In the very early hours of June 28, 1969, the New York City Police decided to raid a rather unimpressive bar in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn. The bar was by most standards, just a dive; the raid, routine.
Raids of Gay bars were not uncommon as protection money could be collected since it was against new York law to serve a drink to a Homosexual whether the bar was Gay or Straight, and there was always someone who banked on a strong morals stance as a way to garner votes. And, because the clientele of the Stonewall was Gay, that guaranteed little resistance as in 1969 if you were in a bar that was raided and got your name and picture in the newspaper it could ruin your career and cost you a job or your housing.
However, on this particular occasion, things were to turn out differently.
The raids on the various bars had become too frequent, and the excuses for them intolerable. Also, for those young people who were thrown out of their homes by parents who could not accept a Gay or Lesbian child because “God” and society told them it was horrible, the bars were the one place they could feel comfortable and among friends, and for those who were older and just wanted a quiet unobtrusive place to have a beer with friends, this was a place to hang out and end the evening.
The big objection to Gay people wasn’t so much based on who they were, but on what people claimed they were. Many of those who made claims had something to gain if people accepted what they had to say. Psychologists could get more clients, churches could raise money and members, and politicians could get votes.
Very recently in this vein I actually heard a minister announce that he knew no Gay people, before then proceeding to explain to his audience what Gay people were all about. Somehow admitting no source of information and then expounding was so wrong.
The police, who approached the bar that morning, were not from the nearby precinct, but from another part of the city, and they had not notified the neighborhood police that they were on their way.
It was supposed to be the simple script of entering the bar, asking for ID’s, looking for violations of some rather odd rules, if necessary, arresting a few people, making fun of some others, and calling it a night.
Being lied about, having no recourse for dealing with mistreatment, and being forced to find places to meet people like themselves without being hassled, and then being condemned for having to find those places, started to boil up anger. Being forced to live an underground life begins to wear on people.
So in the very early hours on this particular day, limits were reached. Bashing both physical and mental had to end.
By June 28, 1969, every group and cause in the United States had demonstrated for their rights and for the most part had gotten them. There was one group left.
The police entered the bar just before closing on a very hot night having just raided the bar not too many days before, and they did not follow their tacit agreement with the mafia which owned the bar that called for middle of the week raids early enough in the evening to allow the bar to reopen after the raid and continue to make more money.
Slowly the anger began to roll, the resistance increased, and the crowds began to form and react after a patron was subjected to a particularly brutal beating with night sticks.
The Stonewall Rebellion had begun.
The police found themselves barricaded inside the bar with the people they had been hassling in their raid, while the crowd of way over a thousand outside began to see that it had the upper hand and the police at bay. The tension on the part of the police and the people in the crowd lent itself to potential disaster particularly as an order to shoot into the crowd if the people outside managed to force the bar doors open was issued, but, thankfully, immediately rescinded.
When the local precinct finally learned of what was going on and responded, the police wagons and riot gear wearing back-up arrived.
As quickly as people were placed into the police wagons, they were pulled back out. As soon as the police thought they had dispersed the crowd, they found a new one forming behind them.
The crowd that should have simply cowed and run off, stood its ground and refused to lose one of the few places they could be together with a certain degree of safety and comfort.
The following night the crowds gathered again, this time on purpose to protect its turf and to end the standard treatment they had been historically subjected to. The Stonewall inn reopened for business.
Groups who had been successful in their own fights for rights, straight people, Black people, anti-war people, arrived for support. People were beaten with night sticks. People were arrested. But there was no going back.
What was referred to as the Gay Liberation Movement had begun.
Since that time to varying degrees of success the Gay, lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender citizens of this country have fought to end their standing as second class citizens and claim their rights as the full citizens we are. The road hasn’t been easy, and has at times become downright un-American.
There are still places in the United States where things are as they were forty to fifty years ago.
But slowly, as reason replaces emotion and facts replace prejudice, things are changing.
As recently as this past Wednesday, the falsehood that was the Defense of Marriage Act, which only promoted discrimination while not addressing those things that actually attacked marriages like divorce and adultery, was struck down, extending the rights of citizenship to American citizens.
Equality cannot be stopped.
The Stonewall Rebellion is on-going.
Cape Cod Veterans of the Stonewall riots (Erica Kay-Webster over the O and David Velasco-Bermudez over the N) with spouses and friends at the Boston GLBT Pride Parade
I was privileged to have been asked to walk with these veterans of history.