A Movement Takes Shape
Through the 1960s almost everything about living openly as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) person was a violation of law, rule, or policy. New York City's prohibitions against homosexual activities were particularly harsh. People were arrested for wearing fewer than three articles of clothing that matched their sex. Serving alcoholic beverages to homosexuals was prohibited. For married men and women who lived homosexual lives in secret, blackmail was a constant threat. Discrimination and fear were tools to isolate people when homosexuality was hidden. After Stonewall, being "out and proud" in numbers was a key strategy that strengthened the movement.
Stonewall was a milestone for LGBT civil rights that provided momentum for a movement. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn provoked a spontaneous act of resistance that earned a place alongside landmarks in American self-determination such as Seneca Falls Convention for women's rights (1848) and the Selma to Montgomery March for African American voting rights (1965). Demonstrations continued over the next several nights at Christopher Park across from the Stonewall Inn and in the surrounding neighborhood. When asked to describe the difference that Stonewall had made, journalist Eric Marcus observed that before Stonewall, "There was no out, there was just in."
People who would identify today as LGBT had few choices for socializing in public and many bars they frequented were operated by organized crime. Members of the police force were often paid off in return for information about planned raids. Customers caught in a raid were routinely freed, but only after being photographed and humiliated. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, people fought back.
Following what at first appeared to be a routine raid, a crowd gathered outside to watch for friends in the bar. But as police vans came to haul away those arrested, the crowd became angry, began throwing objects, and attempted to block the way. The crowd's aggression forced police to retreat and barricade themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. Onlookers joined in and attacked the bar with pennies, metal garbage cans, bricks, bottles, an uprooted parking meter, and burning trash. The confrontation grew as the fire department and the NYPD's Tactical Patrol Force, trained for riot control, joined police reinforcements sent to the scene.
Liberate Christopher Street!
The agitated crowd took to the streets chanting "Gay Power!" and "Liberate Christopher Street!" LGBT youth who gathered at Christopher Parksome of them homeless and with little social capitalchallenged police, linked arms, and formed a blockade. Police charged the crowd, but rather than disperse, the mob retreated to the neighborhood they knew well with its network of narrow, winding streets, doubled-back, and regrouped near the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park, surprising the police.
Demonstrator Tommy Schmidt described the feeling of being in the melee: "I was part of a mob that had a kind of deep identity and was acting as one force." John O'Brien said, "What excited me was I finally was not alone."
Social change takes different forms. Pioneers organized and took a range of actions and approaches in the fight for their equality. Stonewall was a galvanizing moment that empowered a range of advocacy; some mainstream, and some non-conforming or militant, that rejected approaches based on assimilation.
"By the time of Stonewall...we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there were at least fifteen hundred. By two years later, to the extent that counts could be made, it was twenty-five hundred. And that was the impact of Stonewall." Frank Kamemy.
A 1953 Executive Order banned homosexuals from federal employment. In 1957, Franklin (Frank) Kameny was fired as an astronomer for the US Army Map Service for being gay. Kameny fought dismissal and in 1961, filed the first gay rights appeal to the US Supreme Court. That year, Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC with Jack Nichols, and helped to start the National LGBTQ Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign. He worked to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and coined the phrase "Gay is Good."
Early Acts of Rebellion
In San Francisco's Compton's Cafeteria in 1966, officers grabbed a transgender patron who, rather than surrendering as they expected, instead tossed coffee on them, setting off a riot. In response, reflecting the era's persistent treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness, the city created a network of social, mental, and medical services followed in 1968 by the National Transsexual Counseling Unit. In 1967 a violent raid at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles led to a large demonstration days later.
Barbara Gittings organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis and in the 1960s organized some of the first protests against the federal government's ban on employing homosexuals. Gittings helped to lobby until the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973 saying that her life mission was to tear away the "shroud of invisibility."
Inspired by civil rights sit-ins in the South, the New York City Mattachine Society held a "sip-in" to challenge a regulation that prohibited bars from serving gay clients. In April 1966, with reporters in tow, activists declared they were gay and asked to be served at Julius', a bar sympathetic to gay customers that was under observation by authorities. Publicity from the sip-in was a catalyst to reform the New York State Liquor Authority anti-LGBT policies.
The Mattachine Society, Philadelphia's Janus Society, and the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis held protests in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965 and on each of four successive July 4ths. Protesters demanded rights for homosexual Americans, emphasizing that a substantial number of Americans were denied "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Organizers enforced a strict dress code for participants to represent homosexuals as "presentable and employable."
After the Uprising
After the uprising, the windows of the Stonewall Inn were boarded-up, painted black, and quickly became message boards for the community The Mattachine Society urged restraint while others sought more active responses and posted notices of meetings.
Marsha P. Johnson was one of the most outspoken members of the New York transgender community when she was targeted by police at the Stonewall Inn and among the first to fight back.
In the early 1970s, Johnson and friend, Sylvia Rivera, co-founded STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, to support young "drag queens," trans women, and street kids living on the Christopher Street docks and in STAR House on New York Lower East Side. Johnson continued street activism as an organizer with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Christopher Street Liberation Day
A year after the uprising, the first Christopher Street Gay Liberation March began with a few hundred people outside the Stonewall Inn and swelled to several thousand by the time it concluded in Central Park. These annual marchespart celebration, community builder, and political rallyshowed LGBT people in significant numbers and as a force that mainstream society had not previously recognized.
Sylvia Rae Rivera was an LGBT liberation and transgender activist. In addition to STAR, she was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance. Sometimes homeless herself, Rivera focused her activism to help people she believed that mainstream society and assimilationist LGBT groups left behind, particularly people of color.
Stonewall National Monument is a place that the LGBT community and their allies gather in times of celebration, reflection, and sadness.
Park Planning and Community Engagement
About Your Visit
Getting to the Park
Source: NPS Brochure (undated)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
On the National Significance of the Stonewall Uprising Scholars Workshop (David Carter, Lillian Faderman, Emily Hobson, Jen Manion and Eric Marcus, October 2017)
Presidential Proclamation, Stonewall National Monument (June 24, 2016)
Stonewall Reconnaissance Survey, New York, NY (February 2016)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 27-Sep-2022