Summer night 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, was raided by police. It was a safe place, almost a sanctuary for the ‘underground’ queer voices of New York City.
Homosexuality had been illegal in America for a long time, with ‘McCarthyism’; the practice of making accusations of subversion/treason, resulting in a national witch hunt across America. Queer people were often conflated with paedophiles.
The bar was raided because it was illegal to employ or serve queer people. Many of these bars and secret underground clubs were run by the Italian Mafia, who would often blackmail the queer employees to work for them, with threats to ‘out’ them. Similarly, in order to make profit from these clubs and bars they would bribe corruptible police officers to look the other way
Police raids on gay bars were common in NYC, but on that particular night, members of the city’s LGBT community decided to fight back—sparking an uprising that would launch a new era of resistance and revolution.
The bar was stripped of its alcohol and many of the employees were arrested. Once again the bar was raided later that week, where many undercover cops began arresting drag queens, crossdressers and other non-cis members of the queer community; essentially singling them out.
Two transgender women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were said to have resisted arrest and thrown the first bottle (or brick or stone) at the cops, respectively. Although Johnson later said in a 1987 podcast interview with historian Eric Marcus that she had not arrived until the uprising was well underway.
The growing protest forced the original police who had began the arresting raiding party to retreat into the Stonewall itself and barricade themselves inside.
Finally, sometime after 4 a.m, things settled down. Amazingly, no one died or was critically injured on the first night of rioting, though a few police officers reported injuries.
Stonewall couldn’t have happened without the LGBTQ+ cultures and political groups that preceded it, and they continued to influence the events that followed.
Immediately after Stonewall, such groups as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists' Alliance (GAA) were formed. The five decades of struggle that have followed the riots have sometimes lent the impression that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice.
Within a single lifetime, homosexuality has moved from being a crime and a psychiatric disorder, punished in the US by imprisonment, chemical castration, social ostracisation and a lifetime as a registered sex offender, to a socially and legally recognised sexual identity. Yet Pride marches, and the legacy of Stonewall, remain contentious even within the LGBTQ+ community.
A much more radical fight for sexual liberation and gay power had begun.
The purpose of Pride was not just to commemorate those who fought back against police violence at the Stonewall Inn, or to protest unjust laws. It was also to counter the sense of shame and self-hatred that scarred the lives of LGBTQ+ people.
LGBTQ+ politics is never simple – it’s as much a process of groups of people coming to realise common struggles and common desires, and creating a shared culture, as it is a simple demand for rights.