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The Stonewall Riots and its legacy 50 years on

ByBea Isaacson

Sep 14, 2019

Amongst many of our generation, it is the vivid red ‘SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT!’ posters that decorated PSCHE classrooms in secondary school that come to mind when the topic of Stonewall is raised.
And for good reason; the LGBTQIA+ charity, the biggest of its kind not only in the United Kingdom but across Europe too, is a highly successful lobbying organisation. Its accomplishments are many, including campaigning for the recognition of anti-gay hate crimes within the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, and the passing of the Civil Partnership Act of 2004.

But the namesake of the charity enjoys arguably less recognition and acknowledgement. Stonewall Equality Limited is named after the 1969 Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations almost unanimously acknowledged as the catalyst event that led to the gay liberation movement, a movement that still- of course- continues to this day, fifty years on.

Yet this crucial turning point in not only queer history but the decade’s battle for wider liberation for other disenfranchised peoples is easily understated at best and disregarded (even forgotten) at worst.
Perhaps it is because the riots took place in New York City, and therefore not explicitly part of Britain’s history. More likely, it is because queer history is still hideously overlooked within not only the British school curriculum but also in the wider mainstream political and social discourse.

The Stonewall riots of summer 1969 were the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement we know today, and their prominence within civil rights is as important as their story is fascinating and- truthfully- inspiring.
The Stonewall Inn, the epicentre of the riots, was located in Greenwich Village of New York City. Greenwich Village had been home to significant homosexual communities throughout the twentieth century, heightened by the liberal attitudes towards sex of the 1950s’ and 60s’ counterculture. Hippies and beatniks alike encouraged hedonistic pleasure and experimentation, in a conscious move against the capitalist, socially complying, God-fearing America that shows no sign of decline to this day. Homosexuals especially found refuge within this neighbourhood of New York; prominent gay men of Greenwich Village include Allen Ginsberg and William Boroughs, poets that wrote explicitly about their homosexuality. Ginsberg, in particular, liked to compare his male sexual partners to religious figures.

The Inn itself was, in an interesting twist to the story, owned by the Italian mafia. New York State’s “moral clause” outlawed the selling of alcohol to peoples considered ‘immoral’, a term which the authorities certainly associated with queer people; and the mafia, far from being unlikely allies to the community, used these gay bars to extract money from older, and wealthier, gay clientele. It, therefore, had no liquor license, no running water, and by 1969, was the only bar in the whole city in which dancing between gay men was allowed.

Historians also dispute the reasoning behind the raid on Stonewall Inn on June 28th; some argue it was mafia-related, some argue it was incentivised by institutional homophobia. The Inn was no stranger to raids, but this one was without prior tip-off, as was the custom. Police barred the doors, and female police officers attempted to force customers dressed as women into toilets to verify their sex.

Within minutes of the police officers attempting to transport everyone within the club from Stonewall Inn to the police station, as the authorities concluded was the next appropriate step, a crowd of locals grew outside.. At first, the congregation held sentiment of amusement and growing hostility; eye-witnesses cite the singing of the black rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome”.

It was the physical violence inflicted upon the African-American lesbian, Storme DeLarverie, by the police that sparked violence within the crowd. “Why don’t you guys do something?” she asked. According to eye-witness Lucian Truscott, “that was it.” Some threw cobblestones through a window; some threw beer cans. In time, this would expand to bricks, bottles, and fires set in rubbish bins.In the dark of the night, police chased the crowds through the streets, and the crowds chased the police through the streets.

“When did you ever see a fag fight back?” An anonymous rioter said.

“We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit,” Michael Fader, a regular at the Stonewall Inn, agreed. “It was the last straw.”

The first anniversary of the Stonewall riots was marked with Gay Pride marches in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; a year later, similar marches took place in not only other cities of the States, but within London, Paris, and West Berlin too. Fifty years on, its prominence and symbolism in being the watershed moment for the LGBTQIA+ rights movement have only grown further; highlighting not only the movement’s progress but the challenges it still faces in all parts of today’s world.


Image: Rhododendrites via Wikimedia

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