History & Culture

A Movement Takes Shape

“...there was no out, there was just in.”

Through the 1960s almost everything about living openly as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) person was a violation of law, rule, or policy. New York City’s prohibitions against homosexual activities were particularly harsh. People were arrested for wearing fewer than three articles of clothing that matched their sex. Serving alcoholic beverages to homosexuals was prohibited. For married men and women who lived homosexual lives in secret, blackmail was a constant threat. Discrimination and fear were tools to isolate people when homosexuality was hidden. After Stonewall, being “out and proud” in numbers was a key strategy that strengthened the movement.

Uprising

Stonewall was a milestone for LGBTQ civil rights that provided momentum for a movement. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn provoked a spontaneous act of resistance that earned a place alongside landmarks in American self-determination such as Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights (1848) and the Selma to Montgomery March for African American voting rights (1965). Demonstrations continued over the next several nights at Christopher Park across from the Stonewall Inn and in the surrounding neighborhood. When asked to describe the difference that Stonewall had made, journalist Eric Marcus observed that before Stonewall, “For most people, there was no out, there was just in.”

People who would identify today as LGBTQ had few choices for socializing in public and many bars they frequented were operated by organized crime. Members of the police force were often paid off in return for information about planned raids. Customers caught in a raid were routinely freed, but only after being photographed and humiliated. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, people fought back.

Following what at first appeared to be a routine raid, a crowd gathered outside to watch for friends in the bar. But as police vans came to haul away those arrested, the crowd became angry, began throwing objects, and attempted to block the way. The crowd’s aggression forced police to retreat and barricade themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. Onlookers joined in and attacked the bar with pennies, metal garbage cans, bricks, bottles, an uprooted parking meter, and burning trash. The confrontation grew as the fire department and the NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force, trained for riot control, joined police reinforcements sent to the scene.

Liberate Christopher Street!

The agitated crowd took to the streets chanting “Gay Power!” and “Liberate Christopher Street!” LGBTQ youth who gathered at Christopher Park—some of them homeless and with little social capital—challenged police, linked arms, and formed a blockade. Police charged the crowd, but rather than disperse, the mob retreated to the neighborhood they knew well with its network of narrow, winding
streets, doubled-back, and regrouped near the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park, surprising the police.

Demonstrator Tommy Schmidt described the feeling of being in the melee: “I was part of a mob that had a kind of deep identity and was acting as one force.” John O’Brien said, “What excited me was I finally was not alone.”

Social change takes different forms. Pioneers organized and took a range of actions and approaches in the fight for their equality. Stonewall was a galvanizing moment that empowered a range of advocacy; some mainstream, and some non-conforming or militant, that rejected approaches based on assimilation.

“By the time of Stonewall...we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there were at least fifteen hundred. By two years later, to the extent that counts could be made, it was twenty-five hundred. And that was the impact of Stonewall.” Frank Kameny.

“And that was the impact of Stonewall.”

 

LGBTQ History and Heritage

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    Last updated: June 26, 2019

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