Sometimes a seminal event changes our culture forever. The Stonewall Rebellion (aka Stonewall Riots) was just such an event, and it ushered in a new era of gay and transgender people being out, proud, and no longer afraid to even dance at a bar without cops throwing them in jail.
In the 1950s and '60s, being gay was considered "un-American."
Those were rough times for gay and trans people in the United States. Their activities were monitored by government organizations such as the State Department. Even the U.S. Post Office, the FBI, and local police departments were involved.
Police would often raid gay bars or places suspected of having a large number of gay patrons.
They would raid and shut them down, and photos of the patrons would be plastered all over the newspapers. Some gay folks were even lodged in mental hospitals.
However, the civil rights movement, along with the antiwar movement, began to inspire people to fight the power.
Folks were challenging arbitrary police actions that kept citizens intimidated and in the shadows when they tried to rise up.
And there was a full-blown cultural shift happening — people were simply not going to live with the social constructs of the 1950s anymore. And I don't blame them.
A massive shift for gay rights began on June 28, 1969, in a Greenwich Village bar called Stonewall Inn.
This New York City bar was a popular hangout for gay and trans people in the area — an oasis, as many gay bars had been shut down. At the time of the rebellion, it was one of the only bars in Manhattan that allowed men to dance with men, and women with women.
To prevent raids that targeted these people, bars often had to pay off cops — but it didn't always stop them.
Some say the owners of Stonewall Inn — who were members of the powerful Genovese mafia family — paid off cops in order to provide liquor without a license and to minimize raids. To this day, it's not clear whether police raided Stonewall Inn on June 28 in spite of being paid off or because they hadn't been paid off on this particular occasion.
During such raids, women were escorted to the restroom so female cops could "verify their sex." Anybody without ID was arrested, as was anyone not wearing three pieces of clothing "appropriate" for their apparent sex. All liquor was usually confiscated, too.
This had been pretty standard for gay bars since the 1950s, but something was different that night in June. They fought back.
"Now, times were a-changin'. Tuesday night was the last night for bullshit. ... Predominantly, the theme [w]as, "this shit has got to stop!"
— Anonymous Stonewall riots participant, via "Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution" by David Carter
About 200 people at the Stonewall Inn that night refused to comply with showing their IDs to "prove" their sex.
Those not arrested or sent into the street didn't disperse as usual. They hung around outside the bar to see what was going to happen next. More came from the surrounding neighborhood, swelling the crowd to several hundred people, and more as word went out about the raid.
As cops escorted more patrons outside the bar, some began to shout "gay power!" and sing, "We Shall Overcome," the song adopted by civil rights demonstrators all over the country.
Laughter turned to rage. The air was electric with rebellion and resistance.
Coins, followed by beer bottles and eventually rocks, were thrown at the police and their vehicles as rumors spread among the still-swelling crowd that some inside the bar were being beaten.
"Part of history forgets, that as the cops are inside the bar, the confrontation started outside by throwing change at the police. We started with the pennies, the nickels, the quarters, and the dimes. 'Here's your payoff, you pigs! You fucking pigs! Get out of our faces.' This was started by the street queens of that era."
— Sylvia Rivera, historic transgender activist and cofounder of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance
It's unknown what the true catalyst was, but as the story goes, it was after one too many rough arrests — perhaps the arrest of noted gay civil rights icon Stormé DeLarverie — that the crowd couldn't take it anymore and ignited. All police vehicles sped away for fear of being overturned. Some cops remained and grabbed a few citizens on hand, including a journalist and a musician — perhaps as witnesses — and retreated back into the bar for safety.
The following hour saw rocks, bricks, and garbage cans thrown at the door of the bar, windows broken, and some fires set.
"We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration. ... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us."
— Michael Fader, via "Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution" by David Carter
By the time the fire trucks made it, the cops had managed to get themselves out of the bar. Then came the tactical police force. Imagine the riot-gear-wearing, jackbooted cops like the ones who tear-gassed Occupy Wall Street folks several years ago. Or like those recently in Baltimore or Ferguson. This was the precursor to that style of riot "control," and they'd perfected their tactics in the civil rights demonstrations and antiwar actions of the earlier 1960s.
What followed totally pissed off the cops in riot formation. The crowd formed chorus kick lines, dancing and making fun of the cops, singing these words to the tune of "The Howdy Doody Show" theme song:
"We are the Stonewall girls.
We wear our hair in curls.
We don't wear underwear.
We show our pubic hairs.
We wear our dungarees
above our Nelly knees!"
As Martin Duberman wrote in his 1993 book, "Stonewall," "It was a deliciously witty, contemptuous counterpoint to the [police]'s brute force."
This humiliation only increased the savagery of the cops, who charged again and again, batons swinging. The crowds and kick lines would disperse as the riot formation advanced and reform after they'd passed, resuming their impromptu performances and taunting them further.
Even when cops managed to capture some of the demonstrators, people in the crowd would chase them and retake their comrades rather than let them be beaten and thrown into police trucks.
Poet Allen Ginsberg, who lived in Greenwich Village and visited Stonewall during one of the nights this was going on, stated:
"You know, the guys there were so beautiful — they've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago."
It took five days for the Stonewall Rebellion to subside, but its effect was permanent.
A year later, a march was held in Greenwich Village to remember Stonewall, and Los Angeles and Chicago held simultaneous marches. These were the first gay and trans pride marches in the history of the United States, and from those grew thousands more in cities and towns all across the country.
It also sparked the formation of many gay and trans rights groups, and the gay liberation movement itself.
In the video below, actor Tim Robbins reads from the inspiring words of Duberman's "Stonewall." You can sense just a little of the energy that was felt up and down the streets of Greenwich Village for those nights, starting June 28, 1969.