Raids on gay frequented establishments by the NYPD were not uncommon at the time, in fact, as NYPD Inspector Seymour Pine later noted in a recorded interview for a documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of the raid, “they [raids] were conducted regularly without much resistance.”
What made this raid difference was that the patrons of the bar resisted, refusing to be led into police paddy wagons. “It was the Rosa Parks moment,” recalled one participant.
The raid prompted a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a government-sponsored system that persecuted the gay and lesbian community, and is widely considered the beginning of the modern day LGBT rights movement.
During the 1950s and 1960s, New York and other American cities’ law enforcement officials kept track of suspected homosexuals and bars and restaurants that catered to them. In the case of New York City, many of the bars like the Stonewall Inn were owned by organized crime families and operated illegally without proper licensing.
Police regularly conducted raids, seizing alcohol, shutting down the establishments and arresting the staff and patrons. In the resulting publicity afterwards, it wasn’t uncommon for gay men and lesbians to be exposed in newspapers, fired from their jobs, jailed or sent to mental institutions.
Homosexuality was then considered to be such subversive behavior that it was listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders I as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”
The late Dr. Frank Kameny, a founder of the Washington Chapter of the Mattachine Society and an early leader in what was then referred to as “the Gay Rights Movement,” wrote that there were 1,000 organizations formed within a year after Stonewall. After two years, 2,500. Within three years of the Stonewall uprising, Kameny stopped counting.
In an interview three years ago, Kameny noted, “Progress has been enormous. Sodomy laws were repealed, so we’re no longer criminals. Mental health classification changed, so we’re no longer loonies.”
Prior to that hot summer evening on Christopher Street, there was little public expression or particularly acknowledgment of the lives and experiences of gays and lesbians.
The Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of a movement that has transformed the oppression of gays and lesbians into calls for pride and action. Over the past four decades LGBTQ people around the globe have been witness to an astonishing flowering of gay culture that has changed the United States and beyond, forever.
Before Stonewall when psychoanalysts equated homosexuality with mental illness and advised aversion therapy, and even lobotomies, countless public service announcements warned youngsters against predatory homosexuals, perpetuating the notion that LGBT people were deviant, sick, and needed to be eradicated.
Anecdotal archival footage gives life to this reality, when the late CBS news anchor and reporter Mike Wallace announced on a 1966 CBS Reports: “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.”
Today, as same-sex couples are allowed to be married in some states, as the fight for LGBT rights has arrived in the mainstream political arena, and as portrayal of LGBT people in the popular media and culture has been more and more positive, Pride events during the month of June pay homage to a group of gay and lesbians tired of being oppressed, who fought for their rights and ultimately the rights of future generations of LGBT people everywhere.