The First Pride Was A Riot

No really. It totally was. Fifty years ago, in the wee hours of June 28, 1969, The Stonewall Uprising happened. It marked a turning point in the modern gay rights movement. And it is why the LGBTQ+ community celebrates Pride in June. There were earlier displays of resistance, but Stonewall was a galvanizing event.

The Stonewall today
“IMG_1775” by annulla is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

It’s Serenity again and we’re talking about Pride. Well, the history of Pride. We’re really going to focus on that riot I was talking about. Because those that don’t learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.

The Stonewall Inn of 1969 was a terrible little hole in the wall gay bar. It was owned by the Mafia. Actually, due to politics and corruption, most of the NYC gay bars were owned by the Mafia. They tended to be dangerous, dirty, sell watered down drinks, and bribe the police to look the other way. The Stonewall didn’t even have a liquor license! In fact, earlier in 1969, Gay Rights groups blamed the Stonewall for an outbreak of hepatitis. These Mafia owned bars were not a haven for the gay community; there was just nothing else available.

The bribery of the police did not reduce the bars’ chances of being raided. It just improved the likelihood of being tipped off before hand. However, the fateful night of the Uprising, employees never received a tip off about the raid. It occurred much later in the evening than normal. The bar had roughly 200 customers at the time. A tipping point had been reached.

Men refused to produce ID’s and customers dressed in women’s clothing refused to be led to the bathroom. Those not being arrested refused to disburse. A crowd began to form outside the bar. Lesbian customers were assaulted by the police. Rumors of beatings quickly began to spread. A woman was led out of the bar in handcuffs. She fought with officers and was struck on the head with a baton. She was picked up and thrown into a police wagon. Witnesses report her looking at the crowd and asking “Why don’t you guys do something?” It was then that the crowd turned.

The police were trying to break up the crowd with force, further stoking the unrest. Accounts differ but it is agreed that the crowd began to shout and throw coins at the police. There are some reports of bricks and cobbles being thrown. (There’s quite the debate within the community about who threw the first brick.) Without a doubt, violence ensued. The police were forced to take shelter in the very bar they raided. Tactical police forces came to break up the mob, mass arrests were made, there were foot chases through the streets. At one point the protesters even formed a kick line in the face of the police phalanx. The chaos continued through the night.

The next evening, protests continued. Confrontations with police were sporadic for the next several days. Slowly things began to calm down, but nothing would ever be the same. The gay community was done being quiet in the face of persecution.

Reaction to the riots varied in the gay community. Many of the long time activists saw it as embarrassing and a set back to the work they were doing. Others saw it as a call to arms to fight for their basic human rights. Everyone can agree though, that the gay rights movement gained momentum and widespread visibility in the aftermath. Within a few years every major city in the US had a gay rights group and resources for the community became more common.

“We will not let hate win.” by afagen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Stonewall catapulted the gay rights movement into the wider national, and international, consciousness. Progress was, and continues to be, slow. Soon the community would be faced with another crisis in the AIDS epidemic. And another, and another, and another. More than can be summed up in a simple blog.

This Pride, let’s all try to treat each other as we would like to be treated. And remember, fed up people can change the world. Stonewall was a riot, and now it’s a National Monument.