LGBTQ History

One night in 1969, a movement caught hold & has never let go

One night in 1969, a movement caught hold & has never let go
The Stonewall InnPhoto: Michael Knaapen

Every community has its stories. We retell them to remind ourselves of our origins, to note our progress, and to recommit ourselves to each other. We are too wise to believe that one instant in one place in history made manifest our movement for equality. But we can look to the events of June 27-28, 1969 as a moment of tremendous significance — as a moment when the odds were long against us and we fought back anyway; as a spark — not the first, not the only, but nevertheless a spark — which grew into a blaze to burn unjust laws and light the way toward progress. Let us recall the Stonewall Riots.

In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was an unlikely place for revolution. Located in the heart of a blue-collar neighborhood called the West Village near the meatpacking district of lower Manhattan, it was a frequent haunt of lower-income LGBT people as well as drag queens, hustlers, drug addicts, and drug dealers. Across the street, Christopher Park was a cruising spot and home to many LGBT youth.

The mafia owned and operated the Stonewall as cheaply as possible, preferring tubs of stagnant water to sinks with running water behind the bar, stealing rather than purchasing liquor, and adding water to stretch the booze. One expense they did not spare was bribe money paid to local police to prevent raids, or at least guarantee advance warning. That was a comfort to patrons who felt somewhat protected from the humiliating and potentially life-ruining raids of police followed by the publication of photos and names in the paper the next day.

In the summer of 1969, the NYPD morals division was informed that gangsters had managed to blackmail high-profile gay men to defraud the government. They were told that the blackmail transactions were conducted at bars in New York City, and the Stonewall Inn was identified as one such bar.

Acting on this tip, the NYPD planned a raid based on intelligence that the bar was operating without a license and watering down its liquor. Those tips indicated that local police were likely in collusion with the mafia, so the morals division did not inform the 6th precinct of the raid until the very last minute.

Seymour Pine, who had fought at the Battle of the Bulge and literally wrote the book on hand-to-hand combat for the US Army, had been a distinguished military man and was now a distinguished police officer. As Deputy Inspector, he was selected to lead the raid on the Stonewall. He had a twofold reputation essential to the assignment: incorruptibility and vehement contempt for the mafia.

His objective was to ensure that the Stonewall Inn never reopened its doors – he would not only confiscate contraband and arrest the staff (all mafia), but would destroy the bar.

June 27th, 1969, was a hot Friday night. Turnout at the Stonewall was high. Some present that night recalled being emotional after the death and funeral of gay icon Judy Garland. They had discovered some remote sense of community in their collective mourning. Historians argue about the funeral’s significance, but there is no doubt that some people present were emotionally raw before the night began. Others argue that the burgeoning sense of community played a significant part as well.

Undercover officers entered the Stonewall in advance of the raid to identify the mafia employees. At 1:20am, at the height of the evening and without any tip-off to the owners, police approached the entrance and shouted, “Police! We’re taking the place.” There was a moment of chaos, but many of the Stonewall clientele were familiar with the drill, and the police were not shy about enforcing it.

Employees were gathered into a back room. Anyone believed to be in violation of the law mandating that people wear at least three articles of clothing conforming to their legal gender – mainly trans and drag customers and lesbians wearing so-called masculine clothing like pants – were taken to a corner to be questioned or physically inspected.

All other customers were herded into lines, instructed to get ID ready, and ushered toward the entrance where officers would check ID before booting them out. Anyone found without ID would be corralled into an adjoining room for arrest later.

This Night Was Different

The atmosphere was uncharacteristically tense, according to both police and civilian accounts. Typically, raids inspired fear in the bar-goers. Most would be checked for ID and tossed out into the street to walk home alone and ashamed, and they weren’t about to push back when cops harassed them for fear of a more public and costly shaming.

But that night was different. Patrons did not stand quietly in line like usual. Many rebuked the police, questioning and challenging them. When police got physical, patrons pushed back. The drag queens, trans, and lesbian clients – the ones in “inappropriate” clothing – refused to be examined.

The Stonewall clientele were sick and tired of being pushed around, and they expressed it – for the first time, and together.

To move things along, Deputy Inspector Pine instructed the officers to arrest them all and gather them with the employees. He urged his officers to clear the bar quickly.

As ID’s were checked and handed back and those patrons were ushered out of the Stonewall, they did not head homeward in shame. They stood outside in the street.

Some were waiting for their friends. Others were simply curious. Still more were angry, and their anger kept them planted where they were. In a short time, as the bar was cleared, a large crowd had formed. The commotion attracted the attention of customers in neighboring bars, passersby, and especially the youth crowd across the street. Some people in the crowd ran to tell their friends and drag more queer people to see the action unfold.

The crowd looked on as the police escorted the arrested customers and staff to a waiting paddy wagon and patrol car. The mafia employees were brought out first. They were greeted with boos and hisses and catcalls from the crowd. When the drag queens were brought out, they did campy routines and strutted and sassed, and the crowd went wild. The atmosphere was still tense, but for the most part the queer response remained nonviolent.

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