By Richard Lawrence-Allen
Once widely illegal and considered to be a result mental illness and deviancy, homosexuality and gender non-conformity is now much more generally accepted in the western world than it ever has been before. However, it was a long and arduous journey to get to this point. All journeys have a beginning, and this is no exception.
Fifty years ago today, in a beloved bar in Lower Manhattan, New York City, the Gay Liberation Movement was born. Now completely synonymous with the LGBTQ+ community, the Stonewall Inn wasn’t always a gay bar, but even in its early beginnings it was still a haven of rebellion. At its original venue, in 1930, Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn was purportedly a simple tearoom. However beneath a thinly veiled surface, it was in fact a popular speakeasy, secretly selling alcoholic beverages against America’s wildly unpopular Prohibition Law’s of the time. However, the bar was raided in the December of that year by prohibition agents, putting a momentary stop to trading.
Once prohibition ended in 1934, the Stonewall Inn moved to its iconic premises at 51-53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. Until 1964, the Stonewall Inn operated as a bar, restaurant and heterosexual nightclub, but this all came to an end when the interior was destroyed by a fire. Two years later, in 1966, the Stonewall Inn was bought out by three members of the Mafia who elected to turn it into a gay bar.
Prior to April 1966, it was illegal for homosexuals to congregate and be served alcohol in bars, meaning any gay bars were subject to regular police raids and subject to bribery if they were to remain open. The overturning of the NY State Liquor Authority anti-gay accommodation rules meant that police were, as of that point, no longer permitted to prosecute and close licensed bars that served gay men and lesbians. However, despite this ruling, police vehemently resisted the change, and so raids and bribery still continued.
The Stonewall Inn was the largest gay establishment running in the US. Patrons particularly favoured Stonewall for its intimate dance policy, being the only place in New York City at the time that allowed gay men to dance together. Stonewall was especially liked by the poorest and most marginalised members of the LGBTQ+ community of the time, including drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, masculine presenting lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youths.
The Stonewall Inn, like most gay bars, faced regular police raids, and was at particular risk as it did not hold a liquor licence. Once a week a police officer would collect envelopes of cash from the bar as a payoff, but this did not stop the raids, which typically happened as often as once a month. Bar management were usually aware of raids before they occurred, getting police tip-offs beforehand and the raids occurred in the early evening so that business could resume after the police had left. The corruption within the police department ran deep.
Spurred on by the rapidly changing socio-political zeitgeist of the 1960s, with the rising civil rights movement, 1960s counterculture and anti-Vietnam protests, by 1969 the liberal residents of Greenwich Village, where the Stonewall Inn resided, had finally had enough. In the early hours of the morning of 28th June 1969, at around 1:00am, police officers arrived at Stonewall to commence an unusually unannounced raid. However, this raid did not go as planned. When patrons refused to co-operate with the invading police officers, the police were taken aback at the resistance that came from a usually placid minority.
Something had snapped within the collective consciousness of those present, as they declared that their harassment needed to finally come to an end. Police forced patrons out of the bar, and arrested others, but rather than dispersing, a crowd gathered in the streets. When patrol vans arrived, police and patrons alike became violent as the crowd swelled to several hundred people, many nearby residents inspired to join in with the ensuing rebellion.
Parking meters, garbage cans, paving stones, bricks and Molotov Cocktails were thrown and police were forced to retreat into the bar. Eventually the TPF (Tactical Patrol Force), a militarised branch of the NYPD, were called to help disperse the manic riot that had broken out. Before the night was out the Stonewall Inn was ablaze. The first brick had been thrown, both literally and metaphorically, in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Thanks to newspaper coverage from several large publications that reported on the events that morning, all throughout the day of the 28th June, people came from all over the city to see the site of the incident and look upon the smouldering ruins of the Stonewall uprising. Many took to showing their support, adding graffiti in solidarity that called for LGBTQ+ equality.
The evening that followed saw further violence, many people from the previous night retuning, ready to fight for their right to live as the people they were without judgement or fear. Thousands of people had gathered in support and over one hundred police officers were in attendance. Many drag performers, now LGBTQ+ legends, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were at the forefront of the protest, leading the charge and now hold a special place in LGBTQ+ history. As with the previous evening, fires were set and brutal police violence ensued.
The chaos of those two days meant that to this day, the exact events of the riots remain unclear. However, one thing was certain, the LGBTQ+ had spoken, they would not be silent anymore. Within two years of the Stonewall Riots there were gay rights groups in every major American city. Stonewall’s legacy took the LGBTQ+ community out of the shadows and away from the secrecy and shame that they had been made to feel by society’s judgemental glare. Since then, LGBTQ+ people have encouraged each other to show pride, in themselves, in their community, in the people they love, in the people they are.
During those riots at Stonewall, exactly fifty years ago today, a movement of freedom was born. This one event sparked the start of something special that would change the lives of LGBTQ+ everywhere. It gave people hope and reminded them of their power and worth. Both within the US and across the globe, there is still a long way to go to achieve true equality for LGBTQ+ people. Nevertheless, we have come a long way and we have the brave individuals that stood up to police harassment fifty years ago that started the journey to getting to where we are now.
Shortly following the riots, the Stonewall Inn was closed down and sold on. A bar called the Stonewall Inn in that same location did briefly operate between 1988-1989, but it closed not long after opening. Later, in 1990 it was replaced by a bar called New Jimmy’s at Stonewall Place and was later simply renamed Stonewall. In 2006, the new management of the bar officially reclaimed the name the Stonewall Inn, and it has operated under that name ever since.
In the summer of 2015, the Stonewall Inn was the first landmark to be named by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on the basis of its status in LGBTQ+ history. The following year, the Stonewall National Monument became the first US National Monument to be dedicated to the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
To this day, the Stonewall Inn stands as a reminder to the LGBTQ+ community over the decades of its fallen members that ferociously fought for the rights of those that followed them. It is a reminder of the struggles that the community has faced and the struggles that are still left to be overcome. It is also a lasting symbol of pride, the power and bravery of the LGBTQ+ community and a shining example that no matter how hard the fight may be, we all must fight for what is right.