The Stonewall Riots, largely recognized as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, began 50 years ago today. It’s an important day to remember how far LGBTQ rights have come over the past five decades and to pay tribute to the brave pioneers who paved the way for gay and gender non-conforming individuals today.
On June 28, 1969, New York City police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, using violent tactics while arresting some of the bar’s employees and club-goers. Over the next six days, the LGBTQ community in the area rioted as a way to fight back against gender and sexuality-based targeting by the New York City police department.
In the 1960s, just living openly as a member of the LGBTQ community could be an arrest-worthy offense. Though New York laws restricting the sale of alcohol to LGBTQ people were taken off the books in 1966, other laws remained restricting any public displays of affection between same-sex couples, as well as one forbidding people from wearing clothing that didn’t adequately reflect their biological sex.
Gay bars like the Stonewall Inn were a safe space for LBGTQ people of the time to dress, drink, and socialize as their authentic selves, something nearly impossible to do in any other public setting.
The Stonewall Inn illegally operated as a bottle bar, where patrons are supposed to bring their own alcohol. This gave the New York City Police Department an excuse to raid the bar to see if it was selling liquor without a license. Once inside, officers were able to arrest employees, as well as the bar’s patrons who were in violation of any laws, meaning those in drag and others who may not have been dressed according to the gender norms of the time.
Due to the chaos that ensued during and after the raids, very little is conclusively known about exactly how the riots began, but a few leaders did emerge during the six days of protesting.
Storme DeLarverie, a lesbian performer and bouncer, was one of those who police arrested the morning of June 28. Though no conclusive proof exists, DeLarverie asserted that she threw the first punch that was the catalyst to the riots.
Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman known by “the Queen Mother” to many of Greenwich’s LGBTQ community at the time, is believed to have been the first person to throw a brick at the police during the riots.
Sylvia Rivera was one of Johnson’s mentees, a trangender woman, and she was only 17 years old when she participated in the Stonewall riots. She would later go on to co-found Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Johnson, an organization dedicated to providing shelter and food to homeless LGBTQ youth.
The Stonewall Inn went out of business shortly after the riots, and has been many different businesses over the years since. Today, the building operates as a bar under the iconic “Stonewall” name.
In 1999, the Stonewall Inn building was the first LGBTQ site to go on the National Register of Historic Places and — one year later — to be named a National Historic Landmark.
Unfortunately, members of the LGBTQ community today are still no stranger to violence and discrimination, as evidenced by 2016’s Pulse Nightclub shooting. Black transgender women, like Masha P. Johnson, are especially vulnerable as victims of violent attacks, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Though there is still much work to be done for LGBTQ rights, today is a great time to appreciate and draw inspiration from those who started the ongoing journey towards equality for the LGBTQ community in the United States.
If you want to do something to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, Athens PRIDE is hosting “Remembering Stonewall: 50 Years Later” at the Heidi Hensley Art Collective at 6:30 p.m. tonight, June 28.