Stonewall: The birth of the gay movement
by Leslie Davis
June 2, 2009
President Obama may not be backing same sex marriage, but he has
officially recognized June as LGBT Pride month. "Forty years ago,
patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn in New York City resisted
police harassment that had become all too common for members of the
lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Out of this
resistance, the LGBT rights movement in America was born. During LGBT
Pride Month, we commemorate the events of June 1969 and commit to
achieving equal justice under law for LGBT Americans."
In "Out for Good" historian Dudley Clendinen describes homosexuals,
prior to the Stonewall Inn riots, as "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
After World War I, the New York neighborhoods of Greenwich Village
and Harlem became home to a large gay and lesbian population. Many
men and women, who had served in the military, took advantage of the
opportunity to settle in larger cities. The social repression of the
1950s resulted in a cultural revolution in Greenwich Village. A
cohort of poets wrote about anarchy, drugs, and hedonistic pleasures.
Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, both Greenwich Village
residents, wrote about homosexuality. Their writings attracted
sympathetic liberal-minded people, as well as homosexuals looking for
The late 1960s were contentious, with revolution and rebellion in the
air. The civil rights movement, the anti-war demonstrations and the
women's rights movement rebelled against US military intervention in
Vietnam and the political/social conservatism of the 1950s. These
influences, along with the liberal atmosphere of Greenwich Village,
served as catalysts for the Stonewall riots.
Few businesses welcomed openly gay patrons in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia. Though it catered to an
assortment of customers, it was popular with the most marginalized
people within the gay community: transvestites, effeminate young men,
hustlers and homeless youth. By the early 1960s, a campaign to rid
New York City of gay bars was underway. The mayor was concerned about
the image of the city in preparation for the 1964 World's Fair. The
city revoked the liquor licenses of the bars. Undercover police
officers entrapped as many homosexual men as possible through covert
and overt solicitation.
Police raids were not unusual in 1969. During a typical raid, the
police would turn on the lights, line up the customers and check ID.
Those without ID or dressed in full drag were arrested. Women who
were not wearing three pieces of feminine clothing were arrested.
Raids were conducted regularly with little resistance until the
twilight hours of June 28, 1969, when the police raided a popular
Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn.
Those dressed as women refused to go with the officers. Men in line
began to refuse to produce ID. The police decided to take everyone
present to the police station, taking the transvestites into the back
room of the bar. The bar patrons fought back. As officers lost
control of the crowd at the Inn, the street erupted into spontaneous,
In "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution," David
Carter quotes several participants and witnesses:
Michael Fader explained, "We all had a collective feeling like we'd
had enough of this kind of sh!t. It wasn't anything tangible anybody
said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the
years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one
particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration....
Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It
was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had
always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different
reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything
combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the
police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying
to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at
last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We
weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them
shove us aroundit's like standing your ground for the first time and
in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by
surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time
overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms,
but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't."
The police, outnumbered by between 500 and 600 people, grabbed
several people gathered in the street, including folk singer Dave van
Ronk. Though van Ronk was not gay, he had experienced police violence
in anti-war demonstrations. He was quoted as saying, "As far as I was
concerned, anybody who'd stand against the cops was all right with
me, and that's why I stayed in. Every time you turned around the cops
were pulling some outrage or another."
Bob Kohler, who was walking his dog by the Stonewall that night, saw
the tactical police force arrive: "I had been in enough riots to know
the fun was over. The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever
happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because
everybody else had rioted, but the fairies were not supposed to riot,
no group had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was
just enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill."
Inspector Pine recalled, "Fights erupted with the transvestites, who
wouldn't go into the patrol wagon." Another witness corroborated his
account, "All I could see about who was fighting was that it was
transvestites and they were fighting furiously."
Saturday, June 28, graffiti appeared on the walls of the bar,
declaring "Drag power", "They invaded our rights", "Support gay
power" and "Legalize gay bars." Thousands of people gathered in front
of the Stonewall Inn.
Beat poet and longtime Greenwich Village resident Allen Ginsberg
lived on Christopher Street. After he learned of the riot the
previous evening, he stated, "Gay power! Isn't that great! It's about
time we did something to assert ourselves," and visited the open
Stonewall Inn for the first time. While walking home, he declared,
"You know, the guys there were so beautifulthey've lost that wounded
look that f@gs all had 10 years ago"
The backlash and several nights of protest that followed have come to
be known as The Stonewall Riots. Within weeks, Village residents
organized activist groups to establish places for gays and lesbians
to be open about their sexual orientation, without fear of being
arrested. Within two years of the Stonewall riots there were gay
rights groups in every major American city, as well as Canada,
Australia and Western Europe.
Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the
one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. A rally was held on
Christopher Street, including the first Gay Pride march in US
history. A Gay Pride march took place simultaneously in Los Angeles.
In 1971 Gay Pride marches took place in Boston, Chicago, Dallas,
Milwaukee, London, Paris, Berlin and Stockholm. By 1972 Atlanta,
Buffalo, Detroit, Washington D.C., Miami and Philadelphia organized parades.
Stonewall became the defining event that marked the start of the gay
rights movement in the United States and around the world. It has
been compared to several acts of radical protest and defiance in
American history, but the best contemporary analogy is Rosa Parks'
refusal to move to the back of the bus in December 1955.
However, the people who joined activist organizations after the riots
had very little in common other than their homosexuality. Race,
class, ideology, and gender were frequent obstacles. The growth of
lesbian feminism in the 1970s often conflicted with the gay
liberation movement. Some lesbians refused to work with gay men. Many
lesbians found men's attitudes patriarchal and chauvinistic. They saw
in gay men the same misguided notions about women that they saw in
heterosexual men. The issues most important to gay men, entrapment
and public solicitation, were not shared by lesbians.
In 1977 a coalition of conservatives named Save Our Children staged a
campaign to repeal a civil rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.
Save Our Children was successful enough to influence similar repeals
in several American cities in 1978. However, the same year a campaign
in California called the Briggs Initiative, designed to force the
dismissal of homosexual public school employees was defeated.
Reaction to the influence of Save Our Children and the Briggs
Initiative in the gay community was so significant that it has been
called the second Stonewall for many activists. Gay men and lesbians
overcame gender, class and generational obstacles to form cohesive
grassroots organizations against a common cause.
In June 1999 the U.S. Department of the Interior designated 51 and 53
Christopher Street, the street itself and the surrounding streets as
a National Historic Landmark, the first of significance to gays and
lesbians. In a dedication ceremony, the Assistant Secretary of the
Department of the Interior stated, "Let it forever be remembered that
here, on this spot, men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so
that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we
choose and love whom our hearts desire."
Prior to the riots, there was little public expression of the lives
and experiences of gays and lesbians. The Stonewall Riots transformed
the oppression of gays and lesbians into a call for community, pride
and action. In the past forty years the gay community's voice
continues to be a loud call for social equality, justice, tolerance
Images From the Stonewall Uprising's Final Night
By Sewell Chan
June 1, 2009
[See URL for images.]
The Stonewall uprising that began 40 years ago this month in
Greenwich Village has come to be seen as a defining event in the
development of the gay rights movement, but little visual evidence
has survived from the six nights of the disturbances, in which gay
men fought back against a pattern of police harassment.
A series of photographs that were taken by a New York Times
photographer on the sixth and final night of the disturbances, but
not published, has surfaced, offering what David Carter, who wrote a
comprehensive history of the riots in 2004, says are the only known
images from the uprising's tumultuous finale.
The images were shot by a Times photographer named Larry Morris on
the evening of Wednesday, July 2, 1969, five nights after a raid on
the Stonewall Inn, a nightclub on Christopher Street popular among
gay men and lesbians, touched off the disturbances.
As Mr. Carter explains in his book "Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked
the Gay Revolution," protesters, most of them young gay men in the
Village, were angered by articles about the disturbances published
that day in The Village Voice that were seen as disparaging of gays.
In addition, Mr. Carter wrote, some nongay activists from radical
leftist organizations had descended on the Village, impressed by the
riots as an example of resistance to authority.
By around 10 p.m. on July 2, a crowd that The Times estimated at 500
had gathered outside the Stonewall Inn. Some began shoving and
throwing bottles; others set fire to garbage at Christopher Street
and Waverly Place. Riot officers from the Police Department's
Tactical Patrol Force, wearing helmets and armed with nightsticks,
descended on the scene. By the evening's end, numerous people had
been injured, including a patrolman who was struck on the face and
had to be treated at a hospital, and at least five people were arrested.
The Times published a short article the next day, "Hostile Crowd
Dispersed Near Sheridan Square," but did not include Mr. Morris's photographs.
The photographs remained away from public review for nearly four
decades. In 2006, a photography researcher for The Times found the
original prints and, noticing that the captions on the photographs
identified them as being of the Stonewall riots, scanned the images
into the newspaper's internal image database. Eventually the pictures
were logged in by Redux Pictures, a photo agency that sells stock
photographs and has an arrangement with The Times.
And in April, The Times published one of the images to accompany an
article in the Week in Review section, with the caption: "The
Village, 1969: Near the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village a week
after the raid and rebellion."
At the same time, Dana Kirchoff, an archival researcher working on a
documentary film about Stonewall for the PBS history series "American
Experience," encountered the images on the Redux Web site. Since
March, she had been poring over records at the New York Public
Library, identifying news photographers who were active in the
Stonewall era in the hopes of encountering previously unpublished
images from the riots.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Carter called The Times's images
"extremely important" from a historical perspective, because only a
handful of images from the riots survive. They include a photograph
taken by a freelancer, Joseph Ambrosini, from the first night of the
riots and published in The Daily News, and some posed images taken by
Fred McDarrah for The Village Voice from the second night of the riots.
"I'm very grateful The Times preserved and cataloged them," Mr.
Carter said of the images from the final night of the riots. "This is
a wonderful gift for the gay community to get in the month of the
40th anniversary of the riots."