The June 1969 riots at New York City's Stonewall Inn marked a raucous turning point in the fight for LGBT rights.
On a hot summer night in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar located in New York City’s Greenwich Village that served as a haven for the city’s gay, lesbian and transgender community.
At the time, homosexual acts remained illegal in every state except Illinois, and bars and restaurants could get shut down for having gay employees or serving gay patrons. Most gay bars and clubs in New York at the time (including the Stonewall) were operated by the Mafia, who paid corruptible police officers to look the other way and blackmailed wealthy gay patrons by threatening to “out” them.
Police raids on gay bars were common, but on that particular night, members of the city’s LGBT community decided to fight back—sparking an uprising that would launch a new era of resistance and revolution.
June 24, 1969: Police arrest Stonewall employees, confiscate alcohol.
On Tuesday before the riots began, police conducted an evening raid on the Stonewall, arresting some of its employees and confiscating its stash of illegal liquor. As with many similar raids, the police targeted the bar for operating without a proper liquor license.
After the raid, the NYPD planned a second raid for the following Friday, which they hoped would shut down the bar for good.
June 27-28, 1969: Stonewall crowd erupts after police arrest and rough up patrons.
After midnight on an unseasonably hot Friday night, the Stonewall was packed when eight plainclothes or undercover police officers (six men and two women) entered the bar. In addition to the bar’s employees, they also singled out drag queens and other cross-dressing patrons for arrest. In New York City, “masquerading” as a member of the opposite sex was a crime.
More NYPD officers arrived on foot and in three patrol cars. Meanwhile, bar patrons who had been released joined the crowds of onlookers that were forming outside the Stonewall. A police van, commonly known as a paddy wagon, arrived, and police began loading Stonewall employees and cross-dressers inside.
Early hours of June 28, 1969: Transgender women resist arrest. Bottles are thrown at police.
Accounts vary over exactly what kicked off the riots, but according to witness reports, the crowd erupted after police roughed up a woman dressed in masculine attire (some believe the woman was lesbian activist Stormé DeLarverie) who had complained that her handcuffs were too tight. People started taunting the officers, yelling “Pigs!” and “Copper!” and throwing pennies at them, followed by bottles; some in the crowd slashed the tires of the police vehicles.
According to David Carter, historian and author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the “hierarchy of resistance” in the riots began with the homeless or “street” kids, those young gay men who viewed the Stonewall as the only safe place in their lives.
Two transgender women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were said to have resisted arrest and thrown the first bottle (or brick or stone) at the cops, respectively. Although Johnson later said in a 1987 podcast interview with historian Eric Marcus that she had not arrived until the uprising was well underway.
The exact breakdown of who did what first remains unclear—in part because this was long before the smartphone era and there was minimal documentation of the night's events.
Close to 4 a.m. June 28, 1969: Police retreat and barricade themselves inside Stonewall.
As the paddy wagon and squad cars left to drop the prisoners off at the nearby Sixth Precinct, the growing mob forced the original NYPD raiding party to retreat into the Stonewall itself and barricade themselves inside.
Some rioters used a parking meter as a battering ram to break through the door; others threw beer bottles, trash and other objects, or made impromptu firebombs with bottles, matches and lighter fluid.
Sirens announced the arrival of more police officers, as well as squadrons of the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF), the city’s riot police. As the helmeted officers marched in formation down Christopher Street, protesters outsmarted them by running away, then circling the short blocks of the Village and coming back up behind the officers.
Finally, sometime after 4 a.m., things settled down. Amazingly, no one died or was critically injured on the first night of rioting, though a few police officers reported injuries.
June 28-29: Stonewall reopens, supporters gather. Police beat and tear gas crowd.
Despite having been torn apart by the cops, the Stonewall Inn opened before dark the next night (though it wasn’t serving alcohol). More and more supporters showed up, chanting slogans like “gay power” and “we shall overcome.”
Again the police were called out to restore order, including an even larger group of TPF officers, who beat and tear-gassed members of the crowd. This continued until the early hours of the morning when the crowd dispersed.
June 29-July 1, 1969: Stonewall becomes a gathering point for LGBT activists.
Over the next several nights, gay activists continued to gather near the Stonewall, taking advantage of the moment to spread information and build the community that would fuel the growth of the gay rights movement. Though police officers also returned, the mood was less confrontational, with isolated skirmishes replacing the large-scale riots of the weekend.
July 2, 1969: Gay activists protest newspaper coverage.
In response to the Village Voice’s coverage of the riots, which referred to “the forces of faggotry,” protesters swarmed outside the paper’s offices. Some called for burning the building down. When the police pushed back, rioting started again, but lasted only a short time, concluding by midnight.
The New York Daily News also resorted to homophobic slurs in its detailed coverage, running the headline: “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.” Meanwhile, the New York Times wrote only sparingly of the whole event, printing a short article on page 22 on June 30 titled “Police Again Rout ‘Village’ Youths.”
The lasting impact of the Stonewall Riots.
With Stonewall, the spirit of ‘60s rebellion spread to LGBT people in New York and beyond, who for the first time found themselves part of a community. Though the gay rights movement didn’t begin at Stonewall, the uprising did mark a turning point, as earlier “homophile” organizations like the Mattachine Society gave way to more radical groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).
June 28, 1970: First Gay Pride parade sets off from Stonewall.
On the first anniversary of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn, gay activists in New York organized the Christopher Street Liberation March to cap off the city’s first Gay Pride Week. As several hundred people began marching up 6th Avenue toward Central Park, supporters from the crowd joined them. The procession eventually stretched some 15 city blocks, encompassing thousands of people.
Inspired by New York’s example, activists in other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago, organized gay pride celebrations that same year. The frenzy of activism born on that first night at Stonewall would eventually fuel gay rights movements in Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, among other countries, becoming a lasting force that would carry on for the next half-century—and beyond.