Imagine it is 1958. You let out a sigh of relief as you finish taking an exam that you studied for vigorously. To unwind, you decide to go out and enjoy your time with friends at a bar. You move your body to the loud music on the dance floor while holding your favorite alcoholic beverage high in one hand. You are having a fun time until you hear someone burst through the door. Police officers arrive with their nightsticks to disrupt the party.
Since the 1940s until the 1970s, police officers regularly raided bars in cities such as New York. During this time period, it was illegal for homosexual couples to show public affection, and bartenders were not allowed to serve alcohol to LGBTQ individuals (Holland, 2019). Furthermore, another act that was not permitted was drag: where individuals, particularly LGBTQ people, wear clothing that is not traditionally associated with their gender assigned at birth (Ryan, 2019). For instance, if your biological sex is male and you were caught wearing a dress, then you could have been arrested, charged with a fine, or experienced violent harassment from a police officer. To keep a lookout for the police, some bar owners would change the color of the lights in the bar from blue to white, and customers would know to stop drinking and dancing (Holland, 2019). The intervention of the police made it difficult for LGBTQ individuals to have a public sanctuary where they can freely express themselves.
Having had enough, on the morning of June 28, 1969, LGBTQ people began rioting against the police around Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. The crowd threw objects such as bottles, pennies at the officers. They also punctured the car tires of police vehicles. The police retaliated by physically beating the crowd and throwing tear gas grenades. Tear gas was a chemical that caused eye pain, but can lead to loss of eyesight. On July 2nd, 1969, LGBTQ activists protested outside newspaper offices due to homophobic slurs used in their coverage. For instance, a newspaper headline from the New York Daily News, read, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.” The derogatory language expressed from this headline added fuel to the fire. The protests continued until July 3rd, 1969. Despite the violent demonstrations, no one died during these riots (Pruitt, 2019).
The Stonewall riots are a turning point in the history of LGBTQ rights. The Stonewall Uprising sparked future social movements, which led to people openly seeking positive change for the LGBTQ community. In 2008, thousands of people across the United States gathered to show their support for same-sex marriage, which was illegal during times of the Stonewall Uprising. Admist a tornado watch in Washington D.C, approximately 900 protestors went to the Capitol Building, the place where Congress met to make laws. They chanted statements such as, “Gay, straight, black, white; marriage is a civil right” (McKinley, 2008). Fast forward to June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states (Liptak, 2015). This change probably would not have occurred without passionate protestors that demanded change and rights for LGBTQ people, like people at Stonewall decades before.
James O’Neill, who served as the 43rd police commissioner of New York City, issued an apology on behalf of the New York Police Department (NYPD) for what happened during the Stonewall Uprising. He said, “The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong – plain and simple” (Gold & Norman, 2019). The scenery today is profoundly different than when the Stonewall riots occurred. Although police brutality is still an issue today, there are laws that protect the rights of LGBTQ people from what happened in 1969. Since 1970, June has been acknowledged as LGBTQ pride month, to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising that took place during the same month (Pruitt, 2019).
Gold, M., & Norman, D. M. (2019). Stonewall riot apology: police actions were ‘wrong,’ commissioner admits. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/06/nyregion/stonewall-riots-nypd.html
Holland, B. (2019). How the mob helped establish NYC’s gay bar scene. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/how-the-mob-helped-establish-nycs-gay-bar-scene
Liptak, A. (2015). Supreme court ruling makes same-sex marriage a right nationwide. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/27/us/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage.html
McKinley, J. (2008). Across U.S., big rallies for same-sex marriage. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/16/us/16protest.html
Pruitt, S. (2019). What happened at the stonewall riots? A timeline of the 1969 uprising. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/stonewall-riots-timeline
Ryan, H. (2019). How dressing in drag was labeled a crime in the 20th century. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/stonewall-riots-lgbtq-drag-three-article-rule