June 28, 1969 marks the beginning of the Stonewall Uprising, a series of events between police and LGBTQ+ protesters which stretched over six days. It was not the first time police raided a gay bar, and it was not the first time LGBTQ+ people fought back, but the events that would unfold over the next six days would fundamentally change the discourse surrounding LGBTQ+ activism in the United States. While Stonewall became well known due to the media coverage and the subsequent annual Pride traditions, it was a culmination of years of LGBTQ+ activism. Historians have noted that the shift in activism, if Stonewall truly represented one at all, was a shift primarily for white cisgender people, as people of color and gender non-conforming people never truly had the benefit of concealing their marginalized identities.
While the events of Stonewall are often referred to as "riots," Stonewall veterans have explicitly stated that they prefer the term Stonewall uprising or rebellion. The reference to these events as riots was initially used by police to justify their use of force.
"The rebellion (it was never a 'riot') lasted five inconsecutive nights (they were not 'riots')..." -STONEWALL Veterans' Association
It is important to note that there were a number of uprisings against police & state brutality, harassment and entrapment of the LGBT+ communities in the U.S. in the years before Stonewall. These events and the people involved have not received as much historical attention as Stonewall, but are just as central to understandings of U.S. LGBTQIA+ histories. Some of the pre-Stonewall uprisings included:
There have been many incidents in which police interaction with LGBTQ+ communities has resulted in violence, and in response, protest. Bars were one of the few places LBGTQ+ people could gather in public, and these spaces were frequently raided throughout the 1950s-1970s. It is important to note that in addition to arresting LGBTQ+ people, first-hand accounts reveal the violence that police enacted on those they had arrested. Often, those who had survived police raids were hospitalized or had to seek medical care for their injuries. Notably, an uncounted number of LGBTQ+ people have died as a result of police raids on gay spaces. Police violence and bar raids did not end after Stonewall. One poignant example is the murder of Frederick Wiliam Paez on the 11th anniversary of Stonewall (June 28 1980) who was shot by a police officer who had solicited him.
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By 1969, the Stonewall Inn (now a national monument) was one of the most popular gay bars in New York City.Throughout the state, homosexuality was considered a criminal offense, and it would take over a decade of organizing before "same-sex relationships" were legalized in 1980 (New York v. Onofre). The criminalization of homosexuality led many gay establishments to operate sans liquor license, providing an open door for raids and police brutality. Like many gay establishments at the time, the Stonewall Inn was owned by the mafia, and as long as they continued to make a profit, they cared very little what happened to their clientele. Because the owners were still making a profit, they simply adjusted to the raids, and were often tipped off about them ahead of time.The Stonewall was raided on average once a month leading up to the raid on June 28, 1969 (Martin Duberman,Stonewall p. 187), and had been raided once already that same week. The Stonewall was also not the only bar in town being frequently raided. “… In the last three weeks five gay bars in the Village area that I know of have been hit by the police” (The Summer of Gay Power and the Village Voice Exposed, COME OUT, 1969). Police raids and harassment were a common occurrence across the U.S. during this time, and amid the growing political activism of the 1960s,LGBTQ+ people began to mobilize and fight back.
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Watch documentary footage of the first Pride march held in New York City on June 28, 1970, Gay and Proud, a documentary by activist Lilli Vincenz: