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1969 may be known as the "summer of love," but not everyone had the privilege of feeling it. While leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X had fought hard-won battles for the civil rights of African Americans and other minorities with many of them laying down their lives for the cause (King was assassinated just the previous year), the LGBTQ+ community was still exiled to a life where, at best, they were invisible to the culture at large. Homosexual and transgender activities were illegal in many states (including New York), punishable with extensive jail time and a lifetime of stigma that could get people sentenced to death if they managed to survive prison. The LGBTQ+ community lived underground if it lived at all, and for most LGBTQ+ Americans, survival meant denying their identity and their love. Smaller uprisings, such as the Compton's Cafeteria riots in San Francisco had already taken place, setting the stage for more resistance across the country.
"We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough of this kind of sh*t. It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course."
In New York City, gay bars and clubs were prohibited by law, but many existed, often run by the mafia. Greenwich Village and Harlem had the highest LGBTQ+ population, where the community lived among the musicians, artists, and beat poets of the neighborhoods. In the sixties, Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. began a campaign to rid the city of all its gay bars in order to improve its image for the World's Fair in 1964. Raids and shutdowns continued through the sixties, though many bars and restaurants paid bribes to the police to keep their establishments from being raided. When bars were raided, police often did so early enough in the night that bars could easily resume business, and only those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested.
The raid that took place on the night of June 28, 1969, however, did not go as planned. When people began resisting police attempts to determine the gender of female-dressed patrons and when others refused to show identity, the situation became tense, fast. Violence broke out among the assembled crowd as police tried to escort people to the wagons they'd brought to the raid.
Violence and rioting surged and waned numerous times over the next few days. As the uprising waned, the conversations and other forms of resistance began. As a result of the events surrounding Stonewall and other civil rights movements, the LGBTQ+ movement began to raise their voices and demand to be seen.
"It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering... The Stonewall became home to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why."
-Donn Teal, The Gay Militants
Stonewall wasn't the first event in the civil rights movement for the LGBTQ+ community, but it quickly became a touchpoint for many fighting to be accepted in society. Ultimately, it became symbolic of the struggle that people in the community had endured for centuries and became a rallying point for the rising gay pride movement. The days of the uprising would eventually be marked as the weekend when the community in New York City and across the world celebrates the struggles and identities of LGBTQ+ people who spent so long silenced and forced behind closed doors.
Check back here regularly as we get closer to Pride to watch videos and learn more about the people and events that turned the Stonewall Uprising into the start of a civil rights revolution that would change the lives of millions.