When you get to be of a certain age, the age at which I find myself, you see discussed all sorts of historical events, events that occurred in your lifetime.
I understand why, I accept that I’m old, but in the larger scope of mankind, 50 or 60 years is hardly a long period of time.
Many of the events that took place in the 1960s and 70s are still evolving and shifting form to this day, so at the very least they should be designated to some sort of “recent history” category.
I was reminded of this during my New York City trip with Darling Daughter this past May. One evening while there we found ourselves in Greenwich Village and had the privilege of having a drink at a relatively small bar called The Stonewall Inn.
54 years ago today, Stonewall became the reason June is designated as Pride Month when New York City police raided the bar, sparking an uprising that continued on for several days.
It’s easy to forget now that not that long ago, say in the 1960s, for all intents and purposes it was still illegal to be gay and Stonewall was a gay bar.
A bit of trivia regarding The Stonewall is that it was owned by the mafia. That’s not as surprising as it may seem considering it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals. The mafia saw there was money to be made doing it, they weren’t especially concerned about legalities, so it owned pretty much every gay bar in the city.
It's no secret the mafia was paying off police officers at the time, so for the most part they were able to operate the bars with few challenges. Police still raided them on occasion but usually it was during the week and in the early evening when fewer customers were around, and the bar operator was often tipped off prior to it happening.
But on June 28, 1969, the bar wasn’t tipped off. It was a Saturday night, the raid was later in the evening, and Stonewall was a hive of activity. Word has it the mafia had skipped out on a recent payment to the police, and the police were attempting to make a point.
The raiding team was comprised of just six officers. At first things went as planned. The patrons were pushed to the back and required to show their identification before they could exit.
One of the key methods used to jail homosexuals at the time was a requirement that their dress match their sexual identity. If their ID indicated they were male but they were dressed more like a female, they were arrested, and vice versa.
Those whose identities matched their dress were generally allowed to leave the bar, those who did not meet that criteria were escorted to the paddy wagon.
What actually set off the uprising isn't entirely clear. Several reports say a lesbian, who was being arrested because she was dressed in more male-oriented clothing, fought back, shouting at the gathering crowd outside Stonewall, questioning them why they weren’t doing something. Meanwhile a drag queen shoved back at a police officer who was pushing her into a wagon.
With that, the metaphorical match was lit and the uprising began. Realizing they were vastly outnumbered, the police officers retreated back inside the bar and barricaded themselves along with the customers who still remained.
It took some time, but eventually police reinforcements did arrive. By then hundreds of people had joined the crowd outside Stonewall and refused to back down. The police spent the rest of that night chasing them around the maze of streets surrounding the area. It did not stop until dawn the next morning.
Similar events occurred on the succeeding nights. There had been an active gay rights movement prior to Stonewall but the night of the uprising is considered the point at which it galvanized.
A year later, June 28, 1970, the first Pride marches were held in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to commemorate the Stonewall uprising. Their numbers have continue to grow to what they are today.
Christopher Park is a small grassy, tree-lined, area directly across the street from Stonewall. The park was designated a National Monument in 2016 and is now managed by the National Park Service.
Walking into Stonewall today you’ll find it doesn’t look the same as that historic date 54 years ago. It was closed not long after the uprising and at one point was even turned into a bagel shop.
Eventually that also closed and, recognizing the importance of the site, others moved into purchase it and re-establish it as The Stonewall Inn. It remains a piece of history and was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000.
I make no claim that what I’ve written above is any more than a brief overview. I encourage you to learn more for yourself.
The National Park Service has a series of videos about Stonewall released on the fifth anniversary of Christopher Park becoming a National Monument.
For a deeper dive, PBS has recently released an American Experience documentary, Stonewall Uprising.
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