The Riots of Stonewall Inn and the Rise of LGBTQ+ Activism | Teen Ink

The Riots of Stonewall Inn and the Rise of LGBTQ+ Activism

February 2, 2021
By keine_ahnung SILVER, Omaha, Nebraska
keine_ahnung SILVER, Omaha, Nebraska
6 articles 0 photos 1 comment

Could you imagine living in a society where you were legally required to wear a minimum of three clothing items deemed “proper” for your assigned gender?  Being caught in feminine attire could land a male in jail.  A woman wearing a suit could face fines for not dressing in clothing thought to be for women.  Other extreme laws and ideas about gender norms society brought the New York Police to Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn during the summer of 1969.  The police force reasoned that the raid was based on suspicion that the bar did not possess a liquor license, yet no one could have imagined the uprising started that morning.  The unexpected raid quickly flipped to a protest, illuminating a need for change in the US, and later became known as the Stonewall Riots.  Change has been achieved in the last fifty-one years following the event, such as shutting down Mafia-run gay bars and creating a Pride Month for the LGBTQ+ community.  The riots at Stonewall Inn led to a revolution of queer activism, beginning in the initial summer of 1969; since the history-making event, decades of positive change in attitude and acceptance have occurred.

Placed on Christopher Street and across the way from Christopher Park in Greenwich Village, a small, unsanitary bar stood as a beacon of hope, community, and gathering for New York’s queer residents (Bausum 5-6).  The Stonewall Inn was Mafia-run and often raided by the police, but the chance to meet other homosexuals, transgender individuals, and drag queens still drew customers to the bar.  The climate of the Stonewall Inn also proved ideal for hiding the same-sex dancing, drinking, and clothing expression considered illegal in the 1960s (Bausum 6-8).  The dark environment of the bar, along with the large sums of money being used to discourage paid police officers from raiding, kept the Mafia’s management of the institution to stay undiscovered.  Only on June 24th, 1969, did investigations of the Stonewall Inn led by New York Police begin (Bausum 27).  Inspector Seymour Pine and Detective Smythe derived a plan to pose other officers as customers of the bar, before arresting anyone in violation of the law (Bausum 32).  Moments after the knock on the bar’s door, the officers were let in.  Everyone in the bar had to have been scanned by the police, either to be released or arrested.  Those that would not face charges or legal trouble stepped outside but awaited the destination of their friends or partners.  The crowd of individuals waiting on their loved ones grew larger and attracted other pedestrians and passersby.  As the crowd increased, the handling of those being arrested worsened.  Officers used excessive force to lead individuals to police vehicles.  When a police officer hit a lesbian being loaded into a vehicle on the head, the riot began (“Stonewall Riots”).  Hundreds of angry protesters threw change, bottles, and stones at the officers.  They were met with the nightsticks, or wooden batons, of officers involved in the Tactical Patrol Force (Pitman 60).  The riot lasted until after four AM, with the queer protestors having humiliated and caused the police to retreat.  The riot caused no severe injuries or deaths (Bausum 62).  Instead, a drive for activism and the challenging of the police and society was formed.  In the early morning of June 28th, 1969, a revolution had been set into play.

Over the next few days, two more riots near the Stonewall Inn occurred (Bausum 68-71).  The Stonewall riots led to much change in New York and the rest of the US.  One of the first forms of activism activated by the riots were efforts to shut down Mafia-owned gay bars.  Craig Rodwell, an activist for LGBTQ+ rights in the 1960s set to work creating a leaflet with his partner Fred Sargeant (Bausum 66).  The leaflet was an effective way to educate the public about the Mafia’s involvement (Pitman 105).  One of the major problems with the management of New York’s gay bars was how much profit was being made.  It is estimated that the Mafia made the modern equivalent of $35,000 for every average weekend night (Bausum 26).  Most of the profit was made off of stolen goods and illegally serving expensive and watered-down alcoholic beverages.  Another money-making tactic of the Mafia was to target queer individuals that came to the bar.  Recognizing some customers with employment in important job fields, the Mafia blackmailed them with the threat of exposing their sexual orientation.  Being outed, or publicly exposed as being LGBTQ+, would result in being fired and facing social humiliation.  The Mafia then used their profit to pay officers into leaving the bar alone or providing a heads-up before raids (Bausum 26).  As mentioned in “Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights,” “Stonewall historian David Carter speculates that the bar’s managers designated $1,200 a month for such payments, an amount equal in buying power to almost $8,000 today.”  Rodwell's leaflet was distributed by the thousands to inform the public of the Mafia’s role in the Stonewall Inn and gay bars in Greenwich Village (Bausum 67).  The Stonewall Inn eventually closed months after the riots.

Following the first riot, more visibility of the LGBTQ+ community was noted in New York’s publications.  In the 1960s, media coverage and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals was rare and typically derogatory.  The first riot at the Stonewall Inn on June 28th was covered in an article from the New York Times.  Rodwell and Sargaent had contacted the newspapers of New York following the initial riot, but only the New York Times published the events in a timely manner, and as a minor story (Pitman 106-107).  Following a second riot at the Stonewall Inn, two articles were featured in the Village Voice.  Written with a homophobic bias, the articles did not provide accurate or respectful content (Pitman 111-118).  On July 9th, an article was written for the New York Daily News.  The piece was put on the front page but failed to depict the Stonewall riots and the gay community positively or civilly (Pitman 121-122).  In the immediate aftermath of the riots, the attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community was not changing.  However, LGBTQ+ activists were inspired by the riots and organized events of advocacy around the country.  The Annual Reminder, a protest of homophobic attitudes and laws in Philadelphia every year, occurred six days after the first riots in 1969.  Instead of adhering to the rules of protest, such as staying in a calm, straight line, the protesters held more anger and motivation for protest.  A historical picture displays two women holding hands at the Annual Reminder (Pitman 120).  More LGBTQ+ activist groups were also formed at this time.  The Gay Activists Alliance was created in December of 1969 (Pitman 127).  Other groups, such as the Lesbian Liberation Front and The Lavender Menace were formed or thrived in the new revolution after the riots (Bausum 75).  A larger sense of community for LGBTQ+ individuals began to form.  

Over the past five decades, many accomplishments have been made in the LGBTQ+ community.  The Stonewall Riots led to great change and a sense of pride for queer individuals.  More groups working for organized change and improvement in social acceptance have led to more celebration of LGBTQ+ Americans.  Rodwell organized the first Pride parade on June 28th, 1970 (Bausum 76).  The procession started with a small number of participants, but quickly grew to include thousands (Pitman 146).  The parade was held on Christopher Street Liberation Day.  2020 was the 50th anniversary of Christopher Street Liberation Day and Pride events in the US.  In June 2016, the Stonewall Inn and Christopher State Park across from the bar were elected to be a National Monument (Pitman 166).  The riots at the Stonewall Inn became a major turning point in history and strengthened the fight for queer rights.  The hard work of queer activists has led to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the removal of homosexuality as a mental illness, the ability for LGBTQ+ individuals to be themselves openly, along with many more steps towards LGBTQ+ equality.  While there is still work to be done in the US, the awareness for activism and work is there.

The riots at the Stonewall Inn led to a tremendous call for action.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community and Allies came together to work for a better future.  From extinguishing the Mafia-run gay bars, to starting a movement, to celebrating all we have fought for, the main factors that started the LGBTQ+ movement were the Stonewall Riots.  It is vital to recognize and honor the activism and change that has come from LGBTQ+ individuals.  All too often, society does not account for the histories of minorities.  We must educate ourselves about our past and what we must do to ensure a better future for everyone.




Bausum, Ann. Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights. Penguin USA, 2016. Editors. “Stonewall Riots.”, A&E Television Networks, 31 May 2017, 

Pitman, Gayle E. Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets. Abrams, Inc., 2019. 

The author's comments:

I wrote this for school, but I thought it was a part of history that needed more attention.  The LGBTQ+ community and other miniority groups are often overlooked or erased in history.  When I was given a chance to research any history topic I wanted and write a paper on it, I chose Stonewall.  I am glad that I learned more about the history of my community.  Hopefully you learned something that school curriculum may not mention.  The books mentioned in the bibliography are also great reads surrounding the topic.

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