Looking back at the Stonewall Riots

Stonewall Riots

By Anna Staddon

Despite, LGBTQ+ History Month coming to an end, it doesn’t mean we cannot commemorate one of the defining moments in the community’s fight for equality and recognition in the US, which continues to inspire individuals all year round.

Designated to promote education on the fight for gay, trans and queer rights, February is devoted to celebrating the changes in society that have allowed us to live authentically, loving whoever we want. But it’s also a time to acknowledge that globally, LGBTQ+ individuals still face injustice every day. From small glances on the street to life threatening consequences of being queer, the LGBTQ+ rights movement is far from over and we cannot settle until society is inclusive to everyone.

Now we are heading into March, the movement for equality continues and looking back on exceptional individuals stood up and demanded change reminds us of the power we all hold. The victories in the gay rights movement have been due to ordinary people united in being unapologetically themselves and saying society has to change, not us. There is no better example than the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, amongst one of the most well-known events widely heralded as having ushered in the modern gay rights movement. 

Riots at the Stonewall Inn

In the early hours of 28th June 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. At the time, gay bars were frequently raided; it was only three years prior that establishments were allowed to serve LGBTQ+ people. Before 1966, under the New York State Liquor license, it was against regulations for bars to serve anyone “disorderly” – this was an umbrella term used to include and discriminate against anyone who ‘appeared’ as homosexual.

Although members of the community could now be served drinks and existing as a gay person was legal, engaging in any homosexual relations was still illegal. Gay people were seen as mentally ill and could be arrested for acting out their “gayness” in public. Anyone dressing in drag, identifying as a different gender, or even dressing slightly non-conforming would often face arrest as well. This wasn’t written in law, but unrelated laws were used all the time to target individuals, accusing them of being in “disguise” or “masquerading” as someone else for example. Prior to the Stonewall riots there were countless reports of arrests on people “crossdressing”, with LQBTQ+ individuals saying it was avoidable only if you wore at least three pieces of your assigned gender’s attire – known within the community as the “three piece law”.

Clearly a gathering of LGBTQ+ people would result in breaches of the law, so gay bars were often refused licences and had to operate illegally. This gave police a reason to crackdown on them and the threat of raids was constant. However, bars would usually be tipped off before the police arrived so people could leave in time and avoid harassment.

On the 28th June, police took the Stonewall Inn by surprise and raided it, violently arresting 13 people and aggressively manhandling those inside. Instead of dispersing as usual, the 200 people forced out onto the street lingered, fed up with the constant discrimination and violent treatment of their community. Alongside onlookers who witnessed the abuse by police, the LGBTQ+ bar goers started a riot, forcing police to barricade inside the Stonewall Inn and hide. Sometime later when the riot settled, the cornered police were rescued but protests in the area continued for six days, attracting thousands of people. For a moment, the power had shifted from the law enforcers that had suppressed the community for so long, to the people.

What did the uprisings mean for the community?

The Stonewall Uprising marked a shift in the LGBTQ+ community, acting as a catalyst for others to stand up to the harassment they had regularly faced. Key organisations formed out of the protests such as the Gay Liberation Front, who organised the first gay pride exactly one year later. 

Figures involved in the riots have become icons for gay and trans people, such as Stormé DeLarverie, a lesbian who gathered a crowd after being punched by the police, and Marsha P Johnson, a trans woman of colour who led protests. According to Marsha, the P in her name stands for “pay it no mind” in reference to anything negative anyone has to say about the way she lives her life. 

These ordinary civilians doing extraordinary acts of bravery have shaped the LGBTQ+ community today and inspire us to continue demanding equality until we live in a completely inclusive society.