Monday, February 02, 2009

LGBT History Month - Stonewall Riots

February is LGBT History Month, and 2009 is the 40th Anniversary of the most significant event in our history, the Stonewall Riots that led to the Gay Liberation Movement and the improved rights we now enjoy. 

Friday June 27th 1969 was warm night in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Gay community had been swelled by the many who had come to attend Judy Garland’s funeral. Homosexuality was illegal, as was cross dressing, so few bars admitted openly gay, lesbian and trans customers.

The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street was one that did. It was a small, private, mafia owned club frequented by the gender diverse and homeless – stone butch lesbians, effeminate gays, nellie queens and street fairies (transsexuals, transvestites and drag queens). It was the only gay bar where same sex dancing was permitted and it was packed with over 200 people.

Local ordinances (by-laws) in New York required that men must wear at least three items of male clothing, and the women must wear at least three items of female clothing – failure to do so would result in arrest if a venue was raided, after a humiliating search.

At 1.40 am on June 28th police raided the Stonewall Inn, which was unexpected because the bar had been raided earlier that week. Subsequently it became apparent that the police had intended to shut the bar down permanently. 

As usual people without ID or cross dressed, including butch lesbians, were lined up and searched, trans people being required to remove all make up. However on this night the trans women and drag queens refused to go into a separate room to have their sex verified, then the men refused to provide ID.

The police decided to arrest them all. Those not arrested were released but did not disperse and remained outside the bar where because of the presence of the police a small crowd had begun to gather. Some of those released played up to the crowd and mocked the police. When the arrested mafia bosses were brought out the crowd jeered and threw coins, then bottles.

A trans woman was seen resisting arrest by hitting the police with her hand bag and a lesbian woman fighting four police officers goaded to crowd to do something. The crowd grew to become a mob of over 500 attacking the police vehicles, and in the confusion some of those arrested escaped. In panic police retreated into the Stonewall Cafe under a hail of bricks, coins and bottles to chants of “Gay Power”. Someone used a broken parking meter to jam the doors shut and lighter fuel was squirted in and lit.

45 minutes later the riot squad arrived to free the trapped police while the mob continued to grow, fires broke out and vehicles were overturned. As police with riot shields tried to disperse the crowd they they found themselves faced with a “kick line” of trans women and drag queens advancing towards and taunting them singing:

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees 
Above our nelly knees!

An eerie calm had been established by 4 am but further rioting occurred the following night and throughout the week. The police had been publicly humiliated and the world had changed. The years of oppression and harassment were not over, but the gay community now has a new sense of the power of united action and, modelling on the Black Power movement, four months later the Gay Liberation Front was established and gay magazines began to appear. 

Two years later in 1970 a march on Christopher Street became the first Gay Pride and the following year Gay Pride events took place to commemorate Stonewall across the US and Europe, including the first London Gay Pride.