This is the time of year when my social media feeds are peppered with passionate assertions about Stonewall: what happened, who was there, who threw the “first brick,” etc. Such posts have only increased on this, the 50th anniversary of that watershed event. Sadly, with historical distance has come mythologization and mystification: many of the claims made about Stonewall are not supported by the available evidence. With an eye toward correcting those errors, here are some answers to the most common questions about Stonewall.
What is “Stonewall”?
The term “Stonewall” is LGBT shorthand for a series of violent protests that occurred between June 28 and July 2, 1969 in and around the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village, New York City frequented by gay men, lesbians, and various types of gender-transgressive people.
Those events — often called the “Stonewall Riots” or “Stonewall Uprising”—were marked by a spontaneous, militant resistance by lesbians, gay men, and transgender* people to a late-night bar raid by police. The Stonewall Uprising is widely viewed as the start of the modern gay and lesbian political movement.
What is the Stonewall Inn?
The Stonewall Inn is a Greenwich Village, New York City gay bar that was the epicenter of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. From the early twentieth century, Greenwich Village was a bohemian neighborhood famous for its artists, actors, writers, and intellectuals, many of whom were bisexual or homosexual.
The name “Stonewall” perhaps originated from The Stone Wall, a 1930s memoir depicting lesbian love. In subsequent years it served as a tearoom, restaurant, and banquet center. It closed after a fire in the mid-1960s but was reopened as the Stonewall Inn in 1967 by members of New York’s mafia.
At the time of the Stonewall Uprising, the Stonewall Inn occupied 51–53 Christopher Street. The interior public spaces comprised two large rooms with bars and dance floors where music was provided by jukeboxes. The bar had a single entrance onto Christopher Street, flanked by two large windows (which were covered with plywood at the time of the 1969 events). The bar was widely considered to be “shabby” and a “dive.” It attracted a mixed crowd of (mostly younger) gay men, lesbians, and transgender people due to its lax liquor policy, large dance floors, and jukeboxes that played popular soul and rock and roll music.
After the Stonewall Uprising, the Stonewall Inn went through periods of success and decline and today operates as a bar and pilgrimage site for tourists. In 2000, it was designated a National Historic Landmark and on June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama proclaimed the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park (across the street), and portions of the surrounding neighborhood as the Stonewall National Monument. It is now managed by the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior.
What happened at Stonewall?
Around 1:15 a.m. on Saturday morning June 28, 1969, officers of the New York Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn. The superficial justification was violation of liquor and other miscellaneous “cabaret” laws — the bar sold watered down drinks and had no liquor license. The bar was also suspected of being used by the mafia to identify gay Wall Street employees who were then blackmailed (on threat of being ‘outed’) into providing stolen financial instruments.
After entering the bar, police detained all customers and employees, inspected IDs, attempted to conduct strip searches of cross-dressing patrons, and arrested many patrons and employees. They also confiscated all cash and liquor, ransacked the bar, and destroyed the bar’s jukeboxes, bars, and furnishings.
As the police checked IDs and decided who to arrest, a large crowd of bar patrons and residents of Greenwich Village began to gather outside, cheering bar regulars as they exited the bar, either to freedom or into waiting patrol cars. When the police were witnessed rough-handling arrested transgender people, the crowd became restless and started heckling the police and pelting them with coins, cans, bottles, and trash. Tensions escalated when a masculine (‘butch’) lesbian vigorously resisted arrest, was beaten with a cops billy club, and yelled at the crowd, “Why don’t you do something?!”
When police vans departed with some of those arrested, the remaining eight officers found themselves far outnumbered by the increasingly angry crowd, and retreated inside the bar for safety. The crowd attacked the bar with bricks, cobblestones, and trashcans, breaking its windows and attempting to set it on fire with the police inside. At one point, protesters tore up a parking meter and attempted to batter down the bar’s doors. The police were rescued by the arrival of the fire department and riot police.
“We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don’t wear underwear/ We show our pubic hair.”
Word of the raid and violent protests quickly spread through Greenwich Village, a gay enclave, and crowds protested in front of the Stonewall Inn Saturday night and again the following Tuesday and Wednesday. These protests were more violent, as protesters played cat-and-mouse with riot police in the Village’s convoluted streets, pelted police and patrol cars with trash, bricks, and cobblestones, and, at one point, taunting them with singing and dancing chorus-line style.
Their campy humor contrasted with violence by both protesters and police: cars were overturned, streets were blocked, car and store windows were broken, and many small fires were set. Humiliated by unexpected resistance from a group viewed as “passive” and “docile,” police brutally beat and arrested both protesters and random passersby.
Who threw “the first brick”?
This is a misleading and ultimately unanswerable question. The spatial and temporal characteristics of Stonewall made it impossible for any one person to view the Uprising in its entirety.
The bar was crowded and divided into two large rooms, preventing patrons from seeing what happened throughout the bar. The crowd outside was large and unable to view events inside the bar. The protests took place over several nights and across several city blocks. Key moments often occurred simultaneously.
Understandably then, no single eyewitness could have been able to view the entire event as it unfolded, much less identified the first brick-thrower. However, eyewitnesses accounts agree on several important points:
- There was gradually increasing anger, and verbal and physical resistance to the police, from the moment the bar was raided. This started among patrons marked for arrest inside the bar and escalated as patrons exited the bar, either to freedom or under arrest.
- There were several key moments that escalated tensions: the rough handling of arrested transgender people; repeated vigorous physical resistance to arrest by a ‘butch’ lesbian (perhaps Stormé DeLarverie); the retreat of police into the bar; and, the arrival of the riot police.
- Throughout the entire protests, those most marginalized by society — homeless young gay men (“street youth”), transgender people (“queens”), effeminate gay men, “butch” lesbians, sex workers (“hustlers”)— instigated the protests, fought the hardest, and took the most risks.
- Gender variant people — transgender people, masculine lesbians, effeminate gay men — were among the earliest and most vigorous in their resistance: refusing strip searches, verbally and physically resisting arrest, escaping from police cars, and taunting police with jokes, singing, and dancing.
- Although photos and firsthand accounts record the presence of a small number of Blacks and Latinos — some of whom led at crucial junctures and were most active in the protests— the bulk of the protesters were homeless young White gay youths.
Was Stonewall the first such uprising?
No, Stonewall was not the first spontaneous or organized violent uprising by LGBT people against general societal repression and targeted police harassment. There are several other known instances:
- In May 1959, transgender women, lesbian women, drag queens, and gay men — some of whom were sex workers — rose up against police harassment at Cooper Do-Nuts in the Skid Row district of Los Angeles, throwing food, dishes, and trash at retreating police officers who had attempted to arrest them on various minor charges.
- In August 1966, transgender women at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco rose up against police harassment, throwing food, drinks, dishes, and shoes, and breaking the restaturant’s glass windows.
- On New Year’s Eve 1966, San Francisco police raided the Black Cat Tavern and Faces, gay bars in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles, beating and arresting 14 bar patrons. Several hundred people demonstrated after the raids.
- In August 1969, police raided The Patch, a gay bar in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, arresting several patrons. The bar’s owner organized a large march and rally at a nearby police station.
Stonewall punctuated a gay liberation sentence that was already being written!
Why is Stonewall the protest that’s remembered?
Unlike prior protests and demonstrations, the intensity and duration of the Stonewall Uprising was likely due to: its unique social and physical geography (in a ‘gay ghetto’ amid a confusing network of small streets; connected to numerous forms of transportation; fronting onto Christopher Park allowing space for protesters); the recency of police crackdowns on gay bars in New York; the presence of activists who helped organize the protest, notify the press, and attract supporters; and its size and popularity as a gay dance club, especially with the most marginalized within the LGBT community including transgender people and the homeless gay men (“street youth”) who lived in Christopher Park.
These unique features of the Stonewall Inn coincided with a notable increase in gay collective consciousness nationwide and calls for more confrontational approaches to resist state repression. And decades of police harassment of homosexuals and well-publicized instances of brutal suppression of social justice protests by New Left, anti-war, and Black civil rights activists.
The Stonewall Uprising also occurred at a time and in a place where activists had the capacity to create a commemorative mythology that depicted Stonewall as the turning point in gay and lesbian political activism and public life. That view of Stonewall was created, circulated, and perpetuated within new community and political organizations, and the writings and activism of those who were at Stonewall.
What happened after Stonewall?
Some of those present at Stonewall, having experience in other social justice movements and street protests of the 1960s, immediately recognized the significance of the event and helped organize and publicize it even as it occurred: agitating in the crowd, alerting local newspapers, and notifying friends that something momentous was occurring in the Village.
On the second night of protests, leaflets and chalked notices on the Stonewall Inn’s boarded-up windows called the LGBT community to a meeting to air their grievances. That meeting led to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance: two of a new generation of gay social and political organizations.
Sensing the moment was right for a more public statement, on July 27, 1969— one month after the Stonewall protests — activists organized a “Gay Power” march through Greenwich Village culminating in a rally of hundreds of people at Washington Square Park.
On Sunday, June 28, 1970, the first annual Christopher Street Liberation Day march attracted 2000 LGBT people and supporters who walked from Sheridan Square (near the Stonewall Inn) to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Members of over 20 gay and lesbian organizations from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York participated in the blocks-long march, chanting “Gay Power!” and “Out of the closets, into the streets!”
That commemoration is now repeated, worldwide, often on the last Sunday in June, in the form of LGBT Pride parades and festivals.
Why was Stonewall significant?
Beyond its undeniable importance as one of the largest and longest protests against police repression of LGBT people, Stonewall was a watershed event that directly led to the formation of a new generation of LGBT social and political organizations. Many of the participants point to the event as the birth of a new collective social, cultural and political consciousness of gays and lesbians in the United States.
Stonewall marks the point at which homosexual activism shifted from a politics of “politeness” and “respectability” that aimed to counter the worst stereotypes about homosexuality, to more militant and confrontational demands for acceptance, rights, respect, and equality. That shift resulted in significant social, cultural, economic, legal, and political gains that has allowed many of us to live more open and authentic lives.
Several important books and documentary films have been produced about Stonewall. Some of the best are:
- David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2004). Much of the detail in this summary has been drawn from Carter’s essential book.
- Martin Duberman, Stonewall (NY: Dutton, 1993).
- Stonewall Uprising: The Year that Changed America, dir. Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (PBS: The American Experience, 2010).
*I’m using the contemporary word “transgender” as an umbrella term to describe a wide range of gender transgressive and gender variant people. At the time they would have been called queens (“flame queens,” “scare queens,” drag queens), transvestites, transsexuals, and “fairies” (effeminate gay men wearing make-up and/or a few items of women’s clothing.)
Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.