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Remembering The Stonewall Riots

Every June, LGBTQ+ communities across the United States celebrate Pride Month. Now known for joyful celebrations like parades, festivals, and parties, Pride began as a political demonstration. 

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, violence broke out during a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay nightclub in New York’s Greenwich Village. Raids were common at gay bars at the time, as it was still a crime to engage in homosexual activities, including dressing in drag.  

Most gay bars in New York were raided often, at least once a month. Anyone dressed in drag –– including men wearing makeup or teased hair, or women wearing less than three pieces of “feminine clothing” –– would be arrested, as would anyone who did not provide adequate identification.  

Most raids would start with the lights turning on, and everyone lining up for inspection, but the June 28 raid was different. 

The 250 patrons inside the bar refused to cooperate, and a crowd quickly formed outside. By the time a police wagon arrived to transport them to the police station, hundreds of people were outside the Stonewall Inn, most in solidarity of the men and women being arrested. 

The tension in the crowd came to a boil when an officer hit a handcuffed woman in the head with his baton. The woman fought back, and while reports from the night vary, multiple accounts recall her shouting at the onlookers, asking them why no one was doing anything. From there, the crowd became a mob and the riots officially began. 

Outnumbered by the hundreds, the police were quickly overwhelmed and barricaded themselves along with a handful of rioters inside the Stonewall for their own safety. 

After about 45 minutes, NYPD’s riot unit arrived to free the trapped officers. In response to attempts to clear the streets, protestors mocked the police by starting a kick line, singing to the tune of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay: “We are the Stonewall girls! We wear our hair in curls!”

“A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the form of a chorus line facing the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the [officers] advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay power[-]ites down Christopher to Seventh Avenue,” Lucian Truscott wrote in The Village Voice. 

The streets quieted around 4 a.m., leaving the Stonewall Inn largely destroyed, 13 people arrested, and dozens injured, including four police officers. 

News of the mayhem spread throughout the day, and that evening, thousands gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn. Gay and lesbian demonstrators openly displayed affection, breaking social norms and bursting out from behind the doors that had been kept locked for so long. 

As the crowd began to grow, it didn’t take long for chaos to break out once more. Witnesses reported seeing drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson climb a pole and drop a heavy bag onto the hood of a police car, causing the windshield to shatter. 

Protesters lit fires in garbage cans throughout Greenwich Village, and hundreds of police officers, including the riot unit, were on the scene, struggling to gain control of the crowd for the second night in a row. The rioting lasted until 4 a.m. once more, with kick lines, police chases, and violent battles between demonstrators and police. 

The next two days were quieter, but on Wednesday, violence broke out again. A large mob once again flocked into the street, emboldened by negative reports in the Village Voice, which included homophobic language and slurs. The crowd threatened to burn down the publication’s offices, sparking a third night of riots. 

Though it only lasted an hour, the riot solidified one thing: the movement was here.

After five days of largely spontaneous unrest, activists started to strategize, organize, and mobilize. Across the nation, LGBTQ groups were forming and becoming more vocal, laying the foundation for what would become a decades-long fight for rights. 

While raids on gay bars continued for years after the riots, and the road to equality proved arduous, the Stonewall Riots are largely considered to be the start of the gay rights movement. Within two years, every major city in the U.S. had gay rights groups, as did many in Canada, Australia, and Western Europe. 

On June 28, 1970 –– the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots –– the U.S. saw its first Gay Pride marches. In addition to the Christopher Street Liberation Day assembly at the site of the riots, demonstrators marched in Los Angeles and Chicago, starting the tradition that we know today as Pride. 

In the 53 years since, there have been many wins and losses for LGBTQIA rights in the United States and around the world. Gay, queer, and transgender people continue to be marginalized worldwide, including in many places in the U.S. However, while the fight for equality may never be over, it’s important to remember where it started and by whom.

For decades, the voices amplified in gay rights movements have been primarily white and cisgendered. While there has been a push in recent years to shine light on the non-white, gender non-conforming individuals who marched on the frontlines, their stories are still largely in the shadow. These are the groups who are consistently the most marginalized, discriminated against, and face the most violence for being who they are.

This June, celebrate Pride by learning and sharing their experiences: 

 

Stonewall: Recommended Reading

For Children

  • What Was Stonewall? by Nico Medina and Jake Murray
  • Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders 
  • The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle Pitman
  • Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution!: The Story of the Trans Women of Color Who Made LGBTQ+ History by Joy Michael Ellison
  • Pride: An Inspirational History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by Stella A. Caldwell
  • Our Rainbow by Sabrina Michelle Crawford
  • ‘Twas the Night Before Pride by Joanna McClintoc
  • Sewing the Rainbow: A Story about Gilbert Baker by Gayle Pitman 
  • Love and Resistance by Jason Baumann
  • The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders

For Teens

  • Rainbow Revolutions: Power, Pride, and Protest in the Fight for Queer Rights by Jamie Lawson
  • A Queer History of the United States for Young People by Michael Bronski 
  • Queer As All Get Out: 10 People Who’ve Inspired Me by Shelby Criswell 
  • Queer There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World by Sarah Prager
 

For Adults

  • Gender Euphoria: Stories of Joy from Trans, Non-binary and Intersex Writers by Laura Kate Dale
  • Girls Can Kiss Now: Essays by Jill Gutowitz
  • Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis by Grace E. Lavery
  • It was Vulgar & it was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic by Jack Lowery
  • Never Silent: ACT UP and my Life in Activism by Peter Staley
  • D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C Higgins 
  • Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin
  • Call me Cassandra by Marcial Gala
  • Rainbow Rainbow: Stories by Lynia Conklin
  • Dead Collections by Isaac R. Fellman
  • Fine: A Comic about Gender by Rhea Ewing
  • Call me Nathan by Catherine Castro
  • Kisses for Jet: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Joris Bas Backer

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