What were the Stonewall riots? The story of the historic demonstrations

Stonewall Riots: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson

The Stonewall riots were a crucial, era-defining moment in the struggle for equality.

In the early hours of June 28 1969, a gay bar in the West Village of Manhattan became the epicentre of an event that changed the course of LGBT history.

The days of riots which followed the uprising against police who frequently targeted The Stonewall Inn along with other gay bars were momentous.

Led by prominent activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were trans women of colour, the riots sparked an entire civil rights movement, and the reason why we celebrate Pride Month in June.

Rivera and Johnson also later co-founded the organization STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens and trans women of colour.

Johnson was known for her fierce activism and advocacy of homeless queer people and sex workers, as well as saying the ‘P.’ in her name stood for “pay it no mind” – now the title of a documentary about her life.

Johnson was one of the first to resist police intimidation at the bar, and Rivera is rumoured to have thrown the first bottle.

Then, when lesbian activist Stormé DeLarverie was attacked by police for saying her handcuffs were too tight, the riot broke out.

How did the Stonewall riots start?

On June 28 1969, the police stopped by The Stonewall Inn on the grounds of checking for alcohol law violations and other transgressions – something they did frequently.

What actually occurred, as was often the case, was police intimidation and demands for payoffs – dubbed “gayola” – in return for not arresting or publicising the names of customers.

It was police procedure at the time to take anyone dressed as a woman to the bathroom, before arresting them if they were revealed to have been assigned male at birth.

Stonewall riots

Stonewall riots: Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix)

But that night, a dramatic turn of events changed the course of the LGBT movement as gay customers, drag queens and transgender patrons resisted.

Johnson, a drag queen and gay liberation activist who was celebrating her 25th birthday at the Stonewall Inn that night, was reportedly one of the first to stand up to the intimidation and galvanise support.

Johnson’s friend and ally, Rivera, who was a fellow activist and drag queen, also took action by throwing a bottle at the police.

Both women, instrumental in the LGBT rights movement, are credited with playing major roles in the backlash against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn.

Other Stonewall customers threw bottles, coins and other items at the officers, as tensions which had built for a long time finally boiled over as those inside the bar were dragged outside by police.

The Stonewall Riots lasted for days (Wikimedia Commons)

The Stonewall Riots lasted for days (Wikimedia Commons)

The crowd erupted after a lesbian called Stormé DeLarverie was hit over the head by police for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight and the rioting spread as sympathisers joined in the resistance.

Shouts of “gay power” and “we shall overcome” could be heard down the street as support spread.

According to US gay rights activist Craig Rodwell, quoted in an article by author Lionel Wright, “A number of incidents were happening simultaneously. There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group, of mass anger.”

As news of the fracas spread across the city, the group of angry demonstrators swelled until the police were forced to take refuge in the empty bar.

“I had been in combat situations,” Detective Inspector Pine is quoted by Wright as saying. “But there was never any time that I felt more scared than then.”

The Stonewall Riots: Storme DeLarverie (North Fork Women for Women Fund)

Storme DeLarverie (North Fork Women for Women Fund)

The crowd, which was made up of all shades of the LGBT community, flocked to Christopher Street to take part in this revolutionary act of defiance.

Although the police, backed up the Tactical Patrol Force, tried several times to break up the crowd, they were outwitted by rioters who would simply disperse, regroup and attack from a different direction.

The violence in Greenwich continued for more than three nights, with members of the LGBT community using the riots as a much-needed opportunity to distribute leaflets and information, to educate others amid the chaos.

What happened after the Stonewall riots?

In short, the organised fight for LGBT equality was born.

The Gay Liberation Front was formed in the wake of the riots to protest against the social oppression of the LGBT community.

Michael Adams, the Executive Director of Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, has said that “in the early days of the modern LGBT movement, the Gay Liberation Front was one of the most visible and vocal organisations promoting equality for the LGBT community.”

The Stonewall Riots: Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix)

Similar movements were quickly established in Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand.

Why were the Stonewall riots such a turning point?

Many historians and journalists have pointed out that during the 1960s the whole social climate was changing. The Vietnam War had radicalised the American youth.

As young men went off to war many became involved in homosexual relationships, while back in the States there was, according to Wright, an “opening-up of US society” that could not be quashed.

The black civil rights movement was gaining ground, French students had gone on strike the year before, the Communist Party had campaigned for gay rights and returning servicepeople had stayed in port cities like Manhattan.

Anti-Vietnam demonstration (John Hill)

Craig Rodwell is quoted as saying: “There was a very volatile active political feeling, especially among young people … when the night of the Stonewall Riots came along, just everything came together at that one moment… There was no one thing special about it.

“It was just everything coming together, one of those moments in history that if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”

Nearly half a century on from the Stonewall Riots, the global LGBT community still faces significant problems. In many South Asian and Middle Eastern countries homosexuality is still illegal and still, as far as the law goes, punishable by death.

In many European countries and even in the UK – in Northern Ireland – the campaign for equal marriage continues.

Anti-gay bullying is still prevalent in schools and workplaces, and anti-LGBT sentiment is still being combatted across the world.

But for many, that fight has its roots in those dramatic riots in Greenwich all those years ago.