In the early hours of June 28, 1969 the natural order of the world was turned on its head while most people were a sleep. A paradigm shift took place without heralding trumpets, or even references in the national media.
The day before, Canada had repealed its sodomy laws. But on that date in America all homosexual acts were still criminal. Draconian laws prohibiting homosexuality varied from state to state and often city by city. In America’s largest city, New York, it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals. Dancing with a same-sex partner was illegal. It was also against the law to not be wearing at least three piece of gender-specific clothing that matched the sex you looked like. Homosexuals even did not have the right to congregate peacefully as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Homosexuals did anyway, and were regularly punished for it with official approval from the federal government down to the local mayor’s office.
On June 27, 1969, nationally there were less then fifty organizations with fewer then a couple thousand members striving for gay civil rights. These organizations in the 60s were known as the homophile movement, and were dedicated to seeking heterosexual approval. They managed to gain the support of some liberals by arguing that homosexuality should not be viewed as a criminal act but as a mental illness; homosexuals, they said, should not be beaten and jailed but referred to psychiatric professionals for treatment. The bolder of these homophile organizations also held pickets and small rallies to protest the federal government’s policies of firing gays from government jobs as security risks. All-in-all, these groups were struggling to overcome the notion that homosexuality was somehow un-American; foreign and alien to our national identity. But during the last weekend of June 1969, times were not only “a-changing” — they actually changed.
Judy Garland’s massive funeral in New York City had set a somber tone among many homosexuals who sensed an era had passed. Many were also still remembering the earlier brutal beating of homosexuals at the East River pier by New York’s finest. Some of these homosexuals were in a bar called the Stonewall Inn across the street from Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. Many others were outside on Christopher Street and in Sheridan Square because their apartments in greater New York City were hot and muggy from the oppressive summer heat.
Around 1:00 a.m. on Saturday June 28, knowing the bar would be packed, Detective Deputy Seymour Pine led police officers from the 1st Division and the 6th Precinct into the Stonewall Inn. Interrupting the night’s revelry, the cops ordered the music turned off and called for the patrons to line up for ID checks and a check for gender-specific clothing. They then ordered the bar to be shut down. As some of the campier patrons emerged single file from the front entrance, they found an unexpected crowd of onlookers. These patrons took the opportunity to strike poses “starlet style” to appreciative whistles, shouts and applause.
However, when the police wagon pulled up and officers emerged from the bar with prisoners, the mood turned somber. A few people started to boo the cops and others pressed up against the waiting van. The police near the wagon yelled for the crowd to move back, as “people were getting really, really pissed and up tight.”
As the cops loaded the drag queens, (who weren’t wearing the requisite three gender-appropriate garments) into the van they prodded one named Tammy Novak with a billy club. Novak told the officer to stop pushing. When he didn’t, Novak started swinging. The cop then hit him in the head, knocking him to the ground.
Craig Rodwell, the founder of the first gay and lesbian bookstore in America, was an eyewitness to the arrests. He later stated: “A number of incidents were happening simultaneously … a flash of group mass anger.” The throng, now in full fury, began pelting the cops with coins and screaming “Pigs” and “Faggot Cops.” And then Rodwell shouted, for the first time “GAY POWER!”
Inside the paddy wagon, another drag queen kicked a policeman in the chest, throwing him backwards while another queen opened the door and jumped out, allowing several other prisoners to escape into the crowd. An arrested teenager started kicking at a cop as the officer held him at arm’s length, and a queen mashed another officer with his high heel, knocking the cop to the ground. The queen then grabbed the officer’s keys, freed him self and passed the keys to all the arrested homosexuals behind him.
By now the angry crowd had swelled into a furious mob. People were throwing bottles, cans and bricks at the police, who quickly retreated inside the bar. A kid then threw a wire mesh garbage can through the plate glass window and people began throwing lighted matches inside. The police were stunned by the crowd’s unexpected fury. Deputy Pine later stated, “I had been in combat situations before but there was never anytime I felt more scared than then.”
With the police barricaded within the building, the militant homosexuals were now in control of the street and “they bellowed in triumph and pent-up rage.” Wanting to beat the crap out of those they saw as oppressors, the mass of enraged homosexuals tried to smash down the bar’s door. Deputy Pine shouted at them, “We’ll shoot the first motherfucker that comes through!” Unfazed by this threat, one group of livid men uprooted a parking meter to use as a battering ram while others tried to burn the place down. The crowd only dispersed after the arrival of police reinforcements. A newspaper article the next day simply stated “Four Police Hurt in Riot.”
On the second night of the riots, thousands of faggots and dykes gathered outside the Stonewall Inn to stare at the burned and blackened building. The walls of the bar had been graffitied and now declared “Drag Power,” “They invaded our rights,” “Support Gay Power” and “Legalize Gay bars” — along with accusations of police corruption. The homosexuals were giddy with their new-found power and began halting cars going near Waverly and Christopher Streets to ask if the occupants were gay or supported gay rights. When the drivers told them to “fuck off,” the homosexuals smashed their windshields. Other militants burned trash cans and threw bottles and rocks at people who catcalled at the sight of homosexuals kissing openly on the streets for the first time in modern history.
As news quickly spread of another militant homosexual uprising, New York’s Police Tactical Force units, fortified with shields and batons, poured into the area shortly after midnight on June 29 to route the angry protesters, who were now shouting slogans like “Gay Is Good.” At one point a group of campy men formed a chorus line and began doing a can-can routine in front of the Tactical Force while singing:
We are the Stonewall Girls,
We wear our hair in curls …
We roll our dungarees
Up to our Nelly knees …
We don’t wear underwear.
We show our pubic hair.
We are the Stonewall Girls,
We wear our hair in curls …
The police charged and dispersed them. When police did manage to capture demonstrators, whom the majority of witnesses described as “sissies” or “swishes,” the rioters surged to recapture them. However, some of the unlucky homosexuals who were caught were beaten bloody by the police.
Christopher Street and Sheridan Square were battle zones in the early morning hours. In the alleyways handprints, dipped in the blood of homosexuals, began to appear with the words “Gay Power” also written in blood.
The taunting of the police by militant homosexuals went on into the early hours, and by Sunday morning’s sunrise Christopher Street was calm again, but never the same. After viewing the rebellion at Stonewall, Beat poet and longtime Greenwich Village resident Allen Ginsberg declared: “You know, the guys there were so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”