Why We Remember Stonewall

Jun 28, 2019
Originally published on June 28, 2019 9:16 am

The Stonewall Inn is a sacred place for many in the LGBTQ community. Fifty years ago, a raid and series of riots outside the New York City bar helped launch a civil rights movement.

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Back in the 1960s, many bars in New York City were controlled by organized crime. Often they operated without proper paperwork, and corrupt police would collect monthly bribes to turn a blind eye.

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Sometimes, police would arrest all the patrons in retaliation for not getting their "dues" on time. Gay and lesbian bars were easy targets because they had no legal protection. City laws made gay bars illegal, and wealthy patrons were often extorted. The dingy, rundown bars were frequently raided. People didn't really stand up to the police.

That is, until one night ...

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LA Johnson / NPR
LA Johnson / NPR

A fight started. Nearby bars emptied out as patrons heard the commotion, and more people joined in the fight. Others fled for safety. Soon the crowd turned into a mob. Police sent in reinforcements and crushed the protests. But what began that night didn't end there.

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The following days saw more protests. The movement became a "coming out party" of sorts in the streets of Greenwich Village. One year later, organizers commemorated the event with the first "Pride" parade. Stonewall was not the first rebellion, by far, in the LGBTQ movement. But over the years, many civil rights activists began coordinating their efforts and celebrating that hot summer night as "the first."

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And Stonewall did change the lives of many people around the world. Like Michael Levine, who was there that night and, as he told Story Corps in 2010, came out because of it.

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There would be accomplishments, and setbacks, in the years to come. But many people who were there say that Stonewall marked the moment when they found their voice.

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Written and illustrated by LA Johnson. Radio story by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


The Stonewall Inn is a sacred place for many in the LGBTQ community. Fifty years ago, a raid and a series of riots outside the New York City bar helped ignite a civil rights movement. From member station WNYC, Jennifer Vanasco reports.

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: In 1969, Stonewall was known as a filthy dive bar, but it had some great things going for it. First, it was one of the few places that let everyone in the door.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) You didn't have to love me like you did, but you did.

VANASCO: Second, Martin Boyce, who was a regular, says it had a great jukebox.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) You didn't have to squeeze me like you did, but you did...

MARTIN BOYCE: It meant mostly soul. And it was the black drag queens that controlled the jukebox because they would vogue in front of it. And they would block people they thought would not play appropriate music. Those queens were tough. They didn't go to Stonewall to sit through boredom. They didn't want to hear Peter, Paul and Mary.

VANASCO: The Stonewall Inn was one of the only places in New York where same-sex couples could dance together.


OTIS REDDING: (Singing) I've been loving you.

VANASCO: Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt was a lonely 17-year-old runaway, and dancing is why he went to the bar.

TOMMY LANIGAN-SCHMIDT: You felt like a human being for the first time in your life because everyone else could dance slow in their high school and every place else, and that was the first time I ever saw same-sex dancing.

VANASCO: Here's what it was like to be LGBTQ in 1969. There was no rainbow flag, no Pride parade. They were seen as perverts, pedophiles and mentally ill.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ralph was sick, a sickness that was not visible like smallpox but no less dangerous and contagious. You see, Ralph was a homosexual.

VANASCO: That's from a safety film shown to school children during the late '60s. For a long time, it had been illegal to serve drinks to LGBTQ people. And it was still a hassle to own a bar where they gathered. So it makes sense that Stonewall's owners were in the Mafia and likely paying off beat cops to leave them alone - or at least to give warning of a raid. But that wasn't foolproof.

On June 28, 1969, the police rolled up unexpectedly at 1 in the morning. They walked into the bar, flipped on the lights and started checking IDs. Victoria Cruz was just down the street that night. She identifies as transgender queer and had experienced raids like this before.

VICTORIA CRUZ: If the bars were raided during that time, you better have three articles of clothing that pertain to your birth sex. Otherwise they pulled you in.

GEORGE CHAUNCEY: There was never actually a specific rule that required three articles of clothing.

VANASCO: George Chauncey is a historian at Columbia University.

CHAUNCEY: But both the police and the people they were regulating thought there was such a rule, and they enforced such a rule.

VANASCO: Chauncey says there was another especially humiliating practice.

CHAUNCEY: The police were actually checking on their sexual organs to see what sex they were.

CRUZ: Sex checks? Yeah, they checked if you were a boy or girl.

VANASCO: At the Stonewall that night, Cruz saw the cops take the drag queens, the transgender people and the butch lesbians to the police vans, plus the gay men who didn't have ID. And then a fight broke out. No one knows how it started, but this is what we do know. It was hot. It was the 1960s. And Chauncey says lots of people were standing up for their rights.

CHAUNCEY: The Stonewall attracted a lot of people of color, black and Puerto Rican, gender queers and transgender people were by far the fiercest people on the streets of New York who would just not put up with being harassed either by guys in their own neighborhood or by the cops.

CRUZ: I've been personally harassed, but I've harassed back.

VANASCO: Cruz was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Brooklyn and spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village.

CRUZ: If you were walking down Christopher Street, if you were in complete drag or facial drag, they'll come and stop you. And then people would say, leave her alone. She wasn't bothering you. You know, people stuck up for one another, but yet you got harassed by the cops.

VANASCO: And not just harassed, but arrested - often during these raids. The police officer who led the raid that night was Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine. He died in 2010, but a few years earlier, he described to WNYC what happened next.


SEYMOUR PINE: I think it was like a lark for them. It was a release of energy. They could now fight back for all the times they had to slink away without being able to say anything and take whatever crap the cops were giving at them. And once it broke loose, it was very contagious.

VANASCO: Outside the Stonewall, bar patrons started shouting and struggling with the police. Some threw pennies. Street kids arrived and joined the fight. Martin Boyce remembers it vividly.

BOYCE: A riot is not a pretty thing, and it's not a stationary everything. You don't stay in one place for very long. You move. You twirl.

VANASCO: Officers headed back into the bar knowing they were outnumbered. They barricaded themselves inside and waited for backup. Someone lit a trash can on fire and threw it through the window.

BOYCE: And it has smells - sweat, burning wood, haze coming up to your knees is spreading up further and spreading out.

VANASCO: Boyce says, at some point, riot police came with shields and helmets. Then there was a moment of stillness - a faceoff. The police officers stood staring at the bar patrons. They thought they'd turn and run. Boyce says, instead...

BOYCE: We knew we had to do something. So we all grabbed onto each other and did a kick line. And we sang, we are the village girls. We wear our hair in curls. We wear our dungarees above our nellie (ph) knees.

VANASCO: The police charge, and the hard fighting begins. Historian George Chauncey says Stonewall was a turning point. Many LGBTQ people were transformed.


VANASCO: It started to feel like they could do something about the way they were treated.

CHAUNCEY: You know, it is curious that the iconic moment for the gay liberation movement happened at a bar. It wasn't a ballot box. It wasn't a hiring hall. It wasn't a bus where people were forced to move to the back of the bus. And that's because bars were where gay people experienced their policing and their second-class citizenship most directly.

VANASCO: Riots went on for three more nights. He says, after they ended, nothing much changed right away. But soon after, the political response started coming together. Activists founded the Gay Liberation Front, and that organization inspired more LGBTQ civil rights groups around the country. Chauncey says that is why we remember Stonewall.

CHAUNCEY: I think for most people, it does boil down to just the idea that gay people can resist. And that still means something. That's still powerful.

VANASCO: One year later, activists organized a march to Central Park to remember the uprising. It was basically the inaugural Pride March, the first time thousands of people came together publicly to say, here we are in the daylight.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Vanasco in New York.


THE JACKSON 5: (Singing) You better make way for the young folks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.