June 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the New York City Stonewall uprising, a series of protests that occurred over a six-day period and catalysed the gay rights movement. The riot was sparked during the raid of a gay bar known as the Stonewall Inn. Bystanders were justifiably outraged as they witnessed the rough treatment toward members of the LGBTQ community and used this anger to fuel their revolt. Despite LGBTQ establishments having been legalised three-years prior in 1966, the community still faced harassment – particularly from police who justified their actions as lawful as many of these bars were mafia run.
The Stonewall Inn was widely popular as it was inclusive to all and cheaper than its competitors. The bar welcomed everyone from drag queens to homeless LGBTQ youths, becoming a pillar in the community. Also, it was one of the only clubs that allowed same-sex couple dancing – something that was deemed illegal at the time as it classified as indecent behaviour.
The Stonewall Inn was one of many mafia controlled ‘bottle bars’, a club that did not require an alcohol license because patrons were expected to bring their own beverages. The managers would run the club under the pretence of a bottle bar whilst illegally selling liquor; this was one of many ways the crime syndicate cut bar costs. Furthermore, to reduce expenditure they would water down the drinks and spent as little as possible on plumbing. The club did not even have running water behind the bar! Moreover, the club would bribe police forces to ignore the activities of the club and tip off the bar before a raid would occur.
On the day of the raid, the staff had not been warned about the search, meaning that, unlike the previous times when they had been investigated, they were unable to conceal their bootlegged alcohol, change out of ‘inappropriate clothing’ or hide other illegal activities. During this raid, civilians were beaten, manhandled, sexually harassed, and stripped to check the individual’s gender as cross-dressing was illegal at the time. This was more than just a raid, it was an invasion.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were among the first to engage in the riots, throwing bricks and bottles at officers that were treating their prisoners unjustly. It was reported that one officer had unjustly clubbed a lesbian who had complained that her handcuffs were too tight. Another eye-witness reported seeing officers sexually assault individuals as they frisked them. Within hours the riots had spread across New York, peaking when the protestors attempted to set fire to the barricade that held the police, a few prisoners, and a journalist inside the bar. The revolt went on for another five days.
The first Pride march was held one year after the Stonewall Riots marking the legacy of the demonstration. After the events of the Stonewall uprising, Johnson and Rivera went on to co-found STAR, a group that aided young homeless trans women of colour, continuing their fight for equality for the rest of their lives. In 2016, the Stonewall Inn and surrounding area has been designated a national monument that celebrates the area’s contribution to human rights and the gay rights movement.
As we move into the jubilee celebration of the Stonewall Revolt we are reminded of the progress society has reached on behalf of human rights and LGBTQ rights. As the decades have passed the world has become much more aware and accepting toward others; however, the world is far from perfect. Same-sex adoption is still illegal in many countries, as is marriage and other basic rights. Though it is important to celebrate the successes we have attained, it is important to remember the struggle is not over.