The Birth of Gay Liberation

In 1969, a group of New York’s most disenfranchised citizens fought with police during a late June raid of the Stonewall Inn. John Lindsay was mayor and running for reelection. The raid was part of his campaign to clean up the city.

State regulations in New York prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages to homosexuals. Any establishment that did was deemed a disorderly house and lost its liquor license. Gay establishments all over New York had stopped serving alcohol or closed.

On paper, the Stonewall Inn was a private bottle club. In practice, it was a sleazy bar, owned and operated by the Mafia. Watered-down drinks were expensive and, due to a lack of running water behind the bar, the cause of a major outbreak of hepatitis.

The Stonewall Inn was the only place in New York where homosexuals could dance. The juke box in the front room contained Broadway show tunes and hits from Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Patsy Cline. The edgier backroom juke box featured artists like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and the Fifth Dimension.

The frontroom crowd was mostly white, male, and in the closet. The backroom was a hangout for gay kids from all walks of life who’d been kicked out of or run away from home. Most were non-conforming –queens, in the vernacular of the day.

The raid that luanched the Stonewall riots was conducted by an organized crime task force. Members were recruited from several law enforcement agencies and had been carefully screened for ties to the mob. The goal of the unannounced Friday night raid was to maximize the financial impact on the mob by doing enough damage to shut the place down for more than a few hours.

Nobody expected any trouble. Homosexuals were more likely to run away than to fight or resist arrest. That night was different.

Some say Judy Garland’s death earlier in the week was a factor. Puh-leeze. The very idea is insulting. Students, hippies, and African-Americans set the precedent. The Stonewall riots were caused by a badly timed raid, insufficient manpower, and overly aggressive acts by police.

The raid got off to a late start. Undercover cops went in first to identify who was selling alcohol or otherwise breaking the law. By the time they reported back to the raiding party, the Stonewall Inn had filled to near capacity.

The lights came on, the music stopped, and police ordered everyone to line up with IDs in hand. Cross-dressers had to queue up in the backroom for cops to check for the three items of gender-appropriate attire required by law. Both lines were long and slow-moving.

Meanwhile, other task force members removed the juke boxes and took crowbars to the plywood bars and built-in seating. Restless onlookers waiting for ID and clothing checks grew more and more angry. Patrons whose IDs had been checked went outside and told the gathering crowd what was going on inside.

Two nearly simultaneous events precipitated the riots. Police assaulted a lesbian who punched a cop who had groped her and a drag queen who refused to submit to a check of her garments. The crowd swarmed the cops to rescure their beleagured friends.

The small raiding party was no match for the angry mob. Before long, the raiders barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. Rioters bombarded the plyw0od-covered windows with bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails and used a parking meter as a battering ram to breakdown the door.

By the time helmted riot police arrived and lined up behind shields, the streets around the Stonewall Inn were filled with rioters and onlookers. Angry residents peltned the noisy crowd from windows and fire escapes with bottles and other objects.

Drag queens linked arms a few yards in front of the front line, high-kicked, and taunted the oncoming riot police. As the cops pressed forward, rioters circled the block, came out behind the cops, and forced them to turn around and march back the way they’d come.

The next night, the Stonewall Inn repoened. A deeply humiliated police force lined up in front of the bar. Rather than preserving order, the heavy police presence angered the rapidly growing crowd spilling into the street. Overly aggressive acts by the police incited a second night of rioting.

Things were calm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. A homophobic article about the uprising in the Village Voice on Wednesday ignited two more nights of rioting. It was the birth of Gay Pride and the Gay Liberation movement.

We’ve come a long way, baby. Fifty years later, the battle for equal rights has been won — at least for me and other (more or less) conforming members of the lesbian and gay community. Too bad the same can’t be said for the entire LGBTQ+ community.

Queer folk owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our trans and otherwise non-conforming brothers and sisters. They have always been the front line in the battle for LGBTQ+ equality. The struggle may be over for some of us, but until everyone has equal rights, the fight continues.