What are the Stonewall riots? How a gay bar raid started an uprising and LGBTQ2 Pride

WATCH: It's been 50 years since the Stonewall riots. Here's how they change LGBTQ2 history.

Summer is coming and with its arrival will come weekend after weekend of rainbow-laden celebrations of diversity and equality. It’s the start of Pride season for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit community.

It’s not just because June brings nicer weather for parades; it’s when one of the most important moments in LGBTQ2 rights history took place.

Fifty years ago, in the early hours of June 28, 1969, the patrons of New York City’s Stonewall Inn fought back against a police crackdown at one of the few places where they could truly be themselves, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in every state except Illinois.

The Stonewall Inn wasn’t glamorous. It was run by the mob and it didn’t have a proper liquor licence, like most gay bars in those days, which made it a popular target for police to raid and collect payoffs and extort bribes from the bar and its customers.

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The police would often tip off the bar staff as to when they would come knocking, but not that night.

“I was inside Stonewall. Just doing what you normally did, talking with your friends, and all of a sudden the lights blinked on and off,” says Mark Segal, who was at the Stonewall that night. “I said to somebody, ‘What’s going on?’ And they said, ‘Oh, it’s a raid,’ very nonchalantly.”

Segal was 18 years old at the time and had just moved to New York from Philadelphia. He saw the Stonewall as a place where a young man like him didn’t have to worry about holding hands, kissing or dancing with someone of the same sex.

Mark Segal at a gay rights rally in New York in 1970. This photo by Diana Davies is a part of the New York Public Library’s “Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50” exhibit. Diana Davies/The New York Public Library

“I had never been in something like a raid before,” said Segal, who is now the founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News.

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“I still looked like the boy next door. So when the cops came in, the only thing they were interested in doing was extorting money from the older guys and pushing the stereotypical people around. People like me were of no use to them. So I was one of the first to be carded and let out of the bar.”

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The Stonewall was also a safe haven for transgender people, drag queens and other people who broke gender norms. People could be arrested at that time and charged with “sexual deviancy” for wearing fewer than three items of clothing from one’s own gender.

While the police harassed and tried to arrest people still inside the bar, Segal was among the crowd gathering on the street.

Beginning of a movement

“A semi-circle formed around the front of the door and eventually had the situation where there were more people outside than inside,” Segal recalls. “And the only people inside at that point happened to be the employees of the bar and the police and the semi-circle wasn’t moving.”

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Segal says police soon realized they were in a situation where they were surrounded by the very people they had been intimidating.

“One of them opened the door and tried to say something like, ‘Get away from here, you fairies,’ or something, and someone threw something,” he says. “That’s how it began.”

But that isn’t how it ended.

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The crowd fought back that night and for three more nights. Segal and one of his friends, Marty Donovan, wrote on the walls of the buildings lining Christopher Street, where the Stonewall Inn was located in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, encouraging people to return night after night.

And from that, Segal says, a gay rights movement was born.

“From the ashes of Stonewall came Gay Liberation Front,” he says. “Gay Liberation Front probably is the most important LGBT organization that ever existed.”

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It was a united front — a collection of various activist groups that formed as a result of what happened at the Stonewall.

“We ended invisibility. We took back our streets. And if all of that weren’t enough, we created the world’s first gay community centre and then, on the first anniversary, we created gay pride.”

It was known as Christopher Street Liberation Day. But over time, other cities held their own marches and rallies. Eventually, it became what we now know as Pride.

All of this unfolded at a time when there weren’t any cellphones to capture the excitement in real time. Images from the uprising and the early days of the Gay Liberation Front are rare. But photographer Diana Davies was one of the few who did document this era. Her work is now a part of a collection presented by The New York Public Library called “Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50.”

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Correcting history

Segal says there are a lot of different stories out there as to how the riot unfolded — “It was a riot. It wasn’t organized,” he says — who threw something first, and why it was that night the men and women from the Stonewall had had enough.

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There’s one particular story Segal has heard enough of: the Judy Garland story.

The famed singer-actress is very much considered a gay icon, even today.

Garland died of an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969. Her funeral drew thousands of mourners to the streets of New York five days later — just hours before the police would show up at the Stonewall.

It’s been said many times — including in the 1995 film Stonewall and in a 2018 episode of the popular competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race — that drag queens at the Stonewall Inn that night, already grieving Garland’s death, were emboldened to rise up against the police.

“There were, in the 1960s, were riots of various types. There were race riots. There were riots because of the Vietnam War,” says Segal. “And our riot was included in that. Our riot is the only one that was sparked by a songstress? That’s belittling us. That’s really belittling us. Anyone who repeats this should be ashamed of themselves.”

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Left out of history

One story that hasn’t been gotten enough attention over the five decades since Stonewall is that of transgender people of colour in the LGBTQ2 rights revolution.

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There was a “whitewashing of the trans community and of trans people of colour from the story,” says Marisa Richmond, a history and gender studies professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “We’ve been trying to reclaim our role in the community and in the movement.”

Activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (left) at a gay rights rally in New York in 1973. This photo by Diana Davies is a part of the New York Public Library’s “Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50” exhibit. Diana Davies/The New York Public Library

You can’t tell the story of Stonewall and Pride without talking about people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

They are said to have been a force to be reckoned with during the days of the Stonewall riots — and most certainly in the movement that followed.

“What we’ve heard is that if they were not the first [they were] among the very first to start throwing things and fighting back, deciding they had nothing to lose,” says Richmond.
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As the gay liberation movement grew, Johnson and Rivera, who were both sex workers, founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).

STAR was a part of the Gay Liberation Front, but some other organizations didn’t want trans women like Johnson and Rivera anywhere near the emerging movement — even at Christopher Street Liberation Day one year after the riots.

“There was a lot of hostility toward trans inclusion in Pride for a long, long time,” says Richmond. “There was this claim, and it’s still out there in some circles, that trans people are hurting the community.”

That didn’t hold Johnson and Rivera back.

“They were determined and many others in New York, and around the country, were inspired by their bravery and their courage,” Richmond adds, explaining how their fight inspired the formation of other trans rights organizations across the U.S. and around the world.

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