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The Stonewall Riots: A Turning Point in LGBTQ+ History

Updated: Jun 3



Introduction

The Stonewall Riots, which began on June 28, 1969, marked a pivotal moment in the LGBTQ+ rights movement. A raid by the New York Police Department on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, sparked a conflict that helped to change the course of history, and led to major reforms in the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community.


In this article, we’ll delve into the multifaceted history surrounding the riots, including the involvement of the Mafia in New York City's gay bars, the conflict with the police, Judy Garland's death and influence on gay culture, and the pervasive climate of discrimination against gays. We’ll include the broader social and political influences of the time, and the role of the U.S. government in the oppression of gay people.


We’ll also explore the conflict itself, including the contributions of key figures like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Stormé DeLarverie, and the drag community, and the roles played by government figures, police officers, religious leaders, and Mafia members.


Finally, we’ll discuss the aftermath of the conflict, and the impact it had on the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

Background and History

Before we talk about the actual riots, let’s talk about the environment that helped spark the conflict.


The Climate of Discrimination Against Gays

The late 1960s were marked by rampant discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, and gay people faced legal persecution, social ostracism, and violence. Anti-sodomy laws made homosexual acts illegal, and many states had laws against cross-dressing, used to target transgender individuals and drag queens. Religious leaders also added to the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community.


In this hostile environment, LGBTQ+ individuals had few safe spaces. Gay bars, often owned by the Mafia, were some of the only places where they could gather. However, these bars were frequently subjected to police raids, harassment, and extortion. The pervasive discrimination and lack of legal protections created a climate of fear and secrecy.


The Mafia and Gay Bars in New York City

During the 1960s, the LGBTQ+ community faced widespread discrimination and social ostracism. This forced many gay men and women to seek refuge in secretive, underground establishments. The Mafia played a significant role in operating these bars, including the infamous Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, run by the Genovese crime family.

The Mafia, of course, was not in business to do good for the LGBTQ+ community. The Mob offered some measure of protection for the bars and their patrons, by paying off corrupt police officers to prevent frequent raids. In turn, they charged inflated prices for watered down drinks and unsanitary conditions, while often engaging in other illicit activities, including selling drugs and blackmailing patrons.


Two key figures associated with the Stonewall Inn were Fat Tony Lauria and Ed Murphy. Lauria managed the bar, and Murphy provided protection and control. Their roles and actions provide insight into the complex dynamics between organized crime and the LGBTQ+ community.


Key Mafia Figures and Their Roles:


  • Fat Tony Lauria: Often cited as the primary figure behind the Stonewall Inn, Tony Lauria (also known as Fat Tony) was a member of the Genovese crime family. He managed the operations of the bar, ensuring it remained open and accessible to the LGBTQ+ community. Lauria's role included paying off the police to prevent frequent raids and maintaining control over the bar’s activities. Lauria and his associates also extorted money from the bar's patrons and employees to line their own pockets.


  • Ed “The Skull” Murphy: A bouncer at the Stonewall Inn and also associated with the Genovese family, Murphy played a critical role in the day-to-day operations of the bar. He was known for his involvement in various criminal activities but also had connections with the LGBTQ+ community. His presence ensured that the Mafia's interests were protected, and the bar's patrons felt relatively safe from outside threats. However, Murphy was also involved in various illegal activities, including blackmailing wealthy patrons who wanted to keep their sexuality secret. He was known to have a file on many influential figures, which he used to extract money and favors.


The Atmosphere of Police Harassment


In the 1960s, the LGBTQ+ community in New York City and across the United States faced rampant police harassment and brutality. Anti-sodomy laws made homosexual acts illegal, and cross-dressing was prohibited by laws that targeted anyone wearing less than three articles of clothing that matched their assigned sex. These laws gave the police broad authority to harass, arrest, and intimidate LGBTQ+ individuals.


  • Regular Raids on Gay Bars: Police raids on gay bars were a common occurrence. Law enforcement officials frequently raided these establishments, arresting patrons, and often publicly shaming them by publishing their names in newspapers. This practice not only humiliated individuals but also jeopardized their jobs, relationships, and safety.


  • Entrapment and Surveillance: Police officers often engaged in entrapment, where undercover officers would solicit gay men in public places and then arrest them. Surveillance of known LGBTQ+ gathering spots created a pervasive atmosphere of fear and distrust.


  • Brutality and Abuse: During raids, physical and verbal abuse by police officers was widespread. LGBTQ+ individuals were often beaten, humiliated, and subjected to dehumanizing treatment.


The climate of police harassment created a profound sense of fear and anger within the LGBTQ+ community, setting the stage for the explosive events at Stonewall.


The Influence of Religion and Religious Leaders

Religion and religious leaders played a significant role in perpetuating the climate of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community during this period. Many religious institutions and leaders espoused anti-gay rhetoric, contributing to the stigma and marginalization of LGBTQ+ individuals.


  • Religious Doctrines and Teachings: Major religious denominations, including Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, often condemned homosexuality as sinful and immoral. These teachings were used to justify discriminatory laws and social attitudes, reinforcing the idea that LGBTQ+ individuals were deviants and threats to societal norms.


  • Conversion Therapy and Religious Counseling: Many religious organizations promoted and operated conversion therapy programs, which aimed to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity. These programs were often harmful and abusive, causing significant psychological trauma to participants. The endorsement of such practices by religious institutions further stigmatized LGBTQ+ individuals and contributed to the broader atmosphere of oppression.


Specific Religious Leaders' Influence:

  • Reverend Jerry Falwell: A prominent evangelical leader, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, but his anti-gay rhetoric and influence were felt earlier. He consistently denounced homosexuality, framing it as a moral and societal threat. His sermons and public statements contributed to the stigmatization and marginalization of LGBTQ+ individuals.


  • Cardinal Francis Spellman: As the Archbishop of New York, Spellman wielded significant influence in both religious and political circles. While there were rumors about his own sexuality, Spellman maintained a public stance that reinforced traditional Catholic teachings against homosexuality. His influence helped shape public opinion and policy in New York City.


  • Rabbi Meir Kahane: Known for his far-right views, Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League and often spoke out against homosexuality, among other issues. His inflammatory rhetoric added to the hostile environment for LGBTQ+ individuals in New York.


  • Billy Graham: As one of the most influential evangelical leaders of the 20th century, Billy Graham's stance on homosexuality was clear and unequivocal. Graham considered homosexuality a sin and frequently preached against it, although he advocated for a more compassionate approach than some of his contemporaries. Despite his calls for compassion, Graham's messages contributed to the broader societal rejection and marginalization of LGBTQ+ individuals. His influence was felt widely, as he advised numerous U.S. presidents and had a significant following.


Social and Political Influences

Beyond the direct impact of religious leaders and police harassment, several broader social and political influences set the stage for the Stonewall Riots:


  • Civil Rights Movement: The 1960s were a time of significant social upheaval and progress in the fight for civil rights. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement inspired other marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, to organize and demand their rights. The spirit of resistance and the demand for equality were in the air, influencing the actions of those at Stonewall.


  • Women's Liberation Movement: The rise of the Women's Liberation Movement in the 1960s also had an impact on the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Many early LGBTQ+ activists were involved in feminist causes and were inspired by the strategies and successes of women's rights activists.


  • Counterculture Movement: The counterculture movement of the 1960s, characterized by its opposition to the Vietnam War, rejection of traditional norms, and embrace of free love and individualism, created a more open and questioning environment. This movement provided a cultural backdrop that challenged conventional attitudes towards sexuality and gender, contributing to the readiness of LGBTQ+ individuals to stand up for their rights.


  • Media and Visibility: Increased media coverage of LGBTQ+ issues, albeit often negative, began to bring visibility to the community. While mainstream media often perpetuated stereotypes, the very act of discussing LGBTQ+ people in public forums helped to break down the invisibility that had long been imposed on them.


The Role of the U.S. Government


The U.S. government during the 1960s played a significant role in shaping the environment that led to the Stonewall Riots through laws, policies, and enforcement actions that discriminated against LGBTQ+ individuals.

  • Anti-Sodomy Laws: Anti-sodomy laws criminalized homosexual acts in many states, including New York. These laws provided the legal basis for police raids on gay bars and the arrest of LGBTQ+ individuals.


  • Lavender Scare: The Lavender Scare of the 1950s and 1960s was a campaign to purge LGBTQ+ individuals from federal employment, driven by the belief that they were security risks and morally unfit. This campaign, paralleling the anti-communist Red Scare, led to thousands of dismissals and resignations, further entrenching the stigmatization of LGBTQ+ people.


  • Federal Inaction: Despite growing awareness and activism, the federal government was largely inactive on LGBTQ+ rights during this period. There were no significant federal protections against discrimination, and the prevailing attitude among politicians was to avoid or outright oppose LGBTQ+ issues.


New York City Leadership and its Impact


During the Stonewall era, Mayor John Lindsay was the mayor of New York City. His administration had a complex relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, and mixed responses to LGBTQ+ issues. While Lindsay supported some progressive policies, the police under his command continued to enforce discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ+ community. Lindsay's administration was often criticized for its handling of LGBTQ+ issues, as it tried to balance progressive rhetoric with the reality of police practices.


The New York Police Department, led by Commissioner Howard Leary at the time, regularly conducted raids on gay bars, contributing to the climate of fear and oppression. Appointed by Lindsay, Leary led the NYPD during a time of significant social unrest. The police department's aggressive tactics and frequent raids on gay bars reflected the broader societal discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. The policies and actions of the NYPD under his leadership were certainly consistent with the homophobic attitudes and practices of the time. The aggressive policing of LGBTQ+ individuals and spaces, along with the enforcement of discriminatory laws, contributed to an environment of fear and repression for the LGBTQ+ community.


Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine led the raid on the Stonewall Inn. Pine was a seasoned officer in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) with a long career in law enforcement. By 1969, he had attained the rank of Deputy Inspector and was part of the Public Morals Division, which was responsible for enforcing laws related to vice and public decency, including those targeting LGBTQ+ individuals.


The Public Morals Division frequently conducted raids on establishments suspected of engaging in illegal activities, such as gambling, prostitution, and serving alcohol without a license. Gay bars were often targeted under the guise of these operations due to prevailing laws against homosexuality and cross-dressing.


Pine later expressed regret over the raid, indicating that he and his officers did not fully understand the impact their actions would have.


Judy Garland's Death and her Influence on Gay Culture


Judy Garland was a beloved icon within the gay community. She passed away on June 22, 1969, just days before the Stonewall Riots. Her death had a profound impact on the LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were fans who identified with her struggles and resilience.

Garland's status as a gay icon was solidified through her roles in films like "The Wizard of Oz" and her public battles with personal and professional adversity. Her funeral, held on June 27, 1969, saw thousands of fans, including many gay men, mourning her loss. Some historians and participants believe that the emotional intensity surrounding her death contributed to the heightened tensions and collective grief that fueled the riots. While not a direct cause, Garland's influence on gay culture is an integral part of the historical context of the Stonewall Riots.


Trans People and the Drag Community


Trans people and the drag community played a crucial role in the Stonewall Riots, both in terms of active participation and as symbols of resistance and resilience within the LGBTQ+ community.


Visibility and Vulnerability: Drag queens and kings were highly visible members of the LGBTQ+ community and often faced heightened levels of harassment and violence. Their visibility made them frequent targets of police raids and public scrutiny, but it also positioned them as natural leaders and symbols of defiance.


Frontline Resisters: During the Stonewall Riots, many drag queens were at the forefront of the resistance against the police. Their bravery and refusal to be intimidated played a significant role in escalating the protests and galvanizing the broader community.


Symbolic Figures: Prominent figures like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, trans women who were deeply involved in drag culture, Stormé DeLarverie, a biracial lesbian and drag king, and Martin Boyce, a drag queen, became iconic symbols of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Their activism and visibility helped to challenge stereotypes and advocate for broader acceptance and rights for the entire community.


  • Marsha P. Johnson: A Black transgender woman and drag queen, Johnson was a prominent figure in the Stonewall Riots. Known for her activism and vibrant personality, she co-founded the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera, providing support for homeless LGBTQ+ youth.


  • Sylvia Rivera: A Latina transgender woman, Rivera was a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and a participant in the Stonewall Riots. Alongside Johnson, she worked tirelessly to support marginalized members of the community and fought against the exclusion of transgender people from the broader gay rights movement.


  • Miss Major Griffin-Gracy: An African American transgender woman and veteran of the Stonewall Riots, Miss Major has dedicated her life to activism, particularly focusing on the rights of transgender women of color. She has been a tireless advocate for prison reform and the rights of incarcerated transgender individuals.


  • Stormé DeLarverie: A biracial lesbian and drag king, DeLarverie is often credited with throwing the first punch that sparked the Stonewall Riots. She was a well-known figure in the LGBTQ+ community and continued her activism throughout her life.


  • Martin Boyce: As a drag queen, Boyce was among the more visible members of the community targeted by the police. Hr became an oral historian, sharing his experiences and the significance of the Stonewall Riots with new generations. His firsthand accounts have helped to preserve the history and importance of the uprising.


Key Bar Staff at the Stonewall Inn

The bar staff at the Stonewall Inn played crucial roles in maintaining the bar as a safe haven for LGBTQ+ individuals during the riots.


  • Ed Murphy: A bouncer at the Stonewall Inn, Murphy was a recognizable figure in the community and helped maintain order during the riots.


  • Tree: Known only by his nickname, Tree was another bouncer at the Stonewall Inn. He was known for his imposing presence and ability to keep the peace within the bar. During the riots, Tree was one of the staff members who helped patrons and tried to manage the chaos.


  • The Bartenders: The bartenders at the Stonewall Inn, whose names are less well-documented, were integral to the bar's atmosphere. They provided a welcoming environment and often acted as confidants and supporters for the patrons. Their familiarity with the regulars and understanding of the community's needs helped foster a sense of belonging and safety.


The Police

The raid was conducted by officers from the New York City Police Department (NYPD), specifically the Public Morals Division, which was responsible for enforcing laws related to vice and public decency. Several key figures were involved in the raid and the subsequent events.


  • Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine: Pine was the commanding officer in charge of the raid on the Stonewall Inn, and was part of the Public Morals Division of the NYPD. Pine led the team of officers into the Stonewall Inn, intending to arrest employees and patrons for various violations, including serving alcohol without a license and engaging in "immoral" behavior.


  • Officer Charles Smythe and Officer Gilbert Weisman: Patrolmen in the Public Morals Division, Smythe and Weisman were among the officers conducting the raid on the Stonewall Inn. Both officers were involved in entering the bar, checking identification, and arresting employees and patrons. Their actions were part of the routine procedures for such raids.


  • Tactical Patrol Force (TPF): The TPF was a specialized unit within the NYPD trained to handle riots and large-scale disturbances. The TPF was called in to support the officers trapped inside the Stonewall Inn and to disperse the growing crowd outside. The TPF arrived with riot gear and began efforts to clear the streets, using batons and physical force to push back the protesters. Their presence led to more violent confrontations with the crowd, who responded by throwing objects and setting fires.


The Riots

Against this background, it didn’t take a lot for the smoldering resentment in the LGBTQ+ community to flare into a major conflict. Police raids on the Stonewall Inn and other gay gathering places were fairly routine, and not at all uncommon, and usually resulted in arrests and very public humiliation for some patrons, while the rest were released into the night. One evening, however, there was a very different result, and things didn’t go the way police expected.


The Conflict with the Police


The raid on the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, was intended to be routine. However, the patrons, fed up with years of abuse, decided to fight back. Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine led the raid, unaware that this night would be different.


As the police attempted to arrest employees and drag queens, the crowd outside the bar grew larger and more agitated. When one woman, often believed to be Stormé DeLarverie, was manhandled by officers, she called out to the onlookers, "Why don't you guys do something?" This rallying cry sparked the crowd into action.


The resistance quickly turned into a riot. Patrons and passersby threw coins, bottles, and bricks at the police.  As the crowd outside the Stonewall Inn grew more aggressive, the police found themselves outnumbered and unable to control the situation. Realizing the danger, they retreated into the bar and barricaded themselves inside. This move, however, did not deter the protesters. Instead, it fueled their anger and determination.


The crowd began to throw objects such as coins, bottles, and bricks at the windows of the Stonewall Inn, breaking many of them. Some attempted to use a parking meter as a battering ram to break down the door.


 In an attempt to smoke out the police, some rioters set fires around the bar. Trash cans and other debris were used to create barricades and small fires near the entrance.


The crowd chanted slogans and taunted the police trapped inside. The atmosphere was a mix of anger, defiance, and a sense of newfound empowerment among the LGBTQ+ individuals who had long faced oppression.


Inside the bar, the police were in a state of panic. Deputy Inspector Pine called for reinforcements, and the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) was dispatched to quell the riot. The arrival of additional police units led to more confrontations with the crowd outside. After several hours, the crowd began to disperse.


That evening, the crowds returned, and the conflict reignited. The riots continued until July 3, when police finally regained control and order was restored. But by then, a major change in the LGBTQ+ community had firmly taken hold.


Aftermath

The Stonewall Riots had an immediate impact on New York City’s culture and the relationship between the police and LGBTQ+ community, and a longer-term impact on the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for equal rights.


New York City

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, Mayor Lindsay's administration was criticized for its handling of the situation. Initially, there was no official statement from the mayor's office, reflecting the general indifference or lack of awareness about LGBTQ+ issues at the time. However, as the significance of the riots became clear, Lindsay's administration began to take a more conciliatory approach.


In the weeks following the riots, Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid, was reassigned, and there were efforts to de-escalate tensions between the police and the LGBTQ+ community. While Lindsay did not become a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights immediately, the events of Stonewall and the public reaction to them contributed to a gradual shift in how his administration approached LGBTQ+ issues. Over time, the city began to see incremental changes in policies and attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community, setting the stage for future progress.


In the years following the Stonewall Riots, Seymour Pine spoke publicly about the raid and its aftermath. His reflections provide a unique perspective on the events and highlight his evolving understanding of their significance.


Pine acknowledged that the police, including himself, had not fully understood the impact of their actions on the LGBTQ+ community. He expressed regret for the raid and recognized that it had been a catalyst for a much-needed movement for LGBTQ+ rights.


In various interviews and public statements, Pine offered apologies to the LGBTQ+ community. He admitted that the raid had been mishandled and that the police had underestimated the determination and resilience of the LGBTQ+ individuals who resisted.


Pine's reflections show a significant shift in his perspective over time. Initially tasked with enforcing laws that discriminated against LGBTQ+ individuals, he later came to see the raid as an injustice and a pivotal moment in the fight for equality.


Impact on the LGBTQ+ Community


The aftermath of the Stonewall Riots was a period of rapid change and significant progress for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. This included increased visibility of the LGBTQ+ community and its struggles for equality; legal reforms; and a broader cultural impact for the community.


Increased Visibility


The riots drew national attention to the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. For the first time, mainstream media covered the events and the issues faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, bringing them into the public eye and increasing visibility.


In the wake of the riots, numerous LGBTQ+ advocacy groups were formed. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was established in July 1969, advocating for radical social change and direct action. Later, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) was formed, focusing on specific political goals and working within the system to achieve change.


To commemorate the anniversary of the riots, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March was held on June 28, 1970. This event marked the beginning of the annual Pride marches, which have since grown into a global movement celebrating LGBTQ+ pride and advocating for equal rights.


Legal Reforms


The visibility and activism following the Stonewall Riots led to gradual legal reforms. Over the next few decades, many states decriminalized homosexual acts, and laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity were introduced.


In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, a significant victory for LGBTQ+ activists who had long fought against the stigmatization of their identities. This led to a broader acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in society.


Cultural Impacts


There were also broader cultural impacts. The riots and the subsequent activism led to increased representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in media, arts, and culture. LGBTQ+ characters and themes began to appear more frequently in television, film, literature, and music.


The activism sparked by Stonewall emphasized the importance of intersectionality and inclusion within the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera highlighted the need to address issues faced by transgender individuals, people of color, and those living in poverty.


Ongoing Struggles and Progress


Despite the progress made since the Stonewall Riots, the LGBTQ+ community continues to face challenges, including discrimination, violence, and legal inequalities. Activism remains crucial in addressing these issues and achieving full equality.


The spirit of Stonewall has inspired LGBTQ+ movements around the world. Many countries have seen significant progress in LGBTQ+ rights, but there is still much work to be done to ensure equality and acceptance for all.


Conclusion


The Stonewall Riots were not just a spontaneous uprising but the culmination of years of oppression and a catalyst for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. The involvement of the Mafia in running gay bars, the ongoing oppression by the police, the impact of Judy Garland's death, the harsh climate of discrimination, the role of religious leaders, the broader social and political influences, the actions of key figures, and the contributions of bar staff all contributed to the explosive events of June 28, 1969. The role of the U.S. government in perpetuating discriminatory policies and the impact of influential religious leaders like Billy Graham also played a significant part.


The riots had long-lasting impact.  They galvanized the LGBTQ+ community, leading to the formation of advocacy groups and the annual celebration of Pride. They sparked activism and accelerated the push for equal rights, as well as legal reforms. They increased the acceptance of gay people, and led to a greater cultural impact on society.


As we reflect on Stonewall, we honor the bravery of those who fought back and recognize the importance of this moment on LGBTQ+ people in the United States, and around the world.  We also recognize the ongoing struggle for equality and acceptance, and the importance of continuing the fight for equality.

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