Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement

Lesbians, gays, and transgender people—a majority of whom were young people of color—rebelled against a harassing police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The incident inspired gay and lesbian pride and sparked a nationwide movement.

Summary of Event

In New York City in 1969, the rights of gays and lesbians to congregate and to express their sexual identity openly were at best tentative. The reigning social morality disapproved of homosexuality, and the law and law enforcement agencies partially tolerated the existence of gays and lesbians but used various means to limit their visibility and freedom. Stonewall Rebellion (1969)
Gay rights
Civil rights;United States
[kw]Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement (June 27-July 2, 1969)
[kw]Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement, Stonewall (June 27-July 2, 1969)
[kw]Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement, Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern (June 27-July 2, 1969)
[kw]Gay Rights Movement, Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and (June 27-July 2, 1969)
[kw]Rights Movement, Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay (June 27-July 2, 1969)
Stonewall Rebellion (1969)
Gay rights
Civil rights;United States
[g]North America;June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement[10310]
[g]United States;June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement[10310]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement[10310]
[c]Social issues and reform;June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement[10310]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement[10310]
Pine, Seymour
Van Ronk, Dave
Smith, Howard
Leitsch, Dick
Ginsberg, Allen
Truscott, Lucian, IV

Every major city of the United States in the late 1960’s had gays and lesbians, and a number of bars and private clubs where they could feel comfortable. Police would occasionally stage impromptu raids in search of illicit behavior, and violators would be arrested. The frequency of such raids varied according to the visibility of the gay community, the current level of societal disapproval, and the proximity of specific events. As local elections approached, incumbents often increased enforcement of antigay statutes to appear tough on crime and immorality; in 1964 and 1965, Operation New Broom Operation New Broom , initiated to improve New York’s image for the 1966 World’s Fair, included closings of gay bars.

Such practices resulted in a tenuous relationship between the gay community and the police. In San Francisco in 1960-1961, a tactical battle occurred when gay bar owners revealed they had been bribing police to prevent raids; the police retaliated with mass roundups of gay patrons and with bar closures. The bar owners ultimately formed a tavern guild as a united front against harassment. A 1967 campaign against gay bars in Los Angeles led to a rally on Sunset Boulevard calling for organized resistance.

In general, however, the struggle for gay and lesbian rights through the 1950’s and 1960’s was intermittent. The Mattachine Society Mattachine Society , America’s first national gay rights organization, was founded by Harry Hay Hay, Harry in Los Angeles in 1951 and over the years developed affiliate groups in other cities. The Daughters of Bilitis Daughters of Bilitis , a lesbian group established in San Francisco in 1955, did the same, but neither organization ever claimed more than a few hundred members. ECHO, East Coast Homophile Organizations East Coast Homophile Organizations , was founded in 1965 and sponsored public demonstrations at government buildings in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, but never established momentum.

Thus, in New York City in June, 1969, it was not unusual that several gay bars—the Snake Pit, the Sewer, Checkerboard, and Tele-Star—were raided and closed for a period of three weeks. The sixth precinct had come under a new commanding officer who initiated the crackdown. One bar that had been ignored was the Stonewall Inn, a club at 53 Christopher Street, just off Sheridan Square in the heart of Lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The Stonewall Inn was frequented by young, mostly African American and Latino gays and lesbians, many of whom were cross-dressers or runaways.

It was on suspicion that alcoholic beverages were being dispensed illegally at the bar that two plainclothes detectives from the sixth precinct entered the Stonewall Inn just before midnight on Friday, June 27. They presented management with a search warrant, confiscated cases of liquor, announced the closure of the bar, called for police reinforcements, and began expelling the club’s two hundred or so customers. Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, head of the public morals section, supervised the evacuation of the club with his eight officers. Police paddy wagons arrived to haul away the bartender, the doorman, and assorted others, including “queens” in full drag. As patrons were herded into the streets, they began to chant. The crowd taunted and jeered at the police, attracting attention and swelling in numbers as friends and passersby joined in. Police headquarters ordered partial riot mobilization.

The last customer to be guided out, a lesbian, put up a struggle. As the police subdued her, the crowd grew unruly and then virtually exploded into rebellion. (The following details of the uprising remain disputed.) A rain of coins was released on the police. Beer bottles were thrown. Cobblestones were pulled out of the street and thrown in all directions. The eight police officers, grossly outnumbered, sought refuge in the empty bar; reporter Howard Smith, of The Village Voice, was with them. At one point, Pine grabbed a man whom he had seen throwing a beer bottle. He turned out to be Dave Van Ronk, a popular folk singer who had wandered to the Stonewall Inn from another bar. The police locked the front doors, but protesters uprooted a parking meter and used it to batter them down. The police used a fire hose from inside the bar to deter the crowd. With the door battered down, they pulled their guns and threatened to shoot any rioter who entered the building. It was then that helmeted Tactical Patrol Force units arrived and began dispersing the crowd. Many of the rioters disappeared into buildings and alleys but continued the protest.

Eventually, the police gained control over the neighborhood. Thirteen men—including Van Ronk, who was later accused of assault—were arrested on charges of harassment, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. Four police officers were injured in the melee; the most serious injury was a broken wrist. The riot itself began shortly after 3:00 a.m. and lasted about forty-five minutes.

The following evening, Saturday, June 28, throngs of young men congregated at the site of the heavily damaged bar to read a condemnation of police behavior. Graffiti on the boarded-up windows read Support Gay Power and Legalize Gay Bars. Groups gathered on street corners and spoke and chanted loudly. As the night progressed, tensions mounted. By midnight, several hundred were gathered, and the protest resumed. Protesters threw bottles and set small fires. A sack of wet garbage was heaved into one patrol car; on Waverly Place, a concrete block landed on another patrol car, and protesters descended on the vehicle.

Police from the Charles Street station were unable to control the riot, and tactical units again poured into the area, shortly after 2:00 a.m. They broke through a line of protesters and, linking arms in a line of their own, swept up and down Christopher Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues to control and disperse the gathering. The police line broke, and helmeted officers charged the crowd. Estimates of the number involved in the disturbance were as high as four hundred police and two thousand rioters. Eventually, the crowd dispersed. The police withdrew at approximately 4:00 a.m. Three men were arrested on charges of harassment and disorderly conduct.

Tensions remained high on Christopher Street through the week. The area saw milling on street corners, taunting by both gays and police, and sporadic violence, looting, and trash fires. By Wednesday night, much of the activity involved “outsiders,” people not directly involved in the gay or Greenwich Village communities. The initial eruption at the Stonewall Inn had died down, but a nationwide movement was born. For the first time, gays had rebelled in numbers and with force against the systematic oppression that society imposed on them.


Those few nights outside the Stonewall Inn set in motion the movement for gay, lesbian, and transgender rights that would continue for decades. The impulse for gays to fight for equal rights in American society had been strong but latent; the Stonewall rebellion was a catalyst that created an immediate and extensive response.

On Sunday, June 29, New York’s Mattachine Society, led by Dick Leitsch, began disseminating leaflets calling for organized resistance to police and societal harassment of the gay community. Many contacted the society, as the leading gay rights organization at the time. By Tuesday, July 1, the new Gay Liberation Front was organized and meeting in spaces provided by New York’s Alternative University. Allen Ginsberg, a noted Beat poet, arrived and participated in meetings, providing practical and spiritual leadership. Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” with explicit references to homosexuality, had gained him fame.

The uprising received cursory coverage in the interior pages of The New York Times on Sunday and Monday, June 29 and 30. The coverage there and in The Village Voice fueled awareness and commitment among the gay community and all of New York. The following Sunday, an East Village bar called the Electric Circus invited people of all sexualities to mingle in a setting free from “raids, Mafia control, and checks at the front door.”

The gay rights movement developed with rapid speed. Gay Liberation Fronts were established and organized in New York and San Francisco, and branches were soon founded in major cities and universities not only in the United States but in Canada, Europe, and Australia as well. The groups engaged in a variety of activities: letter writing, picketing, distributing pamphlets and tracts, and seeking media exposure. Lesbian groups included the Lavender Menace. Gay dances were held openly in New York, Chicago, and Berkeley. Gay newspapers appeared everywhere: The Advocate in Los Angeles, the Fag Rag in Boston, the Gay Liberator in Detroit, and The Body Politic in Toronto, to name a few.

Acts of discrimination met with organized response. In San Francisco, activists picketed a steamship company that had fired an out gay man. In Queens, New York, activists demonstrated in a park in which trees had been cut down to prevent gay liaisons. The Gay Liberation Front put pressure on Delta and Western Airlines regarding employment of gays, and on The Village Voice, the San Francisco Examiner, Harper’s, and The Dick Cavett Show for better coverage of gays and gay culture. By November, the movement had grown so large that a splinter group, the Gay Activist Alliance, was founded to pursue an even more radical agenda. The new group forced the mayor of New York to address gay issues in front of television and opera audiences.

Within the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities, a new era had begun. Along with activism was self-awareness, manifested in consciousness-raising groups to nurture pride, openness, and mutual support. In 1970, Carl Wittman Wittman, Carl published his “Gay Manifesto,” “Gay Manifesto” (Wittman)[Gay Manifesto] a treatise to define and integrate the themes and forces of the new movement. On June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the riots, an estimated five to ten thousand people marched in the Christopher Street pride parade. Hundreds attended similar parades in Chicago and Hollywood. On the second anniversary, public celebrations were added in Boston; New Orleans, Louisiana; San Francisco; San Jose, California; and elsewhere.

Over the next few years, the spiritual and political transformation within the gay community was reflected in society at large. Huey Newton Newton, Huey , leader of the radical Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, declared support for the gay movement. Gay Liberation Front groups attended conventions in San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles that addressed psychiatry and behavior modification. Mental health practitioners in 1970 called for decriminalization of same-gender sex between consenting adults, and laws to that end were passed in Colorado, Connecticut, and Oregon in 1971.

In 1972, the National Association of Social Workers National Association of Social Workers rejected the medical model of homosexuality as a disease. Between 1970 and 1975, gay and lesbian caucuses were formed among librarians, linguists, psychologists, psychiatrists, historians, sociologists, and public health workers. In 1973, after three years of intense lobbying, the American Psychiatric Association deleted homosexuality from its official diagnostic manual of mental disorders. With this development, the scientific and academic basis for much of the institutionalized oppression and discrimination had been erased.

To be sure, after Stonewall, American society did not wholeheartedly embrace homosexuality or even acknowledge lesbian and gay equal rights. The riots at the Stonewall Inn in June and early July, 1969, however, permanently changed the way gays and lesbians cope with and confront societal attitudes and, by extension, the way that society understands and accepts homosexuality. Stonewall Rebellion (1969)
Gay rights
Civil rights;United States

Further Reading

  • Adam, Barry D. The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1995. Adam traces the history of gay and lesbian communities and politics from medieval times through the 1980’s. Concise, well developed, and exhaustively referenced.
  • Bullough, Vern L. Homosexuality: A History. New York: New American Library, 1979. Bullough examines the history of homosexuality not chronologically but through relevant topics such as religion, law, education, politics, literature, and transsexuality and cross-dressing. Ambitious in scope. The material is developed clearly if broadly.
  • Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martins Press, 2004. A history of the rebellion. Highly recommended, especially as an updated history.
  • D’Emilio, John. Sexual Battles, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. D’Emilio focuses on the emergence of gay identity and culture. The prose is slow-moving, and the approach is deep in sociological theory. The book has a small index and no bibliography.
  • Miller, Neil. In Search of Gay America: Women and Men in a Time of Change. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989. Miller set out to find, “twenty years after the Stonewall riots, if gay pride and progress had finally begun to trickle down to the grass roots.” He traveled through small towns across America meeting, interviewing, and observing gays and lesbians, activists, and others. The resulting volume is an intimate, reflective, and fascinating travelogue.
  • Stonewall Veteran’s Association. http://www.stonewall An excellent resource that includes media clippings and personal testimony from those who were part of the rebellion.
  • Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants. New ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A comprehensive treatment available on the Stonewall riots and the emergence of the gay and lesbian rights movement in the year that followed. Teal provides names, dates, and events with an appreciation of press reaction and contribution to the movement. An insider’s view. The prose is rich, fast moving, even frenetic at times.
  • Warren, Carol A. B. Identity and Community in the Gay World. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974. A cultural profile of gay and lesbian communities in the early 1970’s. A true ethnographer, Warren examines gay and lesbian language, milieux, rituals, customs, and social patterns. Thorough but intentionally time bound, this small volume avoids historical and political perspectives.
  • Weiss, Andrea, and Greta Schiller. Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community. Tallahassee, Fla.: Naiad Press, 1988. A companion volume to the authors’ acclaimed documentary film of the same name about gay and lesbian life before 1969. Its eighty-six pages include a discussion guide, reading list, and list of organizations in addition to ample photographs, posters, news clippings, cartoons, and quotations from the film.
  • Williams, Walter, and Yolanda Retter, eds. Gay and Lesbian Rights in the United States: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. A collection that explores the rich history of lesbian and gay rights in the United States.

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