In 1969, police raids of gay bars in Manhattan followed a template. Officers would pour in, threatening and beating bar staff and clientele. Patrons would pour out, lining up on the street so police could arrest them.
But when police raided the Stonewall Inn in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, things didn’t go as expected. Patrons and onlookers fought back—and the days-long melee that ensued, characterized then as a riot and now known as the Stonewall Rebellion, helped spark the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement.
Each June, Pride Month honors the history of Stonewall with parades and events. In the years since the uprising, LGBTQ activists pushed for—and largely achieved—a broad expansion of their the legal rights, and in June 2015, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry.
Before these gains, however, LGBTQ people had long been subject to social sanction and legal harassment for their sexual orientation, which had been criminalized on the pretexts of religion and morality. By the 1960s, homosexuality was clinically classified as a mental disorder, and most municipalities in the United States had discriminatory laws that forbade same-sex relationships and denied basic rights to anyone suspected of being gay. Although some gay rights groups had begun to protest this treatment publicly, many LGBTQ people led their lives in secret.
New York City, however, was home to a large LGBTQ population and a thriving gay nightlife. Gay bars were rare places where people could be open about their sexual orientation. By 1969, activists had compelled the New York state liquor authority to overturn its policy against issuing liquor licenses to gay bars. Profit was a motive. Owners, many of whom were associated with organized crime, saw a business opportunity in catering to a gay clientele; they had also learned to avoid raids by greasing police officers’ palms with bribes.
Business was humming, but gay bars were still dangerous places to congregate. Police officers regularly surveilled and entrapped gay men; they raided gay bars on pretexts that ranged from “disorderly conduct” to a variety of minor liquor license infractions.
The Stonewall Inn was grubby and barely legal. Located in Greenwich Village, the heart of gay life in New York at the time, its patrons were among the most marginalized members of New York’s LGBTQ community—including underaged and unhoused individuals, people of color, and drag performers.
“This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place,” wrote Dick Leitsch, the first gay journalist to document the events. “It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.”
On the night of the raid, police arrived intending to follow their usual pattern of seizing the bar’s liquor and arresting its patrons. But this time, the patrons resisted, and violence broke out as the officers tried to calm the crowd. In a spontaneous outpouring of frustration, patrons and onlookers began yelling and throwing objects at the police.
In an oral history, activist Mark Segal recalled a “circus of amazing colors and lights and people running. I’m just looking at the door and saying to myself…‘African Americans can fight for their rights, Latinos can fight for their rights, women can fight for their rights, what about us?’”
One person fighting for her rights was Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman and activist who frequented the bar and is considered one of the leaders of the rebellion. Although some claim Johnson “threw the first brick” at the police, she maintained she didn’t get to the bar until the melee was in full swing.
There is little agreement about the events of that night—aside from the fact that patrons violently clashed with police. Newspaper accounts, oral histories, and reports conflict with one another. Jason Baumann, curator of the New York Public Library’s LGBTQ collection, writes that scholars still debate “how many days the uprising lasted, and who threw the first brick, the first bottle, and the first punch.”
Regardless of who started the uprising, the police raid did not go according to plan. As violence flared outside the bar, officers retreated inside and barricaded themselves in the building. Protesters burst through the barricade, exchanged blows with police, and lit a fire in the club. It took hours for officers to clear the streets. The next night, thousands came to the Stonewall Inn to taunt the police. Clashes broke out again that night and sporadically in the days that followed.
In the aftermath of the rebellion, participants and Greenwich Village residents who were tired of living in the shadows of oppression were galvanized; they joined forces with those who had already begun protesting discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back,” recalled Michael Fader, who had been present at the raid. “The bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.” Within months, people who had once feared holding hands on the street had taken to the streets to demand gay liberation. The movement stoked by the police raid in Greenwich Village soon spread to cities across the country.
In 1970, a year after the raid, activists led by Craig Rodwell commemorated its anniversary with what they called Christopher Street Liberation Day, now recognized as the first gay pride march. The events at Stonewall have been celebrated ever since, though only in recent years have people of color and transgender people been widely recognized for their pivotal role.
Decades later, the events at the Stonewall Inn are seen as a revolutionary turning point that electrified the gay rights movement—a movement that has secured widespread recognition of LGBTQ civil rights in the U.S. and that continues to fight for equality around the world.