June 28, 1969: The Beginning of the Stonewall Riots


In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the New York City Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club. After multiple raids at various gay bars, the patrons had enough. As the police hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, a riot sparked.

The protests and riots went on for 6 days, with violent clashes with law enforcement. The riots ultimately served as a catalyst for gay rights in the United States.


Because the 1960s were really only a great time if you were a straight, white male, they were certainly not a welcoming time for LGBT+ Americans. Because of this, LGBT+ people would frequent gay clubs and bars where they could express themselves without being attacked for who they were.

But even that was a problem for people, and the New York State Liquor Authority would penalize and shut down bars that served alcohol to gay people, arguing that the gathering of homosexuals was "disorderly" at base. Activists worked hard during this time, and in 1966, LGBT+ patrons were allowed to be served alcohol.

However, "gay public behavior" such as holding hands, kissing or even dancing with someone of the same sex, was still illegal. And thus, police raids on gay bars continued.

In 1966, members of a gay rights organization called The Mattachine Society, staged a "sip-in" where they wold declare their sexuality at non-gay bars and taverns, and would dare the staff to turn them away. If they did, they would sue the establishment.

Organized crime saw an opportunity during this time, and saw profit in catering to the shunned gay clientele. By the mid-60s, the Genovese crime family owned most Greenwhich Village gay bars, and they purchased the straight Stonewall Inn and renovated it as a gay bar. Patrons were to bring their own liquor, and thus, it did not need a liquor license. The crime family bribed the police to ignore the activities happening within the club, and so without police interfering, they could cut corners: no fire exit, no running water to wash glasses, dirty bathrooms. They would also blackmail the club's wealthy patrons to keep their secret sexuality a secret.

But the problems didn't much matter because it was large, cheap, and accepting. Drag queens were allowed. Runaways and homeless youth could come in. And it allowed dancing. Raids would still occur, but corrupt cops would tip off the Mafia-run bars before, so they could hide the alcohol and any other illegal activities. The bar wasn't great, but in the 1960s, any place where LGBT+ folks could be who they were was something.


Despite mafia-run bars typically getting a tip off, on the morning of June 28, 1969, a police raid came as a complete surprise. They came with a warrant and entered the club. They arrested 13 people: This included employees who were illegally selling alcohol, but also patrons who were violating the state's "gender appropriate clothing statute". If a patron was suspected of cross-dressing, female officers would take them into the bathroom to confirm their sex. (1)

This time, the camel's back broke. The patrons and neighborhood residents became enraged as people were manhandled. An officer hit a lesbian woman over the head. As people watched the chaos unfold, they became angrier and angrier. And within minutes, a full-blown riot broke out. (1)

The angry crowd began throwing beer cans and pennies at the police, who quickly became outnumbered by the 500 or 600 people who had gathered outside. Garbage cans, bottles, rocks and bricks were thrown at buildings, breaking windows. (1)

2 transgender women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were said to have resisted arrest, and thrown the first bricks in the riots. (2)

The mob attempted to set the bar on fire as the police barricaded them inside.The fire department arrived and doused the flames. The crowd was dispersed. But the riots and protests did not end. For 5 more days, thousands of people gathered to protest the equal rights of LGBT+ Americans. (2)

The Stonewall Inn opened the following night, with no alcohol being served. A group came to support the movement, chanting "gay power". The police arrived to restore order, and they beat and tear gassed the crowd. This continued into the early hours of June 29, when the crowd finally dispersed for the night. (2)

Over the next few nights, gay activists in the area would gather at the Stonewall Inn to spread information, and to build the community that would ultimately fuel the gay rights movement. Police still came, but were less confrontational. (2)

Within 2 years of the riots, they were gay rights groups in every major American city. It was not the start of the gay rights movement, but it did mark a turning point in the country's legislation and mindsets surrounding gay rights. The first Gay Pride parade occurred the following year on June 28, 1970, and gay pride parades have taken place in June every year since. The "frenzy of activism" born the night of the Stonewall riots fueled gay rights movements in the US, among other countries including Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, on the fight for equality. (3)


The first gay rights organization was founded in 1924 in Chicago by one Henry Gerber. He founded the Society for Human Rights. He helped to write and publish the country's first gay-interest newsletter. Though police raids forced the group to disband just 1 year after being founded, 90 years later, the U.S. government would designate his house a National Historic Landmark.

The pink triangle that is used as a worldwide symbol of gay power and pride was once a badge of shame, used in Nazi Germany to identify and further dehumanize gay and lesbian Germans during Hitler's reign. In 1973, the downward facing pink triangle was reclaimed as a symbol of liberation by Germany's first gay rights organization, Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin.

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, as mentioned earlier, LGBT+ people would be arrested for violating clothing laws. The law was called the "three-article" rule, which required a person must wear at least 3 "gender-appropriate" articles of clothing to avoid arrest for cross dressing. However, though it was enforced, oftentimes in humiliating ways, and people were arrested for violating the law, the law technically never even exists. They were actually arrested under entirely unrelated laws. In 1845, a law was passed to punish rural farmers who would dress like Native Americans to fight off tax collectors. Thus, the New York police would arrest LGBT+ people under this 19th century law that really had nothing to do with cross-dressing at all.

Once pride parades were established, a slogan was needed. Initially, the idea of "Gay Power" was thrown around, but a member of the planning committee, L. Craig Schoonmaker, suggested "Pride". He argued that gay individuals may not have power, but one thing they did have was pride.


Now, in 2020, though there is still so much do accomplish to ensure equality for all people regardless of sexual orientation, we have come so very far. There are hundreds, thousands of LGBT+ folks who we can thank for that, but here are just 8 of them who helped to change the course of the world for LGBT+ folks.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a German civil servant who was forced to resign from his job in 1858 because he was gay. He became an activist, publishing 12 volumes of work about sexuality. He argued that he was born gay, and he had not learned this "corruption", which most people believed at the time. He is thought to be the first gay person to ever speak publicly for homosexual rights. He argued in 1867 for anti-homosexuality laws to be repealed, and established himself as one of the earliest pioneers in the gay rights movement.

Barbara Gittings moved to Philadelphia from Austria when she was 18. She would hitchhike to New York over the weekends dressed in male drag, and started the New York branch of the Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950s, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the USA. She became a prominent member of the American Psychiatric Association, where she fought to remove homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders in the 1970s.

Marsha P Johnson fought against oppressive policing, helped fund one of the country's first safe spaces for transgender and homeless youth, and advocated for sex workers and people with HIV and AIDS. She played a huge role in the Stonewall uprising, being said to have thrown the first brick that sparked the riots that would ultimate light a spark in the gay rights movement. (6)

Harvey Milk became a prominent gay rights activist in the 70s, and made history as the first openly gay person elected to public office when he won a seat on the San Francisco City Council Board in 1977. He was murdered just a year later by a fellow City Council board member.

Magnus Hirschfeld is believed to have coined the term "transvestitism" and established the world's first gender identity clinic, helping transgender people to transition. He campaigned for gay rights back in 1896, despite Hitler describing him as "the most dangerous Jew in Germany" and burning his entire library at his Institute for Sexual Science.

Audre Lorde was known as the "black lesbian mother warrior poet" who published poetry that covered civil rights and sexuality. She is responsible for the quote, "women are powerful and dangerous".

Baynard Rustin was a close advisor to Martin Luther King, and an openly gay activist. His homosexuality prevented him from becoming recognized as a prominent leader in the civil rights movement. He worked to expand the freedoms and liberties of LGBT+ Americans.

Christine Jorgensen underwent surgery and hormone treatment for a year and a half and officially transitioned to a woman in 1952. It was one of the first, and most prominent, public cases of gender transition. She faced discrimination because of her transition, but used her newfound fame to encourage increased trans visibility and to push the medical field to look into discussions about sex and gender. She believes she helped to give the sexual revolution "a good swift kick in the pants".

"Riots are the language of the unheard," Martin Luther King Jr. famously said. As we begin to move past the riots after the murder of George Floyd at the beginning of this month and continue to put our minds, signatures and money towards real, systematic change, we must remember that riots can, and do, spark much needed change. When asking nicely doesn't work, when peacefully protesting doesn't work, there has to be some change in strategy. And sometimes, that involves property damage, fires and outrage. And sometimes, it works.

The Stonewall Uprising was not the beginning of the gay rights movement, but it put a new spark in it that began to lead to real, systemic change throughout the state, country and world. Being gay started to become something that didn't need to be hidden, but something that could be celebrated. And in a world where there was at least some place you could go, some people you could be around where you could be yourself, things could change.

Though gay marriage wouldn't be legalized until nearly half of a century later, other rights began to trickle in that slowly made being gay in America less and less of a crime. We have come so far, but still have so far to go.


1. https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/the-stonewall-riots

2. https://www.history.com/news/stonewall-riots-timeline

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots#Riots

4. https://www.history.com/news/stonewall-riots-facts-gay-rights-lgbt

5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/1f4c71a6-1359-4241-9f91-7b0a1b5ac9a0

6. https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/26/us/marsha-p-johnson-biography/index.html

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