In June 1969, America’s besieged LGBTQ community battled homophobic cops at the Stonewall Inn in New York, kicking off the modern day gay rights movement.
The Caribbean radical CLR James once wrote:
“When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity."
What’s true of the laboring masses was true of the Americans who gathered at New York’s Stonewall Inn exactly fifty years ago today, on June 28th, 1969.
Life Under Siege: Being Gay in 1960s America
The United States was a grim place to be gay in the Sixties.
In some states, consenting adults caught having homosexual relations could be sent to prison for life.
In others, you’d be sent to an insane asylum (the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental illness) where you could be castrated, lobotomized, or given electroshock therapy.
Those gay men and women brave enough to go to one of the country’s few gay nightlife establishments ran the risk of a violent raid by homophobic cops and, if they were arrested, getting fired from their job and blacklisted.
Under this daily assault, something was bound to snap.
And snap it did – outside the Stonewall Inn in Lower Manhattan, on a hot night in June of 1969.
What Happened at the Stonewall Inn
Standing at the crossroads of Christopher Street and Seventh Ave in New York’s Greenwich Village, Stonewall was a buzzing cultural hub of the gay community – which made it a target.
Police raids on the inn were routine – but what happened on the night and early morning hours of June 27th-28th was anything but.
The cops raided the bar as usual, forcing the patrons out onto the street.
But rather than disperse into the night, the guests held their ground. Soon, they started to be joined by allies from the neighborhood and from elsewhere in the city.
Unnerved, the cops called in riot police for support, confident that a bigger show of force would break this unexpected defiance.
The police vans arrived, the cops jumped out and charged, but the people of Stonewall didn't budge.
For the remainder of the night, New York City's gay community – prejudged by the cops as weak and ‘sissies’ – fought running battles with the NYPD across Greenwich.
Six days of demonstrations and rioting ensued, with "Stonewall" becoming a watershed moment for the gay resistance and liberation movement in the United States and other nations.
The only thing shocking about the riots was that they hadn’t happened sooner.
But once they had, there was no going back.
Why Stonewall Matters
As the Sixties drew to a close, the Stonewall Riots lit the fuse of a gay liberation movement which – together with the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, the fight against Vietnam, and other battle lines that emerged out of that turbulent decade – would go on to change America and the world forever.
New organizations like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance helped score a series of hard-fought victories for gay rights in America, from forcing homosexuality to be declassified as a mental illness in 1973 to getting Harvey Milk elected in San Francisco in 1977.
And as early as June 1970, the first public gay pride marches took place commemorating the one-year anniversary of the riots at Stonewall – a radical tradition which continues in cities around the world to this day.
Stonewall wasn’t just the LGBTQ community taking a stand – it was the start of a forward march.
The resisters who stood up to the police outside a New York City bar in 1969 could hardly have imagined that within 50 years, the United States and other Western countries would go from criminalizing homosexuality to guaranteeing the equal right of same sex couples to marry.
At a time when the forces of American homophobia are again trying to turn the clock backward with ridiculous "bathroom bills," religious freedom claims, and other reactionary appeals, carrying on the legacy of Stonewall is more important than ever.