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What was Stonewall?

The Stonewall Riots were a huge turning point in Queer advancement, especially in the USA. But what was Stonewall?

Added to Library, on 13 July, 2015

What was Stonewall?

The Stonewall Riots (beginning June 28th, 1969) are considered to be one of the most important events for Queer Liberation in both the United States, and Worldwide.

The Riots began following an early morning police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned bar in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, New York City. The Stonewall Inn found popularity with Drag Queens, male prostitutes, homeless youth, transgender individuals and effeminate men – often considered to be the poorest and most marginalised people in society at the time.

Police raids were often common at gay bars. Although the 1950s and 1960s had given birth to ‘homophile’ (outdated term for homosexual) activist groups, homosexuals and transgendered people were still considered to be mentally ill or indecent, and homosexual acts were still illegal in most parts of the world. Indeed, it was still illegal at the time in the US to be ‘openly homosexual in public’.

The raid began as police suspect the Stonewall Inn of operating without a liquor license, and catch a few Queer individuals in the process. It was common for many gay bars to operate without liquor licenses, as licenses were often refused to such establishments.

The day before (June 27th), gay icon Judy Garland had died – an event which, at least in Queer Legend, had some spiritual connection with the events that followed at 1.20AM the following morning (June 28th). For the police of New York city, it seemed to be much of a routine job: they’d enter, arrest the most ‘deviant’ Drag Queens and Butch Lesbians, especially those of colour, and then be go on there way, leaving the owners with a small fine that would allow them to open up again the next day.

But the events took a different turn. Indeed, eyewitness accounts report a drag queen and a number of butch lesbians being escorted into a paddy wagon – but at some point, a punch was thrown. Again, eyewitness accounts vary, with some saying it was a Drag Queen, whilst others report a butch lesbian. Before long, the patrons of Stonewall – and sympathisers of neighbouring bars and clubs, as well as further afield as the eruption continued – were soon clashing with police. Accounts report that there were several hundred people clashing with police.

Coins were apparently thrown at police to symbolise the ‘pay offs’ given to them so that businesses could stay in business. The coins eventually turned into stones, rocks, pebbles and bottles. The police had not experienced such violent confrontation from Queer people before. Chants of ‘Gay Power’ were yelled, as Queer individuals from all over Greenwich Village, and further, got wind of the riot and joined in, ballooning the protesters by several hundred more.

It wasn’t long until the riot police were called to break up the demonstration, and to rescue police officers who had become trapped and taken hostage. It took the officers more than an hour to break up the crowd and bring things to a halt.

A group of Drag Queens apparently taunted police by singing:

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!

The evening after, on June 29th, a second riot broke out. Thousands of demonstrators soon surrounded Stonewall in the name of Gay Pride, and the clashes continued into the early hours. Clashes and demonstrations continued for much of the following week, although much smaller in scale.

The rebellion had surprised both the Queer community and the non-Queer public, police and political system. Before Stonewall, the Queer community had been oppressed, and meekly obliged with whatever often unscrupulous means were put upon them, as they were considered meek and too powerless to do otherwise. The number of protesters and sympathisers, however, and shown the public that the Queer movement had strength far greater than what they had imagined, thus cementing Queer liberation as a political issue.

The rebellion had also cemented a feeling of community amongst Queer people: the Gay Liberation Front was formed in the months that followed, gay publications sky-rocketed, and homosexuals stopped considering themselves as marginalised communities too afraid to speak out.

A year later, on June 28th, 1970, the first Gay Pride Parade was marched to celebrate the riots and Gay Pride. In June 1994, the 25th Anniversary celebrations were attended by thousands of people, and in 1999, 30 years after the event, the Stonewall Inn was proclaimed a historic site.

However – it must be mentioned – that Stonewall now means different things to different people. Indeed, many people of colour maintain that they were targeted more than their white counterparts in gay clubs, and many feel Stonewall has become too associated with Gay White Men, than the Queer community at large.

It is important then, to reflect and remember Stonewall as not simply being a pinnacle turning point for Gay Liberation, but for Queer Liberation: that is, an event for all sexualities and gender identities.

Stonewall has since leant its name to the UK Organisation – set up in 1989 in the face of Section 28.

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What was Stonewall?