5 things you may not know about the Stonewall rebellion

Stonewall National Monument
The Stonewall National Monument on pride weekend 2016.Photo: Rhododendrites via Wikimedia Commons

The Stonewall rebellion: it is widely recognized as the flashpoint of queer liberation. The event was the moment when members of our community stood up against a police raid in a bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village of New York City.

Much of the story is well known, passed down like one might share a community’s legends.

The basics remain, of course. The uprising took place early on the 28th of June 1969, after the NYPD entered the bar. Gay patrons stood up against the police and kicked off three days of unrest. This moment helped crystallize the modern LGBTQ rights movement, and led to what we now call “Pride Month.”

Here are five things you might not realize about Stonewall.

This wasn’t the first time we rose up

While it is true that the Stonewall Rebellion was a pivotal moment in queer history, it was not the first such uprising — just one of the best known. Several other actions happened before the 28th of June around the county.

The best known of these is probably the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, which while taking place across the continent from the Stonewall Inn, shares many of the same causes.

Compton’s Cafeteria was part of a chair of such restaurants, in operation from the 1940-1970s. The location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood was a popular hangout for trans people and hustlers. Cafeteria personnel, fearing the loss of more profitable clientele, would call the San Francisco Police to clear the place out.

On an August night in 1966, when the police attempted to arrest a trans patron, she responded by throwing her coffee in the officer’s face. This touched off a riot, with a picket against Compton’s the following night.

Many other actions have been recorded in the pre-stonewall era, from a riot at Cooper Do-nuts in Los Angeles in 1959, a sit-in at Dewey’s lunch counter in Philadelphia in 1965, and a picket of the Chicago newspapers in 1066 for refusing Mattachine Midwest, an early gay rights organization, advertising space.

It wasn’t the first police raid at the Stonewall Inn

Police raids on the Stonewall Inn and other bars were frequent. At the time, it was illegal for members of the same sex to dance together, and laws made it illegal to wear articles of clothing of the gender opposite the one they were assigned at birth.

The Stonewall Inn has been raided just days before the one that led to the rebellion.

“This wasn’t the first raid,” said Robert Herndon, a veteran of the Stonewall Rebellion, who now resides in Myrtle Beach, far from the village. “The police would come in and check everyone’s ID. They were looking for illegal booze.”

In a 2009 interview with Brian Lehrer on WNYC, David Carter, the author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, had this to say, “Yes, Greenwich Village was a refuge for gay people in the 1960s, but it was also the most policed place in the United States. In mid-1966 you had well over one hundred arrests happening each week in New York City of homosexual men.

Danny Garvin, another riot participant who passed away in 2014, added, “back then, I was a teenager, and we had to keep out of the sight of the police. We were always being harassed by them, continually.”

The Stonewall Inn wasn’t exactly above board

The Stonewall Inn has long been pinpointed as a mafia-controlled bar under the ownership of the Genovese crime family. It had no liquor license, no running water — patrons would often get ill from the glassware, which was rinsed in a tub of water — and there were no fire exits.

“It was a place that was heavily connected with blackmail. They had a prostitution ring that was run out of the second floor above the Stonewall Inn, and one of the owners of the Stonewall Inn, Ed Murphy, was the person who had run a national blackmail ring, had over a thousand victims, over 10 years,” said Carter.

Police would show up to receive a payoff, which allowed the doors to remain open.

“I saw the white envelope walked out to the police car, and the car driving away,” said Herndon to LGBTQ Nation.

Sylvia Rivera, widely credited for being at the forefront of the riot, talked about the payoffs in an interview with James St. James before she passed away.

“They had gotten their payoff earlier in the week. But Inspector Pine came in — him and his morals squad — to spend more of the government’s money.”

Inspector Seymour Pine led the raid that night.

“A different precinct pulled the raid. They were looking for illegal alcohol,” said Herndon.

It was about more than police; it was about community

In spite of the conditions and the crime connections, the Stonewall Inn served as a de facto hangout for the local area.

Tommy Lanigan Schmidt, another survivor of that note who spoke on WNYC, addressed why the community fought for the stonewall, “This bar had been open for a few years. Generally bars closed down quickly. Also this bar — it’s hard for people to imagine now — but gay people weren’t allowed to dance with each other, it was against the law, and this bar allowed slow dancing.”

“When they raided the only place where we could be affectionate with each other, in a sort of ritual way and not just a direct sex way — in other words, ‘Can I ask you to dance, yes no,’ that’s a ritual people love. That’s why we fought back.”

While police raids weren’t uncommon, even at the Stonewall Inn, the place had become deeply important to the local community, and they had finally reached a boiling point over seeing one of the few places they felt welcome once again being attacked by the police.

“You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn,” recalled Rivera saying during the raid.

“The Stonewall was a very ambiguous place in a time when you didn’t have many choices in the gay community,” said Carter.

“It was all gay people had at the time,’ said Carter.

Everyone was a part of the rebellion

The community of the time was not as granular as it is today, with clear identities delineating people within it, and those who we would call transgender today were more likely to hang out with everyone else. Everyone was an outcast, and everyone could find a place at the Stonewall Inn.

“That’s the thing I like, that made me comfortable. It was there were all age groups. They weren’t all 20 years old. There were all types there, including people who were transsexual and those who were transvestites. It was a mixture of all kinds of people and that’s what make it so good to me,” said Herndon

While it is widely known that the rebellion was sparked by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson’s actions, people of all stripes stood up.

“God bless the drag queens, but they weren’t the only ones out there,” said Herndon.

“It was street gay people from the Village out front — homeless people who lived in the park in Sheridan Square outside the bar — and then drag queens behind them and everybody behind us,” Rivera recalled about that night.

It is worth noting that “drag queen” was also a broader term during the era of Stonewall, encompassing a larger swath of people, and more in line with how one might use “transgender” today.

The anniversary of the rebellion is marked on the 28th of June 1970.

That event, called Christopher Street Liberation Day, began the modern LGBTQ movement and spawned the annual tradition of Pride Marches that is now a world wide event, in nearly every county on every continent.

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