I’m exceptionally pleased to present today’s Guest Slap. The author, Dr. Flamingo Jones, is a world-renowned archaeologist and researcher at the University of Oxbridgeshire. While I know little about his reclusive past and current whereabouts, he has kindly agreed to share with us, occasionally, his knowledge, discoveries, and insights.
Good day to you, ladies, gentlemen, and those who do not wish to confine yourselves to such limiting terminology. Given all the recent hubbub about Harvey Milk and Sean Penn’s portrayal of him in the Oscar-winning historical film, I decided that this would be an ideal opportunity to talk about the modern gay rights movement.
While Milk was undoubtedly an important and influential early figure in the gay civil rights movement, gay people largely owe their rights to a moment several years before his first foray into the world of Californian politics. It’s a night that many people perhaps know the name of, but do not know much about, which is why it will be the topic of today’s article: The Stonewall Riots.
The Stonewall Riots took place in The United State’s other gay homeland, Christopher Street, in Greenwich Village, New York, 1969. At that time, America’s policies toward gays and lesbians was comparable to that of most Iron Curtain, communist-controlled nations. Most states had laws criminalizing homosexuality, as did most other developed countries around the world.
However, in New York, there were a few bars that would serve openly gay customers, drag queens, and lesbians. Police raids at these establishments were common; they would come in with both plainclothes and uniformed officers, claiming to be searching for liquor sale infractions. They would then arrest patrons of the bars providing little or no charges. Drag queens, butch lesbians, Blacks, and Hispanics would be arrested more often than white men. Men dressed as women would automatically be arrested, and women had to be wearing at least three pieces of feminine clothing, or else they would be arrested as lesbians. Adding insult to injury, the day after the arrests, the names of all arrested would be printed in the newspaper, often resulting in them being fired from their jobs. The bar would be allowed to re-open, sometimes that same night, after paying a bribe to the police. Indeed, most gay-friendly establishments were owned by the mafia, including the Stonewall.
On the morning on Saturday, June 28, 1969 at 1:20am there was a raid on the Stonewall that certainly did not go as the police had planned. They started off as usual, turning off the music, turning on the lights, lining everyone up, and inspecting genders. The bar was quite full that night—approximately 200 customers—but the patrons who had valid identification and were released didn’t just leave; they congregated outside the bar’s entrance, attracting a larger and larger crowd of onlookers who jeered and shouted at the police.
This was the second raid on the Stonewall in a week, and would become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are differing reports as to who actually threw the first punch. Some say it was a drag queen, some say it was one of the bar’s African-American patrons, but several accounts exist of a woman, one of the bar’s lesbian regulars, who fought police for several minutes. As the stories go, when she finally was subdued and thrown into the back of a police wagon, she yelled out in desperation “Why don’t you guys do something?”
The crowd went berserk, freeing those in custody, smashing and burning the police vehicles, and pelting the officers with coins, beer cans, and bricks from a nearby construction site. With mafia help, the police barricaded themselves within the Stonewall, trapped until reinforcements could come rescue them. Rioters used parking meters as battering rams to break into the bar, at which point police had to use the threat of firearms to make the protesters back off. The riots were spontaneous, an eruption of pent-up frustration that had built up in the repressed gay community, the flames of which were fanned by homeless gay youths who slept in a nearby park, as well as other anti-war, anti-police, individuals who weren’t gay, but found like-mindedness in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Sissies aren’t supposed to fight back. At least that’s what New York’s police believed. But those beliefs were rapidly overturned by the persistent escalation of violence that occurred that night, and continued the following night. On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators took to Christopher Street to riot again in an even larger protest that halted on Monday and Tuesday only because of rain, and erupted once more on Wednesday, when 500-1000 demonstrators took to the streets calling for changes in treatment by police, and calling for a boycott of the Stonewall and other mafia-run bars so that gays could control their own establishments.
The riots that night were the stepping stone for gay pride movements internationally, and are now known as the “hairpin drop heard round the world.” (The term “hairpin drop” was gay slang that meant dropping hints about one’s sexual orientation.) In fact, the riots were so unifying that in some parts of the world, such as many parts of Europe, gay pride parades are called CSD, or Christopher Street Day, named after the street where the Stonewall Bar once stood and which gave birth to the modern gay rights movement.