Date: July 1, 1989
Source: Sound Portraits Productions, Dave Isay, Executive Producer. "Remembering Stonewall." Weekend All Things Considered. National Public Radio, July 1, 1989.
About the Author: Sound Portraits Productions is an independent production company dedicated to telling stories that bring neglected American voices to a national audience. Most Sound Portraits Productions are broadcast on National Public Radio. The participants in the Stonewall riots interviewed for the program included Sylvia Rivera, Seymour Pine, and Howard Smith.
The Stonewall, often a term used to denote a larger group of social rebellions, was the name of a popular New York City gay bar. Located in Greenwich Village (in lower Manhattan), an eclectic section of the city known for its vibrant culture celebrating homosexuals, writers, artists, and a younger crowd, the Stonewall Inn was not unique nor alone in its cultural appeal.
On June 27, 1969, police raided the local hangout, and shortly after one a.m., (June 28) rioting began. The initial start of the conflict is uncertain—some say that a burly patron lunged a garbage can filled with empty liquor bottles at a police car, and others note that a drag-queen (a man dressed in women's clothing) resisted arrest. The central point, however, remains clear. On this Friday night, the atmosphere in New York's gay community would change, and in succeeding years, the nation would see the after-effects of this event and demand change in social attitudes and decorum.
Prior to the initial night of riots, police would normally enter a known gay arena, declare a raid, and patrons would show their identification and leave, not show ID and be arrested, or sometimes those with ID were arrested. There is no clear direction in how these arrests and raids took place, but prior to Stonewall, they were generally quiet and non-resistant. Yet, in June 1969, patrons forcefully acted out against the police, and within five days over 1000 people were gathered in front of Stonewall Inn. An active gay resistance movement to social policy had begun.
Throughout the United States, protest groups publicly voiced their concerns and aspirations for gay rights, and Stonewall represents a smaller part of that chaotic picture. Prior to Stonewall, police frequently would arrest gay couples for indecent exposure. These acts of indecent exposure often involved gay couples merely holding hands or kissing in public places, but social codes and understandings allowed police to apply the law liberally. Police departments often tar-geted gay communities because the larger community demanded that action be taken to remove the gay subculture, and many individuals feared anyone that did not fit the social norm.
Many religious and political groups aligned to support gay rights, just as many similar organizations united to denounce gay culture and life choices. Frequently, gay communities were targeted as unclean, harbors for child-molesters, social deviants, and some individuals feared that being homosexual was a disease. Hence, Stonewall was an intense reaction to a society that (up to this point) forced individuals to hide their identities and live in fear. Gay persons feared loosing their homes, jobs, and families if their sexual choices were discovered.
RIVERA: People started gathering in front of the Sheridan Square Park right across the street from Stonewall. People were upset—"No, we're not going to go!" and people started screaming and hollering.
PINE: One drag queen, as we put her in the car, opened the door on the other side and jumped out. At which time we had to chase that person and he was caught, put back into the car, he made another attempt to get out the same door, the other door, and at that point we had to handcuff the person. From this point on, things really began to get crazy.
PINE: Well that's when all hell broke loose at that point. And then we had to get back into Stonewall.
HOWARD SMITH: My name is Howard Smith. On the night of the Stonewall riots I was a reporter for the Village Voice, locked inside with the police, covering it for my column. It really did appear that that crowd—because we could look through little peepholes in the plywood windows, we could look out and we could see that the crowd—well, my guess was within five, ten minutes it was probably several thousand people. Two thousand easy. And they were yelling, "Kill the cops! Police brutality! Let's get 'em! We're not going to take this anymore! Let's get 'em!"
PINE: We noticed a group of persons attempting to uproot one of the parking meters, at which they did succeed. And they then used that parking meter as a battering ram to break down the door. And they did in fact open the door—they crashed it in—and at that point was when they began throwing Molotov cocktails into the place. It was a situation that we didn't know how we were going to be able control.
Expressions of protest at Stonewall mirrored the concurrent protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict and those of the civil rights movement (most commonly remembered from the late 1950s and early 1960s with Martin Luther King Jr. and Birmingham). As the heated social atmosphere of 1969 quickly turned into the turbulent decade of the 1970s, protesters continually used these expressions. In each instance, the protests shouted may have stood for a different social agenda, but with each use they still maintained the same overall meaning—freedom of choice and rights.
Stonewall forced the nation to reexamine its interaction with homosexual communities, and the riots are still commemorated each year with Gay Pride Day. This celebration is usually the last Sunday in June, when cities across the United States host parades and other festivities honoring gay lifestyles.
Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2005.
Stonewall Revisited. 〈http://www.stonewallrevisited.com/〉 (accessed April 10, 2006).