A Brief History of the Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement

LGBT Angst and Police Entrapment

Three police officers kept a tight rein on a crowd at the Stonewall Inn.
Three police officers kept a tight rein on a crowd to keep them on the sidewalks, and off the streets, at the corner of Waverly Place and Christopher Street, half block from the Stonewall Inn. © Larry Morris/The New York Times

The history of the gay rights movement can be traced to the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, which is considered by many to be the launch of the modern gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights movement. This brief history of the Stonewall Riots explores the angst by LGBT young adults and the police entrapment that led up to the riots and the early activism and marches that ensued throughout the country. 

The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 is widely considered the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. The six-day riot began inside the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City and was the breaking point of years of tensions between police and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender street youth and pedestrians.

The Social Climate in the 1960s

The 1960s were a hotbed for human and civil rights issues in the U.S. Tensions boiled as the population grew tired of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Race dynamics were compounded by continued disenfranchisement of African Americans, bubbling the rise of the Black Panthers and calls by Louis Farrakhan and Dr. King to stand against discrimination and disempowerment. And lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people grew increasingly intolerant of continued harassment and arrests by police.

LGBT people were subjected to civil laws that criminalized sodomy and, in New York City, allowed bars to refuse service to LGBT patrons. Arrests, harassment and instances of entrapment by police were frequent. Civil laws reinforced their actions. Establishments often cited Section 106, Subsection 6 of the New York State Penal Code to refuse service to queer patrons. The code barred premises from becoming "disorderly houses." Many, including the courts, considered homosexuals to be disorderly.

In establishments where LGBT patrons were served, they could not touch each other when they danced. Section 722, Subsection 8 of the New York State Penal Code made it an offense to "solicit men for the purpose of committing a crime against nature." Again, it was argued that homosexuality was an act against nature. Queer patrons were often entrapped by plain clothes police officers posing as regular bar patrons. Transgender people were openly arrested on the streets.

The Stonewall Rebellion 

One establishment where LGBT patrons found refuge was the mob-run Stonewall Inn. Bar-goers paid a $3 cover to enter and signed a register, often with a fictitious or humorous name. Bar management was often tipped off when the local police district planned a raid on the bar and would warn LGBT patrons by turning on the lights.

But on the morning of June 28, 1969, instead of the usual command, the NYPD First District raided the bar. The drag queens and street youth fought back. There were reports of stilettos, bottles, coins, bricks and debris thrown. The altercation spilled into the streets and more queer street youth joined in the uprising. As word spread, more LGBT people from surrounding neighborhoods joined the riot. The rebellion lasted six days and marked the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement.

Very few images of the Stonewall Rebellion were captured by the press or participants. A handful have circulated, like these images, and they capture the atmosphere after the dispersion of thousands of rioters. However, few images exist that mark the beginning of the rebellion, which was initiated by transgender and street youth.

From Those Who Were There 

In his letter, "Mother Stonewall and the Golden Rats," Stonewall veteran Tommy Lanigan Schmidt describes those who started the modern day LGBT rights movement:

"This wasn't a 1960s Student Riot. Out there were the streets. There were no nice dorms for sleeping. No school cafeteria for certain food. No affluent parents to send us checks. [This] was a ghetto riot on home turf. We already had our war wounds."

Late transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, in full drag at the time, recounted her protest to police:

"You've been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it's our turn! It was one of the greatest moments in my life."

Early Gay Rights Organizations 

A new wave of gay rights organizations were formed after Stonewall, such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), in response to what was thought of as the ineffective and more subdued protests by groups like Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

On the third night of the Stonewall rebellion, 37 men and women founded the GLF, a more vocal and daring organization. It was the first LGBT organization to use the word "gay" and members aligned themselves with other civil rights groups like the Black Panthers and anti-war organizations. The GLF organized same-sex dances and demonstrations and it worked to include gay issues within the social movements of the Black Panthers and populist organizations. They believed that together, they "could work to restructure American society."

The GLF often called for LGBT people to come "out of the closet and into the streets." The organization had no bylaws or formal leadership. Cells modeled after the Mattachine Society structure were formed throughout the country. GLF believed that patriarchy and sexism were the root cause of the disenfranchisement of people in the U.S. GLF also believed that assimilation wasn't the answer and that LGBT had to take to the streets if they were to gain rights. 

Some GLF members grew increasingly frustrated with the organization's focus on militarism, racism and sexism, as well as LGBT rights. They formed the Gay Activist Alliance in 1970, which focused exclusively only on LGBT issues. A number of other LGBT organizations splintered from GLF, including the lesbian feminist organization Lavender Menace, later to become Radical Lesbians.

The Gay Activists Alliance was most active from 1970 to 1974. It housed its headquarters on Wooster Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Their home, the Firehouse, was burned down by arsonists in 1974.

The GAA adopted the lower case Greek letter lambda (λ) as its logo, symbolizing "a complete exchange of energy" or balance and unity. The organization dissolved in October 1981 and would later become Act Up! GLF held its last meeting in 1971.

The First Gay Pride Parades 

After the Stonewall riots in 1969, many LGBT people -- even those who did not witness the rebellion -- were inspired to contribute to the cause. Gay rights had entered the national spotlight. LGBT people began organizing, protesting and mobilizing. Along with Frank Kameny, Craig Rodwell, Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen and many others, the Mattachine Society picketed in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia a year after the Stonewall Riots. The event was called the Annual Reminder. The protest was quiet and organized, to the dismay of Craig Rodwell. He felt that Frank Kameny and Mattachine's methods of calm protest were not enough.

Rodwell returned to New York City and organized Christopher Street Liberation Day. The march, held on June 28, 1970, was the first gay pride march in the U.S. It covered 51 blocks from Christopher Street to Central Park.

Today, LGBT pride parades are held annually in multiple cities and countries throughout the world. The month of June is widely considered Gay Pride Month.

Gay Rights Today 

In the years that have passed since the Stonewall riots, world headlines have been filled with news about the progression of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. Gay activists have taken their protests from the streets into the virtual atmosphere, sending messages further and wider. Laws are slowly changing to ensure equal protections for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. A number of national, regional and local LGBT organizations have emerged, birthed from the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance. They provide services that range from political activism to legal and economic assistance.

These organizations have been successful in assisting many openly LGBT political candidates, LGBT teens in school and college, LGBT-headed families, and same-sex marriages and relationships. The media is becoming increasingly more LGBT-friendly, and times are starting to change.

Thirty-seven states legalized same-sex marriage as of June 2015, although same-sex adoption is still prohibited in many states. The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act became law in 2010, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Unfortunately, LBGT people can still be fired just for being LGBT in 28 states. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teenagers. The fable of the "pink dollar" has been deflated with reports of many LGBT-headed families living in poverty, and same-sex couples continue to face immigration challenges.

Despite the many difficulties we face as LGBT people, the past has been one of progress and the future of LGBT equality has changed from the improbable to the inevitable. Progress is indeed evolutionary, and equality can and will be achieved when a force of LGBT activism is at its greatest heights. 

The diversity within the LGBT community is more known today than it was when the first transgender street youth threw her stiletto at oppressive police. This diversity among the ranks of LGBT people must be celebrated if we are to become a true community. We must be representative of the entire rainbow, of different likes and ideals and hues, linked of a common colorful thread.