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Stonewall Riots  
 
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The weekend of June 27-29,1969 was a turning point in the struggle for glbtq equality. Gay and lesbian activism certainly existed prior to this time, but the confrontations between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn in New York City catalyzed the movement and inspired gay men and lesbians to move their cause to entirely new heights utilizing entirely new tactics.

The birth of the Gay Pride Movement was not without controversy, however, and there continue to be debates about what actually occurred during the riots. Nevertheless, the Stonewall "Rebellion" indisputably holds an honored, if contentious, place in glbtq mythology and history.

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Pre-Stonewall

Organizing for gay and lesbian rights in the United States did not begin with Stonewall, but rather with the homophile movement of the 1950s.

The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950 by a group of gay men influenced by leftist politics. The Society engaged in activism and lobbying for law reform, but it aimed to represent homosexuals as non-threatening, upstanding members of society who differed from other white, middle-class men simply by what they did in the bedroom. Although it provided much needed support for gay men, the group was unable to sustain itself over time, and the national chapter finally dissolved in the mid-1960s.

The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was a lesbian organization that formed in 1955. Because in part of its publication, The Ladder, membership in DOB steadily increased over the next decade. However, internal tensions regarding DOB's involvement in the early women's movement (which generally was anti-lesbian) caused rifts in the organization. The Ladder ceased publication in 1972, and as the 1970s progressed DOB's membership sharply declined.

The members of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis tended to be conservative when it came to social change. Rather than engage in open confrontation with authorities, the goal was to work within the system to lobby for social acceptability. When protests such as picketing did occur, demonstrators acted in an orderly, polite manner; the least of their intentions was to get arrested.

The civil rights, black power, anti-war, and women's movements of the mid to late1960s, however, greatly inspired younger gay and lesbian activists to move to a more radical, militant stance. The idea of social revolution was part of the late 1960s zeitgeist, and the lesbian and gay collective consciousness was primed and ready for an incident--perhaps any incident--that would allow an aggressive Gay Pride movement to spark, catch fire, and burn brightly.

The Riots

Friday, June 27, 1969 found the world mourning the death of Judy Garland. Some have wondered what effect the gay icon's funeral, which took place in Manhattan, had on the events that would soon transpire.

In the early morning hours of June 28, police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a small bar located on Christopher Street in New York City's Greenwich Village. Although mafia-run, the Stonewall, like other predominantly gay bars in the city, got raided by the police periodically.

Typically, the more "deviant" patrons (that is, drag queens and butch lesbians, especially if they were "colored") would be arrested and taken away in a paddy wagon, while white, male customers looked on or quietly disappeared. Then, reflecting the system's corruption, the bar owners would be levied an insubstantial fine, allowing them to open for business the following day.

On this night, the charge was the illegal sale of alcohol. The raid began in time-honored fashion, as plainclothes and uniformed police officers entered the bar, arrested the employees, and began ejecting the customers one by one onto the street.

But for some reason, the crowd that had gathered outside the Stonewall, a crowd that had become campy and festive and had cheered each time a patron emerged from the bar, soon changed its mood. Perhaps it was Judy Garland's death, or the summer heat, or the fact that police had been especially busy that summer raiding bars and patrons had become angry and frustrated. Or possibly it was the sight of several drag queens being forced into a paddy wagon.

Whatever it was, the on-lookers lost their patience. As to who threw the first punch, accounts are contradictory. Some say it was a drag queen, while others claim it was a butch lesbian, who initially defied the police.

The crowd, which had grown to several hundred people, erupted. People began pelting the officers with coins, which represented the payoffs gay bars had to make to the police to stay in business. Then they moved to stones and bottles. The police, surprised by and unused to such resistance from patrons of gay bars, beat those they could reach with nightsticks, but eventually were forced to take refuge by locking themselves inside the Stonewall.

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The Stonewall Inn in 2003.
  
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