Who really knows why it all happened? Probably no one, not even those who were there. At least that’s how the story of the Stonewall riots continues to be told. But something was in the air that sweltering night at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, June 28, 1969, a crazy night during crazy times.
Judy Garland, a darling of the gay community, had died recently and her funeral had taken place just hours before the events of that historic night. Emotions were raw, and her death probably had nothing to do with what happened. No one knows, but the impact of her death lives on like a xeroxed zombie, and a spontaneous riot did erupt later that night at the Stonewall Inn.
Not that the Stonewall Inn was much of a place. In 1966, the Mafia had turned two storefronts located at 51-53 Christopher Street into a gay bar frequented primarily by men. It had no running water behind the bar. Glasses were merely rinsed out in tubs of dirty water before being reused. The toilets were famous for overflowing and there were no fire exits. The place did not even have a liquor license. But none of that prevented the Stonewall Inn from becoming the gay bar in New York City. Its big draw was that it was the only homosexual bar that permitted dancing, and that was enough.
So, what happened and why? Maybe it was just the times, or maybe it was just time for a riot. The consensus is that the NYPD, who raided th Stonewall Inn on a regular basis, confronted a crowd of about 200 people who, though long accustomed to such raids, were in no mood to be manhandled that particular night.
Four plainclothes cops, two others in uniform and two supervisors showed up at 1:20 a.m. for a routine raid. Typically, the cops would segregate the transvestites from the rest of the crowd to check whether their gender matched their attire. Any men dressed as women, or women as men, would be arrested … but not that night.
The drag queens refused to be searched, and other patrons refused to show their ID. Those who complied with police orders were kicked out of the bar, but instead of going home they remained outside and started ridiculing the police; bystanders joined in. Good-natured tomfoolery, street performances and comic salutes thrown at the members of the “public morals squad,” were encouraged by applause from the gathering throng. Estimates of the size of the crowd ranged from a few hundred to a thousand.
Meanwhile, the police handcuffed those arrested and escorted them out to a waiting paddy wagon. When the cops went in to bring out others, the first prisoners escaped. It was like a circus act featuring the Keystone Kops, but the circus atmosphere hid an underlying disquiet with an edge of anger.
One “stone-cold dyke” in handcuffs scuffled with the police until one cop hit her with a billy club. As she was being thrown into the paddy wagon she yelled to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” The crowd went berserk and started throwing bottles, rocks, bricks, anything they could get their hands on. Homeless gay street kids led the attack. A group of cops left for reinforcements while others barricaded themselves inside the inn. The “fairies” had finally had enough. They rebelled.
Someone liberated a parking meter and used it as a battering ram against the Stonewall’s doors. Others set garbage cans on fire and hurled them against the building. They smashed windows and stuffed the burning garbage through the broken glass. The cops used a fire hose but water pressure was insufficient.
The Tactical Police Force (TPF) arrived equipped with full-face helmets and truncheons. The mocking mob broke out in a spur-of-the-moment kickline to the tune of “Ta-ra-ra-Boom-deray,” singing, “We are the Stonewall girls/We wear our hair in curls/We don’t wear underwear/We show our pubic hair/And wear our dungarees/Above our nelly knees.”1
The cops moved forward in a wedge formation to clear the area. Another kickline formed. Another police wedge. Kickline. Wedge. The riots continued until 4 a.m. and resumed the following night. They persisted until Wednesday when the crowd advanced on the offices of the Village Voice, perhaps the most liberal newspaper in the city, threatening to burn it down because of its demeaning coverage of the rebellion and its name-calling: “forces of faggotry,” “limp wrists,” “Sunday fag follies.”
An eye witness said, “The cops were totally humiliated … the fairies were not supposed to riot … no group had ever forced the cops to retreat before, so the anger was enormous.”2
The police wrote the incident up as “an unusual occurrence.”3
The New York Daily News ran a blatantly offensive headline: “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.”4 The New York Times ran a small column buried somewhere deep in the paper, but at least the world began to pay attention to LBGTQ rights.
The Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg (“Howl”) wrote: “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”
On the one-year anniversary of the uprising, Christopher Street Liberation Day was held in New York City. Sister parades were held in Los Angeles and Chicago – these were the first gay pride parades in U.S. history. The following year there were parades in six major U.S. cities as well as four international capitals: London, Paris, West Berlin and Stockholm.
Unfortunately, the Stonewall Inn itself only lasted another six months after the riots. In subsequent years it was home to various businesses before reopening as a gay establishment in the late 1990s. It underwent major renovations in 2007, and is now fully operational, paying homage
to its rich heritage.
In 2000, the Stonewall Inn was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 2016 President Obama announced the establishment of the 7.7 acre Stonewall National Monument that included Christopher Street and the Inn. It is the first and only LBGTQ national monument.
Here on Fire Island, the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2013, because of its intimate connection with LBGTQ history.
A mere three weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, Thursday, June 6, 2019, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill apologized to the LBGTQ community stating, “The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong –– plain and simple. The actions and laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and, for that, I apologize.”
Friday, June 28, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, the birthday of Gay Liberation, a celebration of gender nonconformity. “Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue, where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”5
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