Fifty Years On, by Rich Paschall
It was much different then. 1969. There was a “counter culture” that opposed many of society’s norms. There were “love-ins” and music festivals. Hippies made the scene wearing different clothes. Many wore flowers in their hair. Tie-dyed shirts and bell bottoms jeans were the fashion.
It was the summer of Woodstock. It was also the year the Beatles played their last live concert from a rooftop in London.
In the United States, Richard Nixon became president. NASA sent a man to the moon. PBS was established and Sesame Street made its debut. The US Air Force stopped investigating UFOs, having found none since Project Blue Book started in 1952.
It was a time of social unrest. Civil Rights protests. Protests for women’s equality. Students and others protested many political issues. The largest and most frequent were about the “police action” otherwise known as the War in Viet Nam. The Southeast Asian war, the first to be extensively televised, was very unpopular.
Homosexuality was illegal in 49 of 50 states. To be arrested meant your life was ruined. You could lose your home, your job, your freedom. To be a known homosexual could put your life at risk. A few gay groups, like the Mattachine Society, tried to depict gay men as just like everyone else in order to be more acceptable to society. Small protests were held each year in Philadelphia and Washington seeking equality. Men wore suits, women wore dresses. No one held hands.
New York had a few gay bars and clubs. Most were owned by the Mafia, who paid off the police. When the bars were to be raided, arresting a few gays, the clubs were tipped off in advance. The police generally came early in the evening so the clubs could reopen later and continue doing business. When the police arrived, the lights went up to tip off the patrons to stop holding hands, touching, and dancing. Men in drag were certainly going to be taken away. Policewomen checked them out to see if they were actually men. No further explanation is needed.
In June of 1969, there were frequent raids on local bars and clubs. Some were closed down. The Stonewall Inn had been raided on a Tuesday but reopened for business. Saturday of that week would be the day the tables were turned.
Stonewall had tried to present itself as a private club. It had no liquor license and was raided periodically by police. It operated very much like a speakeasy in the Prohibition era.
The windows were covered with plywood so no one could see inside. The door had an opening where a bouncer could look out to see who wanted entrance. If he did not know you or thought you were underage, you would probably be turned away.
In the early hours of a warm night, around 1:20 AM on June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn. It was to be closed permanently. There were perhaps two hundred people inside but only four plainclothes officers, two others in uniform and two detectives arrived. Gays usually put up no resistance, so the police thought they could control the situation.
On this night, they thought wrong.
The usual tactic was to arrest drag queens and anyone under 18, which was then the legal drinking age. The men were lined up and IDs were checked. Events, however, took a different turn from the usual protocol.
The drag queens refused to go and many men were refusing to show IDs. The police decided to arrest anyone who did not cooperate. Things quickly got out of hand.
The ones who had been released did not disperse. Instead, they waited outside. The crowd soon began to grow. The patrol wagons did not arrive and many were forced to wait in line. When a woman was taken outside to be put in a wagon, she fought back.
There’s one well-known picture of the event and virtually no video of what happened. It was before the era of pocket cameras and cell phones. Accounts vary but there are many personal accounts on which to rely.
One thing seems clear. In an era of social unrest, gays were fighting back. They were not going to have the Stonewall taken away, despite the fact that baseball bats were later used like in a Prohibition raid. Activism had come to the gay community in one spontaneous moment.
Battles with police raged into the night. The ones who had conducted the raid had to barricade themselves in the Stonewall against the growing crowd outside. When police arrived to free Stonewall, the crowd stayed and sang, formed a kickline, threw pennies, did other mischiefs. The people were pushed down the street, only to return behind the police. Garbage was set on fire, some windows were broken.
The next night an even larger crowd returned to Christopher Street. The police tried to disperse them with nightsticks and tear gas. Again garbage was lit on fire and the crowd fought back.
Why are there gay pride parades?
Stonewall is the answer. On a warm summer night in New York in 1969, the gay patrons of Stonewall Inn decided to stop being pushed around. They wanted to be free to be who they were. They would no longer hide in the dark closets or recesses of dives like the Stonewall. They wanted to be proud and to live their own lives.
The following year on June 28, The Christopher Street Liberation Day was held with a march (parade) from Christopher Street to Central Park, an astounding 51 blocks. Organizers desperately hoped for more than a handful of participants to support the event. Thousands came, not just to watch but to march and celebrate. At one point the parade filled the street for 15 blocks. Events were also held in Chicago and Los Angeles to remember Stonewall.
It is likely many young participants in Gay Pride Celebrations do not know why there are such events or how they started. Nevertheless, it has become a worldwide phenomenon. On June 30, 2019 (today if you are reading this when it is first posted) organizations will come together in New York. There will be a 50th-anniversary celebration of the day the lesbian and gay communities battled for Christopher Street and won the right to seek equality in the open.
Sources: This synopsis is a very condensed version, and you can read events in great detail on Wikipedia. PBS also recently reran the American Experience documentary Stonewall Uprising which you can find at PBS online. Below is just a small excerpt: