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Stonewall at 50: 5 things you didn’t know about the uprising that sparked a revolution

Stonewall at 50: 5 things you didn’t know about the uprising that sparked a revolution
[Photo: Flickr user NPCA Photos]

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Manhattan was raided by the police. The bar had been a gathering place for the LGBTQ community, offering a safe space at a time when there were few places where people could be themselves in a country where gay sex was a felony, cross-dressing was a crime, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and people risked imprisonment, forced sterilization, and institutionalization for just being themselves.

When police raided the bar that night, the people gathered there decided enough was enough. Or maybe they didn’t decide, but they definitely acted. That night, the police headed to the Stonewall Inn, hoping for some easy arrests to fill out their quotas and perhaps to collect a few bribes. What they got was an uprising that lasted six days, led by a diverse group from the LGBTQ community, including activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who stood up and fought back. After making some initial arrests, the police soon found themselves overwhelmed and under a rain of taunts, coins, bottles, perhaps a parking meter, and maybe bricks (although, maybe not).

They were forced to retreat into the very bar they had targeted. They barricaded themselves inside. Eventually, the police and the community reached an uneasy detente. While the uprising was quelled, the movement was just beginning. Stonewall became a rallying point for members of the LGBTQ community around the world, tired of being treated badly, unfairly, and cruelly. In the wake of Stonewall, a wave of gay rights groups, transgender organizations, and LGBT community centers opened as the fight for rights became a national conversation.

Fast-forward 50 years and Stonewall is a national parkPride Month runs for all of June, and we still remember that tiny inn and one morning in late June as the birthplace of the gay civil rights movement.

Here are five things you may not know about the Stonewall Inn and uprising:

  • The Stonewall Inn was owned by a scion of the Genovese crime family named Fat Tony. In fact, according to the New York Times, the mob owned most of the city’s gay bars, because they could not get official liquor licenses. Instead, they were run like all-cash speakeasies, which were a gold mine of under-the-radar money.
  • Whether or not the death of Judy Garland, the actress and gay icon, led to heightened emotions that helped spark the riot, is one of the most hotly contested details of Stonewall’s legacy. Charles Kaiser’s 1997 book The Gay Metropolis has been credited with claiming that a police raid in the wake of Garland’s funeral was the proverbial last straw; other historians strongly disagree, including one eyewitness who wrote an op-ed calling the claim “downright insulting to us as a community.”
  • Coverage of the uprising by the Village Voice was so incendiary that it stoked the flames and reignited the protests. The Voice published two articles that understandably angered the LGBTQ community, including one where a reporter for the paper wished he had a gun while trapped in the Stonewall Inn with the police and another that used homophobic slurs to describe the scene. The coverage was so demeaning that protestors once again took to the streets, heading for the Voice offices.
  • While the Stonewall uprising helped kick-start the movement for LGBTQ rights, in the immediate aftermath, police raided five other gay bars in the Village, shutting three of them permanently. Soon after the uprising, the Stonewall Inn closed down and sat dormant for decades, too, although it is now once again operating as a bar and club at 53 Christopher Street in Manhattan.
  • A year after the protests, there was a march on Christopher Street and Sixth Avenue, dubbed Christopher Street Liberation Day, that drew LGBTQ people from across the country. In a delightfully ironic twist, a year after the uprising, some of the members of the NYPD who had confronted protestors were ordered to protect those same protestors during the walk.
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