By Audrey Pitcher, Ursinus Intern
Here at the LGBT Equality Alliance, we like to keep things positive. However, October is LGBT History Month, and our story has not always been a happy one. As important as it is to look at all the positive things we’re doing today, sometimes we need to take a look back.
The Stonewall Inn was born into a world in which homosexuality was a criminal offense punishable by life imprisonment. It was a gay bar, a venture so risky that only the Mafia saw it as worthwhile. The Stonewall was hastily reconstructed from a neglected former restaurant and the bar didn’t have running kitchen sinks or fire exits. The owners bribed the police to ensure a warning before the inevitable police raids.
One such raid occurred in the early morning of June 28th, 1969. Generally the police just came in, confiscated the cash register and alcohol, and arrested the employees. That time, however, it was different. Frustrated with the operation’s resistance, the police had decided to step up their game. They insisted that everyone line up with ID before they could leave the club.
Some patrons resisted them, including those wearing clothing of “the wrong gender” who didn’t want to be strip searched in the bathroom and several lesbians who refused to leave and were harassed by police officers. Rather than dissipating as they were released from the club, patrons stayed to cheer on their peers as they came out of the bar, often with campy acts of defiance.
However, the crowd became more disgruntled as police started getting rough with the patrons. When one officer lifted up a struggling woman and shoved her into a police car, the crowd erupted. They began shouting at the police and throwing things. They slashed tires and threw coins, then beer cans, then bricks.
The police, not used to Stonewall patrons fighting back, retreated into the Inn and locked the doors. People laid siege to the bar with anything that came to hand, finally letting out their frustrations at the society that oppressed them. Unsurprisingly, it was the most marginalized who fought the hardest: the trans people, drag queens, and street youth.
Before long, several fire engines arrived to put out the blazes started by protesters. They brought in riot police, but could not clear the streets. The protestors continued to taunt them, throwing things, singing songs, and even forming Rockette-style- kicklines. The police responded by lashing out indiscriminately, beating protestors with their clubs and turning the fire hoses on the crowds.
The riot lasted for hours before the Stonewall patrons–and those who had joined them–finally retreated. They recognized they had no hope of “winning” in a fight against the police, but they felt as though they had accomplished something crucial by finally speaking up.
By the end of Saturday evening word had spread, and thousands showed up for the encore that night. While a lot of the action died down in the next few days, the Stonewall Riots ended with a bang that Wednesday night. Their message, however, did not.
The Stonewall Riots, sometimes called “the first Gay Pride Parade,” showed the world that the LGBTQ+ community was through with being oppressed and forced into the shadows. But, more importantly, it showed the queer community what we could do when we stood up for ourselves.
Stonewall emboldened an entire generation to stand up and take their rights. It’s not pleasant to look back at that time, when our very existence was considered a crime. However, we need to see how far we’ve come, and give thanks to the people who, on that hot, summer night, showed us where to begin.
Carter, David. Stonewall. St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2011.