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A photograph of The Stonewall Inn located in New York

How the Stonewall riots changed the world

8: The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar in the Greenwich Village, Lower Manhattan | Image: Shutterstock

Today, Pride is a cherished tradition. Annual parades are a fixture in major cities, the happy celebrations bringing together both the LGBTQ+ community and straight allies alike. And yet, it has its roots in far darker times, with the first marches held to commemorate one night in 1969 which saw an impromptu army of the oppressed clashing with police in New York City.

In the words of Stonewall historian David Carter, the uprising that began in the early hours of 28 June 1969 'is to the gay movement what the fall of the Bastille is to the unleashing of the French Revolution.'

The basic facts are simple enough. Not long after midnight, a group of police officers conducted a raid on the Stonewall Inn. Gay venues in the city were routinely harassed by the authorities – partly because of the culturally-ingrained homophobia, and partly because most such venues, including the Stonewall Inn, were actually owned and operated by the Mafia, who ruthlessly exploited the vulnerability of the LGBTQ+ community. The police officer who led the Stonewall raid later revealed another reason for the endless trouble they gave the gay people of New York. It was, he said, a way to bump up their arrest numbers. 'They were easy arrests. They never gave you any trouble. At least until that night.'

Ramshackle and rough around the edges – it didn’t even have running water behind the bar – the Stonewall Inn was a refuge for the most marginalised people within the gay community. Kids who had run away from homophobic home towns, drag queens and street hustlers congregated there. As early gay activist Dick Leitsch said, 'This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.'

Stonewall..."is to the gay movement what the fall of the Bastille is to the unleashing of the French Revolution."

It’s perhaps for this reason that the raid went so badly for the police. Angered by the intrusion of the police in what was considered a particularly inclusive space, even compared to other gay venues, the punters refused to submit to invasive body searches. Then, as word spread, more and more people began to gather outside, united in outrage. Somehow, things escalated from a tense stand-off to an all-out street riot.

The exact reason for this is still hazy. The key figure is widely agreed to have been a woman, who was handcuffed and roughly shoved into a police wagon in front of the angry crowd. The woman reportedly yelled at the crowd to 'do something', and do something they certainly did. Rocks and bricks were thrown, windows were smashed, a parking meter was torn from the street and used as a battering ram.

As Mama Jean, a gay woman caught up in the riot, later recalled: 'I remember one cop coming at me, hitting me with the nightstick on the back of my legs. I broke loose, and I went after him. I grabbed his nightstick. My girlfriend went behind him. She was a strong son of a gun. I wanted him to feel the same pain I felt… I kept on hitting him and hitting him. I was angry. I wanted to kill him. At that particular minute, I wanted to kill him.'

Things took a surreal turn when some of the rioters formed a Broadway-style kick line, singing merrily 'We are the Stonewall girls' and mocking the cops. The whole skirmish lasted hours, and would be repeated on the following nights.

So who was the person in handcuffs whose protestation apparently triggered the uprising? Many say it was a gay woman called Stormé DeLarverie – a charismatic singer who later became known for strutting around New York, armed with a gun, to protect lesbians from harassment. As a friend later put it, 'She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero.'

The fact she was a woman, and mixed-race too, has helped spur accusations that the standard narrative of Stonewall is too white and male-centric, and sidelines the significance of gay women as well as transgender people like Marsha P. Johnson, a famed black drag queen who was one of the most prominent people in the uprising. Coming in for particular criticism was the 2015 movie Stonewall, by Independence Day director Roland Emmerich, which was widely slammed for showing a white, male protagonist as throwing the brick that sparked the uprising.

There’s also been controversy about the role Judy Garland’s funeral may have played in the uprising. The funeral of the Hollywood star and gay icon had taken place earlier that very day in the city, and it’s been speculated that the grief in the gay community was channelled into the fury of Stonewall. However, many have slammed this was a myth started by sneering, homophobic journalists to mock and trivialise the uprising. In the words of Gay Liberation Front member Perry Brass, 'I can certainly say that, in my own youth, in that period, Garland was as far away from my mind as Uranus. Like most kids on their own in New York (I was 21 then), we were mostly centered on trying to survive in what was a much more contentious city.

That said, drag queen Sylvia Rivera later claimed there was indeed a post-funeral vibe that fed into the uprising, saying 'I guess Judy Garland’s death just really helped us really hit the fan.'

While writers and eyewitnesses will always debate the details of that fateful night, what’s beyond contention is the importance of Stonewall. Gay activism did exist in the United States before then, but it was restrained and diplomatic, with well-dressed, well-behaved activists trying to convince straight society to bestow tolerance. After Stonewall, diplomacy made way for radical rebellion, with organisations like the Gay Liberation Front rising up across the States, and the first Pride marches happening soon after. The unashamed, full-on fight for equality began, and continues today, thanks to Stonewall