafia created the Stonewall Inn, were they sold alcohol for double the price, and watered down. Gay men and lesbians just wanted a place to congregate, and be together in an accepting environment. However, on June 28th, things went differently.  Discrimination had become the status quo in America, where people could simply be arrested for being themselves and expressing themselves, and finally, they had had enough.

In the late 1960’s many social groups were active, such as the African American Civil Rights Movement, the counterculture of the 60’s, and Vietnam anti-war demonstrations. However, black rights were protected under constitutional amendments,  There was a feeling that the public could have say in how the police and the government were treating its people, and this served as a catalyst for the Stonewall Riots. Between 1947 and 1950, thousands of people were discharged from the army, 420 were fired from government jobs, and 1,700 federal job applications were denied of people who were suspected homosexuals. In the 1960’s Gay men were put into mental institutions to “cure” their “sickness.” They were given electric shock treatments while being shown pictures of naked men, to make sure they never felt arousal to their own sex, as well as sometimes even being lobotomized, sterilised, and castrated. Propaganda films and advertisements were shown showing how dangerous gay men are, and if you were engaging in sexual intercourse with the same sex, you would be found out and you would have to face consequences.

Very few places openly welcomed gay people, and police raids in gay bars were a common occurrence, with arrests being made frequently. The FBI kept lists of known homosexuals, and kept track of their addresses, causing further discrimination. Many LGBT people were fired from their jobs, or evicted from their houses, simply for being queer. They lived double lives, too afraid of what people would do if they knew of their sexual orientation. In 1952 homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder, and New York specifically had a law making it illegal to be gay. Many gay customers in the early hours of June 28th at the Stonewall Inn, which was then owned by the Mafia, became anger at the discrimination they faced by the police, and took a stand. They started rioting, throwing things at the police, and yelling “gay power”. More police arrived and beat the protesters away, but the next day many more gay men and women had come to join the protests, hearing the word. For days, there were several demonstrations all over the city, of various degrees of scale and size. This was one of the first instances where the gay community actually became a community, and it was the first time that they all came together to take a stand against the oppression that had faced for too long.

The Stonewall Riots link into many social concepts. It was a fight for freedom and equality for people in the LGBT community, and it actually helped actually form a LGBT community.  The Stonewall riots were caused by discrimination and abuse of power by the police, and its consequences were that many LGBT groups were created, and a sense of belonging came out it, as well as many laws and bills being passed to help end discrimination, being governmental change. The Stonewall Riots helped people to be able to make the government accountable for their actions, and for their responsibilities. It also helped to form many LGBT groups which in turn helped put pressure on the government to change laws to get more rights for LGBT people. The intended purpose of the social action was not anything as specific as something like the March on Washington, or the Birmingham Campaign, which was meticulously planned and organised, with the specific motive. The Stonewall Riots were simply based on the fact that the gay community had had enough. They had had enough of being persecuted simply for wearing articles of clothing from the other sex, or for just being homosexual.

The two major participants in the Stonewall Riots were the gay community, and the government/professionals. There were the  views of professionals, such as psychiatrists like Irving Bieber, Albert Ellis and Charles W. Socrarides, who believed that homosexuality, was an illness. These views and beliefs seeped into the public sphere, making anti-gay sentiments a common view. The Psychiatry belief that homosexuality was a mental illness shaped the Stonewall Riots, because it was one major catalyst to the homophobic views that a majority of people had, as well as the fear that many gay people had that led to the unleashing of a riot in Stonewall. Hate crimes perpetrated by civilians, anti-gay laws, and police brutality against gays was one perspective that led to the Stonewall riots. The FBI had lists of known homosexuals and their addresses, and it was illegal to be gay in every single state but Illinois. Those homosexuals who were arrested or had their sexual orientation found out would have their names printed in the Newspaper, opening up the doors for harassment and hate crimes.  General Eisenhower told Johnnie Phelps, a lesbian servicewoman to “ferret out” the lesbians from the battalion, but Phelps informed him that she would be pleased to draw up a list, however her name, as well as all the file clerks, commanders, and drivers, a majority of whom were lesbian. Eisenhower then declined that proposition. The homophobia was not just societal or subtle, it was lawful. The other side of the spectrum was the gay community, who joined together against discrimination to fight for basic rights.

The police force enforced the homophobic laws that were put in place by the Government, and the professionals whom the government was influenced by. They were the main opposition to the Gay community in the Stonewall Riots, them being the ones to raid the bar, setting off the riot. Police dressed up in drag and plainclothes, ambushing gays and lesbians, and then arresting them. They would arrest people for holding hands with others of the same sex, a man dancing with a man, people having gay sex, and even people wearing a few articles of clothing that were not considered from their gender. The police took orders from the law, and law was put in place by the Government, who were blatantly homophobic. Gays who were arrested could be carted off the mental institutions without trial. It can be considered that many of the Police Officers did not have the same views as the actions they were undertaking, and that they were simply following orders, but as a whole, the police were undertaking oppressive and discriminatory actions against gays and lesbians, causing the Stonewall Riots.

Leading up to the Stonewall Riots, there were a few underground and politically hesitant homophile groups (a term used to describe supporters of the gay rights movement, not used in the 21st century anymore). These groups included Daughter of Bilitis, and the Easter Regional Conference of Homophile Organisations, which was outlets and havens for lesbians and gays, as opposed to gay bars. It can be viewed that the homophile groups before the Stonewall riots were pioneering groups that led to the Stonewall Riots. These groups educated homosexuals to help them realize they were in the oppressed minority, and that they could do something about it.

More specifically however, one major participant in the Stonewall Riots was Storme Delarverie. On the night of the Stonewall Riots, Delarverie was arrested and brought over to the Paddy-Wagon, and she fought back. She was hit on the head with a baton, and she apparently sparked the crowd to fight (accounts vary however). She said: “Why don’t you guys do something?” After that, the crowd went berserk, and everything exploded. It could have been any incident that would have sparked the actual riots; it seemed as if the crowd was waiting for the moment, the moment to start the riots. More and more people came and joined in the riot, causing the protests to go on for days. Delarverie’s role in the gay rights movement lasted much longer than 1969. She self-appointed herself as a guardian to lesbians in New York, protecting them for “ugly”: intolerance, hate, and or abuse. Delarverie is best known as the “Rosa Parks” of the gay movement, for taking a stand and having courage, which caused so much freedom for the gay community. She viewed the Stonewall riots not simply as a riot, but as an uprising, a form of civil disobedience. The reason for her involvement in the Stonewall Riots was not simply because she got arrested and fought back. She was fighting for her identity, as well as the rights of everyone in the not yet fully formed gay community.                                                                

The Stonewall Riots did enable responsibilities of the US government to be met, as well as the responsibilities of the Police Force, and the Psychiatrists in the US. It was a major turning point, because after the Stonewall Riots, many new gay rights groups were formed, gay newspapers were created, and confrontational tactics were implemented in the gay rights groups. All of this resulted in a cohesive gay community fully forming, causing the discrimination and abuse that they had faced to finally be acknowledged and worked to change. There were letter-writing campaigns to the Mayor of New York in a plea to end the police raids of gay bars, led by Congressman Ed Koch and the Democratic Party. Additionally, the Stonewall Riots helped many people who were gay and lesbian realize that their rights were being breached, and in many cases they did not have any rights, and because of the riots, they finally took a stand.

A way in which the Stonewall riots helped responsibilities be met was all the campaigns that were started to get politicians and people in power to do something about discrimination against gays. This helped to make those in power realize that the issue of gay discrimination was not going to be left under the ground forever, and some major changes would need to be made. Stonewall was seen as a major event in the whole fight for gay rights, so in that sense of course the Stonewall Riots enable rights and responsibilities to be met. It is the event that everyone thinks back to, and helped create a solid and cohesive community, that could come together to fight to pass bills, and defeat anti-gay groups and establishments, all of this resulting in the exercising of rights.

However, raids did not completely stop after the Stonewall Riots. In one police raid months after stonewall, a gay man called Diego Vinales was so terrified of getting deported back to Argentina because he was homosexual, jumped out a two story building and got impaled on a 36cm fence. So this proved how Stonewall wasn’t completely effective, which is understandable, since change comes with a lot of effort. However, because the number of gay rights groups went from 50 to 2500 because of Stonewall, all of those groups worked to ensure rights for gay people, such as acceptance, gay marriage and the implementation of anti-discriminatory laws against gay people, especially in the work place.

The immediate consequences of the Stonewall Riots was that the gay community became solidified and became fully formed, with many people finally realizing that they were not alone, and they didn’t have to sit idly and watch discrimination happen before their eyes. The riots went on for days with more and more people joining in the protest as the days went on. It seemed as if people were surprised that so many people were fighting for gay rights, and this actually caused a surge of support, with many people probably coming out for the first time, finally feeling like they have some acceptance from others. The alienation and isolation that many gay people felt, because of systemic and lawful discrimination probably felt more insignificant due to the Stonewall Riots, which created a sense of community and belonging within the gay population. Many people who were not involved in the gay community before the Stonewall riots felt a sense of urgency and began to join organizational committees regarding gay rights, making numbers surge. More press attention was being aimed at gay protests, partly due to more and more people in the gay community having courage to publicly express their sexuality. According to Lilli Vincenz, a participant in July 4th 1969 with the Mattachien Community for gay rights, “It was clear that things were changing. People who had felt oppressed now felt empowered.” The Stonewall riots gave people the much needed courage to protest in more extreme ways. New gay rights groups were formed, with names and intentions that were stated much more clearly than the old gay rights groups, which had obscure names to hide their true purpose to avoid controversy. New gay rights groups took on strategies of Black Panthers, and became more militant.

The short term consequences was the many gay rights organisations and newspapers and groups were created, partly due to the Stonewall riots, and partly due to the evolution of the gay community, obviously propelled by the Stonewall riots. Within six months, a new magazine in New York called Gay was created, because the Village Voice, the most liberal newspaper in all of New York refused to print the word “gay”. Within a few years, hundreds of gay rights groups and communities were created around the globe. A year later, on June 28th 1970, Gay pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Chicago, commemorating the anniversary of the riot. Every year on that day, Gay pride events happen in memory of the Stonewall Riots. Joan Nestle, who co-founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1974, completely attributed the creation of the group to the Stonewall Riots, though she didn’t believe that the whole gay resistance did not start at a Stonewall, it was a major turning point however.

One consequence was the shutting down of the Stonewall Inn two weeks after the riots took place. Some people believe that it was because customers were deterred from going because of the riots, and the notoriety that surrounded the Inn. However, it can be almost universally agreed in the gay community that the shutting down of the Inn was definitely worth the rights that they obtained because of it. Frank Kameny, a very famous member of the LGBT community, realised the pivotal change caused by the Stonewall Riots. He said: “By the time of Stonewall, we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there was at least fifteen hundred. By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was twenty-five hundred.” David Carter, who wrote an article titled “What made Stonewall Different”, explained why Stonewall was different to the other uprisings that had happened before Stonewall. It lasted long (6 days), thousands of people were involved, and it was the first time a gay uprising got major media coverage.

Long term consequences include the major success the gay rights movement achieved in the 1970’s. In 1977, the Briggs Initiative, a group designed to dismiss homosexual public school employees, was defeated. The way the gay community reacted to the Briggs Initiative, and Save Our Children was so strong; many people viewed it as the “second Stonewall”. The Stonewall riots made people realize that major changes could happen to the whole system in America, and that it was possible. Socially, the consequences was the people from every type of race, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic background all came together, with only the only thing in common being their sexual identities being non-heterosexual. People who you would never expect to see in the same room together were right alongside each other for rights.

Before Stonewall, gays and lesbians were, according to historians Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney: “a secret legion of people, known of but discounted, ignored, laughed at or despised. And like the holders of a secret, they had an advantage which was a disadvantage, too, and which was true of no other minority group in the United States. They were invisible. Unlike African Americans, women, Native Americans, Jews, the Irish, Italians, Asians, Hispanics, or any other cultural group which struggled for respect and equal rights, 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.” It wasn’t just a nationwide effect either; the Stonewall riots were heard around the globe, causing a mass effect.

The effect of the Stonewall riots has been so great that in June 1999, the U.S Department of the Interior designated the street that the Stonewall Inn was on as a National Historic Landmark, the first of significance to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and Tran’s community. The Stonewall Inn was named a historic landmark in 2000, and is a preserved area. In June 2009, President Barack Obama declared June to be a LGBT pride month, due to the Stonewall riots, and referenced it in an Inaugural address: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” It was also the first time a president had ever said the word “gay” or mentioned gay rights ever in the history.

Politically, the effects were that now governments were not going to be able to get away with homophobic propaganda and sentiments as well as laws, with all the new groups and the new vigour and life that had been breathed into those groups. However, it has taken 46 years for gay marriage to be legal in all of the United States, and there are still laws in the workplace that discriminate against LGBT’s and also allow abuse to go undetected.

Since the Stonewall Riots were a complete series of spontaneous demonstrations, it is more difficult to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the social action, because it was not planned meticulously, like the Birmingham Campaign, or the March on Washington. This means that it is hard to critique the way it was planned or undertaken, because there was no planning.

However, the strengths of the social action are as follows: The Stonewall Inn was in a prime position for a riot. The streets were narrow and crooked, which gave the rioters advantage over the police. It was also right across from the Village Voice headquarters, securing that it would be an event plastered all over the newspapers, causing a media stir. Greenwich Village-where the Stonewall Inn was located- was also a massive gathering for the gay community, so that helped propel the riots further and further, making it one of the biggest evens in the whole gay rights movement.

The strengths of the Stonewall riots were the amazing results that followed. The Gay Liberation Front, one of the most visible and vocal organisations for promoting equality for the LGBT community was formed because of the riots, and hundreds others. A sense of community within gay people was finally formed, and many people who felt too scared to be themselves found themselves surrounded by people who were like-minded, and had the same goals in mind. Gay historian John D’Emilio notes: this cathartic act of coming out publicly—to one’s family and friends, at work and on the streets—“quintessentially expressed the fusion of the personal and political that the radicalism of the late 1960s exalted.” It was not just in the United States, similar movements were formed in Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Austria. Though it was spontaneous, and not completely planned out for a long time, it still had dramatic effects, helped by the mass media coverage, and the thousands of people joining in on the riots, which lasted for 5 days.

The only negative aspect of the riots was that older gay rights veterans were at first horrified by the violence of the Stonewall Riots, and they believed that is diminished the fight for gay rights, and made the gay community less respectable. Examples of these gay activists, who in the beginning were ashamed of the Stonewall Riots, include Frank Kameny and Randy Wicker. However, it has been reported that both of them have expressed their regret at their disgust for the Stonewall riots. Randy Wicker came to describe his embarrassment as “one of the greatest mistakes of his life.” They realised how important the Stonewall Riots were for the gay rights movement, and the change in the tactics, changing from discrete and non-direct action to complete honesty and passion, was an inevitable and useful change in the major scheme of the movement.

The Key Words and Concepts surrounding the Stonewall riots range from gay rights, to discrimination, police brutality, community, rights, responsibilities, protests, social upheaval, LGBT rights, sexual liberation, government and  acceptance. Gay rights were finally being taken seriously, and being put in the same category and black civil rights, worker rights, and women’s rights. Police were finally being put in their place, and not allowed to abuse their power as much as they did before, though unfortunately it did not stop completely. Rights were finally being acknowledged and taken seriously, with the fight being amped up, examples including letter writing campaigns to senators, and the defeat of the homophobic groups such as the Briggs Initiative. Many gay people felt a responsibility to themselves to fight for their own rights, and also be themselves. The spontaneous demonstration was violent and rage-filled, though was justifiable, and completely effective, which in turn played a major part in the gay rights movement. Social upheaval was caused, because the injustice was finally being fought against, and thousands of people joined in, and thousands of gay rights groups were formed. Sexual liberation was being fought for, especially for Gay men, and many of those men fighting for sexual liberation began to see gradual change in the laws being passed, as well as the views of many police officers and the public. The government could not ignore the systemic and underlying hate for gays they were spreading, and they needed to shape up, because of the pressure from thousands in the gay community. Acceptance is also a key concept, because the Stonewall riots gave many gay people the courage and the acceptance to come out, and to finally accept themselves for who they were. Though laws did not change immediately, they did not feel as isolated, or as completely alone, because they were so many other people also realising that they were not alone, and the gay community formed.


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