Pride Month: The Stonewall Riots

28 June 2022


On its own? Just a word.

However, to most by now, I imagine (or I guess, I hope!) it draws images of the colourful, vibrant, rainbow decorated annual celebrations and marches hosted in cities across the world celebrating the beauty of the LGBTQ+ community in all its forms.

For a movement so vividly decorated, the history and suffering faced by those in the LGBTQ+ community’s widely known to be far darker – and it’s by no means perfect today either.

Fortus support employees, and one way they do this is by helping to educate us all on important cultural and social issues, hence me writing this. As you all may know (and I’d be surprised if you didn’t know by now!), I’m incredibly active within the community and have previously written a piece before – the infamous ‘Pansexual Accountant’s Guide to LGBTQ+ People’

As June rolls round for another year, it’s pivotal to reflect and remember those who’ve made the progress of today possible, and acknowledge why at the start of the summer, every year, there’s a tidal wave of content about the LGBTQ+ community.

(Hint: It’s not just so we can have a big gay party in the sunshine!)

28th June 1969 – only 53 years ago.

Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village, New York City.

The mayor of New York was campaigning to change the image of the city. Organised crime, particularly the Mafia, had incredibly strong links with a lot of the bars and clubs in the area, so many liquor licenses had been revoked at the time. However, said bars and clubs also had very infamous links with homosexual men, and that was another reason the mayor wanted to deploy undercover police officers to entrap and shut them down. For context, at the time, it was illegal in New York to hold hands, kiss, or even dance with the same sex.

The Stonewall Inn was purchased by the Mafia in 1966, cheaply renovated and reopened as a private ‘bottle bar’ (bring your own booze, and therefore no need for a liquor license) but was known infamously for being the gay bar of the city. It had two dance floors, very dark lighting and walls, no running water or clean toilets – and most infamously a second back room which welcomed ‘queens’ (trans women, drag artists and those less willing to be constrained by the gendered norms of their clothing).

Due to the laws of the time, the bar was regularly raided. During the raids, the patrons would be asked to line up, have their IDs checked and arrests were often made if found breaking the law. In fact, female officers would actually ‘verify’ the physical nature of women in the bars and if they were found to be breaching the gender they were assigned at birth, they would be arrested. This included ensuring biological women were wearing at least 3 items of feminine clothing and biological men couldn’t be seen as effeminate in any way.

Usually, the bars would be tipped off about police raids, due to the corrupted-nature of the city at the time. Often, these bars had extra liquor in secret panels and would resume business as soon as possible after alcohol was seized. However, on the night of the 28th June, there’d been no tip off and at 1:20am the police arrived demanding entry and announcing their presence, after 4 undercover officers (2 men and 2 women) had been gathering visual evidence earlier in the evening.

There were approximately 205 people in the bar at the start of the evening, but rather than complying, the patrons were unwilling to ‘form an orderly queue’ and challenged police instruction. The police grew frustrated, and the crowd grew not only defiant, but also in its size, with crowds gathering outside Stonewall where patrons refused to move along quietly if they were allowed to exit the bar (or rather, forcibly kicked from the bar in many cases), and onlookers joined in on the commotion. Activists like Marsha P. Johnson (an iconic transwoman who defined Stonewall) were involved in driving forward the crowd, and not conceding to the force shown by the police. Some of the lesbians on the scene were also aggressively manhandled (hit over the head and inappropriately groped) which sparked violence in the crowd. The police were outnumbered by 500 to 600 and so, by 2am riots were underway with the mob offering backlash into the early hours of the morning.

It was seen as ‘humiliating’ for the police, and additional reinforcements were sent to support (known as the ‘Tactical Patrol Force’) as they’d barricaded themselves inside Stonewall with a few patrons, whilst outside the riots grew increasingly violent with windows being smashed and fires being started – both literally and metaphorically.

Historian David Carter wrote an article entitled ‘What made Stonewall different’, which in short was described as a raid like the countless others the community had experienced. This riot was the first to really generate media coverage, and the news quickly spread about Stonewall. Many people emerged in support of the cause over the course of 6 days to fight against the poor treatment of patrons by the police. But beyond that, people were coming together to fight against the laws stopping them from being who they truly were.

The reality is, the community had had enough of being put down, and they stood up for themselves. Not everyone was proud of what happened at Stonewall, and some of the community at the time actually believed it wasn’t the right tactic to take, and worried it’d cause backlash from the general public. But it was a product of frustration which truly triggered an influx of activist groups, and most infamously the annual Pride celebrations we see today.

28th June 1970 – one year on from the infamous riots.

Greenwich Village, New York City.

The first event defined as ‘Pride’ took place to commemorate the events of the prior year – supporters gathered at Christopher Street and marched through New York for 51 blocks chanting ‘say it loud, gay is proud’.

Trying to effectively comprehend just how liberating this must have felt can only be done in the words of someone who lived through such a context and Michael Fader, a patron of the Stonewall Inn, summed up his take on Stonewall:

There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.”

Despite the laws in place, Pride received very little public backlash in New York – meaning that freedom and celebration were firmly cemented in the cause, and helped create the very image of what Pride is today.

28th June 1972

London, United Kingdom.

The momentum of the past few years had been spreading worldwide, and the UK organised its first ever march in honour of those riots. This celebration was about loving freely, being openly out, and being proud about who you are.

Many individuals involved in the Stonewall riots had gone on to find additional activist groups (such as the Gay Liberation Front and GLAAD). Some of the UK activists had been involved in and seen the effect these groups had in the US, such as Bob Mellors and Aubrey Walter, which gave them the drive to push the movement forward over here.

The history of the LGBTQ+ movement’s far more complex, not just in the US or the UK, but worldwide. There’s a legislative tale of its own to be told behind each country, that takes one step forward and then two steps back – how government policies can often turn out. The UK was by no means an exception to this rule, with the 1980s introducing Section 28 and the handling of the AIDs crisis to name two of the most iconic and generation defining setbacks to the equality movement. Not to mention the power and influence media outlets have had in shaping public opinion.

However, the reality is that Stonewall wasn’t the ‘start’ of LGBTQ+ history. There were gay liberation movements that pre-dated the riots, as well as a wealth of stories that have now followed on from Stonewall. But it was, and still is, a hugely important ‘collective memory’ of many people worldwide in the LGBTQ+ community (and explains why your newsfeed has had an explosion of rainbow company logos this month!).

However, much like the Stonewall movement and Pride ‘annual’ celebrations, the plight of the LGBTQ+ community’s ongoing and not confined within the constraints of one month. It’s still illegal to be homosexual in 70 countries worldwide, with the death penalty carried as an ‘appropriate’ punishment in 11 of these countries.

Furthermore, the UK isn’t ‘cured’ of homophobia. The charity Stonewall have found that two thirds of LGBTQ+ people have experienced violence or abuse, whilst 2 in 5 trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity.

So, whilst it’s so important we keep this conversation, education and fight ongoing throughout June, it also needs to continue once the rainbows fade back to the usual logos of your favourite brands. This can even be seen with the Pride parades themselves too, with them now being spread out beyond the month of June!

Speaking of which, you’ll catch myself and Team Fortus waving the flag at Milton Keynes Pride on 10th September. For those who can’t wait, there’s a whole calendar below of celebrations for those inspired to get involved:

The LGBTQ+ community’s a rich and diverse one, spanning so many corners of history. So if you want to learn more, be sure to check out the useful resources below. Don’t be afraid to use the internet to explore further if it’s sparked your curiosity too!