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Remembering the Stonewall Uprising

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

June 28, 1969 marks the beginning of the Stonewall Uprising. What was this event and why is it so historically significant? Let’s explore together!

This rebellion was a series of events between police and LGBTQ2SIA+ protesters which lasted for six days. (An important side note: Stonewall veterans prefer the term “uprising” or “rebellion,” since “riot” was initially used by police to justify their use of force.) Though not the first-time police raided a gay bar - and not the first-time LGBTQ2SIA+ people fought back – the events that unfolded over the six days fundamentally changed the discourse surrounding LGBTQ2SIA+ activism in the United States.

What was the Stonewall Inn?

By 1969, this building (on Christopher Street, now a national monument) was one of the most popular gay bars in New York City. Throughout New York, homosexuality was considered a criminal offense and it would take over a decade of organizing before same-sex relationships were legalized in 1980. Since homosexuality was criminalized, this led many gay establishments to operate without a liquor license; as such, this provided an open door for raids and police brutality. I was surprised to learn that many gay establishments (like the Stonewall Inn) were owned by the mafia (though, if the business continued to make a profit, they cared very little what happened to their clientele).

What exactly happened that night?

Nine New York police officers stormed the Stonewall Inn and began aggressively searching the bar’s patrons; they not only demanded to see identification, but also arrested anyone they suspected of being gay or dressed in a way that didn’t conform to mainstream society’s narrow understanding of gender. More specifically, it was illegal for people assigned male at birth to wear women’s clothes (and vice versa), which regularly resulted in transgender women and drag queens being forced into the bathroom, strip-searched, and arrested – if it was revealed that they were born with male characteristics.

Though there is still some debate over the exact moment the rebellion started, people who were there that night agree that three women of color (Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie) were pivotal in inspiring the other guests to rise up against the police. Marsha and Sylvia (both transgender) refused to comply with the police’s demands and instead decided to defend themselves. This intensified the tension between police and patrons, leading to crowds forming and people chanting: “We shall overcome” and “Gay Power.” Stormé (a biracial lesbian, a known figure in the LGBTQ2SIA+ community, and a drag king) was outside and shoved into the back of a squad car – after being beaten over the head with a police helmet. She shouted to onlookers, “Why don’t you do something?”. They responded to her call for aid and jumped to defend those who were still inside the Stonewall Inn. Individuals started throwing coins and bottles at the police, forcing the officers to retreat into the bar; trash cans were thrown through the window. Officers called in backup, even bringing in tear gas to scatter the rebellion, but the crowds outside continued to grow.

What is the Stonewall Uprising’s Legacy?

For many of the LGBTQ2SIA+ people there that night, it was the first time they could stand up and declare they weren’t going to tolerate discriminatory treatment from the police (or anyone else). This event was an iconic demonstration of how a single decision, an instinctive reaction to injustice, can be the first step to igniting a movement that can change the course of history. Furthermore, the rebellion was the first step (in a series of events in the late 20th century) that would pave the way for legal and social change – in order to improve the lives of LGBTQ2SIA+ people. The individuals who protested that night became examples that would embolden LGBTQ2SIA+ people to resist bigotry and embrace diversity.

A year after the Stonewall Uprising, on June 28, 1970, people returned to the Stonewall Inn and marked the anniversary as Christopher Street Liberation Day. This march became known as the first LGBTQ2SIA+ Pride festival and served as a catalyst to other movements and events across the globe.

Though Pride was, and always will be, built on the tradition of protest, outrage, and a hunger for equality, our march cannot be called a parade until we achieve total equality for those in the LGBTQ2SIA+ community.

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