Stonewall- The Riots and The Beginning
of the Modern Gay Rights Movement
Much has been made of the actual Stonewall Inn and the riots with individual groups taking credit for the initiation of the riots depending upon whom you listen to. It is like the experiment of lining up a group of individuals and telling a story to the first person, then listening to the story told back by the last individual. The subject is the same; but the details have changed over and over. The importance of what took place is far greater than by trying to define the uprising solely by a particular group.
The Stonewall Inn – Most people today, think of Stonewall as just another gay bar, like so many local ones we may frequent. It wasn’t. It was a seedy, dark, small bar run by the Mafia. The clientele were blacks, Hispanics and whites, young hustlers, drag queens, some transgenders and older gay men and a few lesbians. They sold liquor without a license, which along with the fact that it was a homosexual hangout was the impedes of the raid on June 28, 1969.
The bar was situated on a short side street, Christopher Street, separated by a park and Grove Street both of which lie in between Waverly Place and 7th Avenue in “The Village”. On any one given time there are many LGBT individuals in the area. The streets and park became the staging ground for the riots that ensued. The raid on Stonewall followed a number of previous ones at gay establishments in the village.
Law of the time: gay men and women in New York City could not be served alcohol in public due to liquor laws that considered the gathering of homosexuals to be “disorderly.” Engaging in gay behavior in public (holding hands, kissing, or dancing with someone of the same sex) was still illegal.
Cross dressers or transvestites had to wear at least three male garments. Therefore, homosexuals could be rounded up at anytime and thrown in jail. The sodomy laws made it a felony in every state, punished by a lengthy term of imprisonment and/or hard labor, which could be done by mere accusation.
One of the original attendees at the bar when the riots began, David Belasco-Bermudez, explained in a recent talk that during the days prior to the riots, the cops would hang outside the club and call out slurs. If you spoke back at them, they would club you almost to death and take you off to jail.
On the evening of the riots, David explained, “the cops broke into the club and immediately began beating up the patrons with clubs, handcuffing them and taking them outside.
They began pulling up drag queen’s dresses or anyone else not dressed gender appropriate, to see if they were wearing men’s clothing. (Then beating them, at which time, the queens began beating back.
Outside, since this was in the village, many gays and lesbians began rushing over to Stonewall. During this period gays and lesbians did not particularly associate with each other; however, the acts taking place united them, David explained. He said that over 90 people were now outside. Outraged at what was happening, they immediately took up anything not nailed down and began throwing objects at the police as they loaded up the “paddy wagons. “
The police left, were unaccustomed to violent reaction. The crowd of homosexuals did not retreat or scatter like in the past. Instead they continued throwing things at the police who retreated to the bar and barricaded themselves inside. They called for reinforcements as the crowd grew to over 400. Barricades were put up and repeatedly breached over the next 5 days, when the bar was set on fire. Additional reinforcements arrived to put out the fire and the crowd dispersed.
Legacy of Stonewall- We should not look a Stonewall as what kind of bar it was, who the patrons were, or even which group takes claim for starting the riots; instead, we should raise it up as a symbol of resistance to social and political injustice, end of discrimination of all people and a catalyst for activism.
There were other movements prior to Stonewall, and while it did not initiate the gay rights movement as such, it did blend together all groups and sparked the formation of so many gay rights organizations to help create
the modern gay rights movement.
As 50 years have passed, we commemorate and celebrate the courage of those individuals that “stood up” and were counted, and the many bystanders who took up the stance to not back down. Now, it is our turn to be political, elect officials that will protect everyone. Stand up to bullying and discrimination of any kind and help bring about social justice.
Above all, reach out to the youth with guidance and listening.
They are our future Stonewall Legacy.