June 28, 1969. A day that will be forever enshrined in gay history started with a violent police action that was one step too far. The resistance and rioting that followed was the start of a movement that led to what we now know as gay pride and which is celebrated around the world through the month of June.
Modern-day members of the LGBTQ community will be familiar with the Stonewall Inn as the place where this all originated, but not much is known about the somewhat seedy, but welcoming Manhattan bar of almost 50 years ago. This place may be iconic now, but what was its story back then?
The New York City of the sixties was a place of emergence, even though homosexuality was still illegal, and they could punish you for even looking as if you were gay. Still, community relations were on the up, the city administration tolerated gay people and the police were no longer as aggressive as they had been in the past.
Dotted throughout the city were several gay clubs and bars, some of them established while others were hanging on by a brightly polished fingernail.
But the police chose the Stonewall to make a show of force and the reason is not always clear.
As gay life evolved across America, LGBTQ individuals were still worried about stepping into the spotlight to an extent and did not know who to trust. They would seek solace in the company of their peers and due to the unique nature of the Stonewall Inn, gravitated towards its door in more numbers than ever.
The Stonewall catered for a very diverse group of people who did not frequent other gay clubs or bars around town. Many of them were openly gay and this level of expression would worry those who still had to live in the mainstream and questioned their own identity.
Other groups also depended on the Stonewall, including those who found themselves homeless.
And then there were the young and often confused people from all over America, who had nowhere else to go. These youngsters were often underage and unable to buy any drinks, so most clubs and bars would turn them away. Feeling isolated, they would find a welcome, in spiritual and habitual terms at least, at the Stonewall.
Many of the people who frequented that bar on the fateful night were there because they had to be, and this was their safe house. They could often gain entry for just a few dollars and that wasn’t too hard to find, even for out of work panhandlers.
For all these patrons that night, the police action wasn’t an attempt to shut down a gay bar, but a move to deprive them of their reason for being.
If you look at it this way, it’s not surprising that the swarming police action resulted in a protracted riot that lasted for days and transfixed the nation. The police could not believe what had happened and struggled to cope with the aftermath while the event itself lit a fire in the belly of the community.
The diverse clientele that had the guts to push back started a movement that lives to this day and gets stronger by the year.
So, the Stonewall riot was not an event that simply went wrong, but it was a cry for meaning, inclusion and relevance that was heard around the world.
image : by Daniel Case [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons