Today in 2019 when politicians eagerly court the gay vote, when the Chamber of Commerce sports a rainbow flag, when major corporations remake their logos in rainbow colors, when the rainbow flag flies from state capitols and city halls, from just about every bar and restaurant in town, in every shop window, and from half the churches, it’s very startling to look at one of the few images from the actual Stonewall riots. We don’t see brave heroic revolutionaries making history. We don’t see celebrities or models on display. We see some grungy looking kids on a very hot and humid night outside a dive bar covered with graffiti and marked by a rusted sign. They are smiling and having fun with the photographer. They are smiling because they are winning. For the first time in their young lives, the cops and mobsters who dominated their lives are afraid of them and in retreat. Rioting can be fun. The Stonewall riots happened in a succession of 3 nights in Greenwich Village in New York at the end of June in 1969. That there are so few pictures of the riots tells us a lot about how people felt about them at the time, and about how people thought of LGBTQs (like these kids) if they thought about them at all.
This is a now famous photograph of some of the rioters taken by Fred McDarrah, a photographer with the Village Voice. McDarrah was at the Village Voice offices just 2 or 3 doors down the block from the Stonewall Inn at the time (where The Duplex cabaret now stands). He took this picture on the second or third night of the riots. The kids in this photo are a representative sample of who frequented the Stonewall bar and did most of the rioting; street kids. This is not the Fire Island crowd. They are not students. They are runaways and throw-away kids who left or lost homes because of their sexuality. These kids lived very precarious lives from one place to crash to the next. They survived by working odd jobs, prostitution, and petty crime. “They were rotten kids,” said one Greenwich Village resident at the time who knew them, “but they were made rotten.”
The Stonewall Inn was considered the lowest dive in gay New York. The gay activist Craig Rodwell tried to have it shut down because of a hepatitis outbreak there earlier in 1969. It was a filthy mob owned bar that served watered down drinks in unwashed glasses. It was the one place where street kids could go to party and hang out. Most of the other gay bars (also all mob owned) threw them out.
Serving drinks to gays and lesbians was illegal in New York since the end of Prohibition. The law forbade the sale of liquor to “known sexual perverts.” Gay bars were technically illegal in New York and survived only because of collusion between the cops and the mob. The mob bosses who owned the bars paid off the cops to keep them open, an arrangement that went back decades. The Stonewall rioters called out that corruption in taunts to the cops and in graffiti throughout the neighborhood. In 1964, the city decided to “clean up” the Village for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Raids on bars and clubs became frequent and stayed that way long after the Fair closed. These raids became routine. They usually happened relatively early in the evening on a Friday or Saturday night. The tabloids would print the names and addresses of people arrested in these raids meaning evictions and the loss of employment for a lot of them. To be a sexually active young gay man or lesbian back in the day meant having a police record. Cross dressing was illegal, and transgender folk were especially vulnerable to arrest. The gay ghettos in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and in cities around the world were the creations of discrimination. They were neighborhoods where landlords would rent to people with police records.
The young patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back during what everyone expected would be a routine police raid. The kids successfully stopped the raid, blocking the cops in the bar. The kids pelted the bar with bottles, rocks, and coins. They tried to break the door down with an uprooted parking meter to get at the frightened cops trapped inside. The cops only got out when back up arrived and dispersed crowds. There followed 3 nights of rioting in the Village and sporadic rioting throughout the month of July 1969.
The rioting received very little coverage in the press mostly because editors didn’t think the people rioting were worth the coverage. The only reporting of any length was in the New York Daily News and the Village Voice. Both papers wrote about the riots in a condescending and contemptuous tone. “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Stinging Mad” read the headline in the Daily News. A local reporter who did cover the riots exclaimed that if similar riots happened in Harlem, there would have been front page coverage in the NY Times and in the Post. The riots were very large and violent with a lot of injuries and property damage (fortunately there were no deaths and apparently not much looting).
The Stonewall riots were not the first time gays fought back. There were occasional brawls and riots during Molly house raids in London as early as the 1780s. There was resistance during a raid at the Black Cat bar in West Hollywood, California in 1967. But Stonewall was the Fall-of-the-Bastille moment that began a revolution coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, at the very beginnings of a new Feminist movement, and in the midst of the Sexual Revolution. In the wake of the riots, activists scrambled and fought over what to do with a huge golden goose egg of opportunity that fell into their laps. Young people flooded into older gay rights organizations unprepared to receive them. The newly active young created new organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.
Gay emancipation was an idea that had been around since at least the 1860s in Germany. It was long the cause of a handful of very brave and lonely souls. After Stonewall, Gay rights, Gay liberation became a popular cause, a mass movement in a way that it never was before. People who suffered in solitude and anonymity began to find affirming communities waiting for them. People who had never thought about their own experiences seriously began to think in terms of freedom and dignity. People began claiming that freedom and dignity as their birthright by “coming out,” revealing their true identities as LGBTQ people. In time, what the street kids started at the Stonewall Inn swept the world and raised expectations for LGBTQs from Sydney to Nairobi to Moscow to Cairo to Shanghai to Nashville. A once intensely private and secret experience for so many became a political force in the wake of the Stonewall riots. The private became political so that once despised and persecuted people could breathe free and make their own happiness.