On June 24, 2016, President Obama announced that the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding area is now the Stonewall National Monument, the first U.S. national monument honoring the gay-rights movement.
It’s hard to believe in 2016 the conditions in 1969 that sparked that night on Christopher Street, and the days that followed, could have existed in the United States.
At the end of the 1960s, homosexual sex was illegal in every state but Illinois.
Not one law — federal, state, or local — protected gay men or women from being fired or denied housing.
In 1969, police raids on gay bars occurred regularly.
It was illegal to serve Gay people alcohol or for Gays to dance with one another. During a typical police raid in New York City, the lights were turned on, the customers were lined up and their identification checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested. Women had to be wearing three pieces of “feminine” clothing, or they would be arrested. Employees and management of the bars were frequently arrested as well.
On June 28th, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against yet another city- sanctioned harassment by the police department. That night was the LGBT community’s “Rosa Parks moment” — the tipping point that accelerated the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement.
At 1:20 in the morning on Saturday, June 28, 1969, eight police officers came to raid the Stonewall Inn. Approximately 200 people were in the bar that night. But this time the patrons refused to cooperate. All those under arrest were to be taken to the police station, but the patrol wagons had not yet arrived, so patrons were required to wait in line for about 15 minutes. Those who were not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not leave. Within minutes, a crowd began to grow and watch.
By the time the first patrol wagon arrived, the crowd had grown to at least ten times the number of people who were arrested. A scuffle broke out when a lesbian in handcuffs was escorted to the police wagon. She fought with the police, and was hit in the head with a billy club for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. An officer then picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon. That was the last straw for the already tense crowd.
The crowd tried to overturn the police wagon. Pennies, then beer bottles, were thrown at the wagon, then bricks. The police were outnumbered by about 600 people. Ten police officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn for their own safety. Garbage cans, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows. A parking meter was uprooted and used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall. The Tactical Police Force of the New York City Police Department finally arrived to free the police trapped inside the Stonewall and with the larger police force they then detained anyone they could and put them in patrol wagons to go to jail.
By 4:00 in the morning the streets had been cleared. Thirteen people had been arrested. Some in the crowd were hospitalized, and four police officers were injured. Almost everything in the Stonewall Inn was broken. Pay phones, toilets, mirrors, jukeboxes, and cigarette machines were all smashed.
News of the riot spread quickly in Greenwich Village and the next night, thousands of people gathered in front of the Stonewall, which had re-opened, choking Christopher Street until the crowd spilled into adjoining blocks. Fires were started in garbage cans throughout the neighborhood. More than a hundred police arrived again and the street battles lasted until 4:00 in the morning.
When about 1,000 protestors gathered for a third night, there was another explosive street battle, with injuries to demonstrators and police alike, looting in local shops, and arrests of five people.
Reports of the events spread globally. A year later, thousands marched in Gay Pride parades in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, San Francisco and several other North American cities.
Since the first European LGBT parade in Münster in 1972, “Christopher Street Day” has commemorated Stonewall with parades and parties in cities across Europe.
But even as the movement grew, cases like Bowers v. Hardwick were denying the LGBT community their constitutional rights as U.S. citizens. In 1986, a 5–4 ruling by the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults, in this case specifically with respect to homosexual sodomy, though the Georgia law did not differentiate between homosexual sodomy and heterosexual sodomy.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Byron White, argued that the Constitution did not confer “a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy.” A concurring opinion by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger cited the “ancient roots” of prohibitions against homosexual sex, quoting William Blackstone’s description of homosexual sex as an “infamous crime against nature”, worse than rape, and “a crime not fit to be named”. Burger concluded: “To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching.”
The senior dissent, authored by Justice Harry Blackmun, framed the issue as revolving around the right to privacy. Blackmun’s dissent accused the Court of an “almost obsessive focus on homosexual activity” and an “overall refusal to consider the broad principles that have informed our treatment of privacy in specific cases”. In response to invocations of religious taboos against homosexuality, Blackmun wrote: “That certain, but by no means all, religious groups condemn the behavior at issue gives the State no license to impose their judgments on the entire citizenry. The legitimacy of secular legislation depends, instead, on whether the State can advance some justification for its law beyond its conformity to religious doctrine.”
Bowers v. Hardwick was finally overturned in 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas, that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional.
Last year, 46 years after Stonewall, 29 years after Bowers v. Hardwick, another case was before the Supreme Court.
On June 26, 2015, the court held, in a 5-4 decision in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case, that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The joy of last year’s victory has been overshadowed this year by the bloody carnage at Pulse, another Gay bar in another city, but this time, We Are Orlando and the outpouring of grief and support from around the world show that the LGBT community is not mourning alone.
- The Historic Stonewall Inn
- Christopher Street Day
- Bowers v. Harwick
- The Stonewall Inn in the 1960s
- Confrontation with police over Stonewall, June, 1969
- The Advocate – 1970 Gay Pride Parades headline
- Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin