40 years ago: the story of Stonewall

40 years ago this weekend the Stonewall Riots, widely regarded as the beginning of ‘gay liberation’, took place in Greenwich Village, New York City. The riots were the first time that gay people had stood up against enforced oppression. Riots of bar frequented by gay people were commonplace. The story is a fascinating one, which I have summarised here.

“The Stonewall Inn catered to an assortment of patrons, but it was known to be popular with the most marginalized people in the gay community: transvestites, effeminate young men, hustlers, and homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn, and attracted a crowd that was incited to riot. Tensions between New York City police and gay residents of Greenwich Village erupted into more protests the next evening, and again several nights later.”

At 1.20am plain clothes and uniformed police officers raided the Stonewall Inn. About 200 people were in the Inn at that time. The raid did not go as planned. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested. Those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station but had to wait for transport. Those who were not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not leave quickly as usual. Instead, they stopped outside and a crowd began to grow and watch. Within minutes, between 100 and 150 people had congregated outside, some after they were released from inside the Stonewall, and some after noticing the police cars and the crowd. There were scuffles, arrests, pushing and violence (it was reported that the most feminine boys were the most badly beaten) with aggression from gay people who were reacting to arrest.

We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. 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 around—it’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.

But aggression spread and more police called to rescue those trapped inside the Stonewall by crods outside: “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…” Police started arresting the crowd on the streets, but the crowd faught back: “All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously”. They formed dance ‘kick lines’ against police who continued to hit them.

The next night rioting again errupted in Christopher Street. Some people from the night before who had returned to the badly damaged Stonewall Inn, and many more. The crowd filled Christopher Street and surrounding blocks. They surrounded buses and cars, harassing the occupants unless they either admitted they were gay or indicated their support for the demonstrators. As on the previous evening, fires were started in garbage cans throughout the neighborhood. More than a hundred police were present and at 2.00am the Tactical Police Force (deployed the previous night to free officers trapped in the Stonewall Inn) returned. Dance ‘kick lines’ and police chases continued throughout the night, and the crowd fought against arrest (witnesses noted it was usually the most effeminate boys again who were arrested).

Disturbances continued over the following days, and American Independance Day on 4th July was a chance for gay people to show out in force (as in previous years picketting Independence Hall in Philadelphia, for instance). Christopher Street Day, which started on the first anniversary of the riots in 1970 have led to Pride marches and Pride Parades around the world in years since.

Gay rights here in the UK have undergone a different course. We haven’t had a Stonewall, but there have been watersheds in gay rights, most recently the introduction of Civil Partnerships. London’s Pride Parade is next Saturday.

But it’s not a time to be complacent: homophobia is still rife, particularly in schools, and homophobic crime in Northern Ireland is “rife” according to recent reports. Poland is one of the worst European countries for inequality and pride marches in Moscow are met with violent protest by police. Stonewall was a watershed, an international one, but was the start of a long process whic, 40 years later, should not wain.

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