By Jessa Brighton
Imagine living in a world where you must knock on a door and speak through a peephole to enter the only bar where you are allowed to dance. The walls are painted black, the toilets are overflowing, and its liquor license is nonexistent. It’s owned by the mafia, who pay the police to stay off their backs. Nevertheless, there are monthly police raids wherein you could be arrested, beaten, and raped if you are not wearing clothing that the law has determined appropriate for your gender.
This was reality for patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a bar located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The bar still stands today, although its ownership and customer base have changed since 1969. Prior to the rebellion that began in June of that year, the majority of the patrons at the Stonewall Inn were poor gay men, butch lesbians, transgender women, and drag queens. Many of them were homeless or otherwise marginalized by society for being poor, black, or Latino. At a time when gay bars and clubs closed frequently due to police raids, the Stonewall Inn was the safest place for many of these people to go.
It was past midnight on Saturday, June 28, 1969 when a group of police officers opened the doors of the Stonewall Inn and shouted over the heads of 200 people, “Police! We’re taking the place!” The police began to assault the crowd, using the pretense of frisking procedures to grope the lesbians in the club, while shoving and kicking customers who did not immediately fall in line. This violence was illegal, but not unusual. There had been another police raid at Stonewall only three nights prior, and a sense of unrest moved among the crowd as the officers began to block the windows and doors so that no one could escape. Fed up with their constant mistreatment, the Stonewall patrons began to resist. This was the beginning of the Stonewall rebellion – more commonly known as the Stonewall riots.
As chaos ensued inside the bar, a crowd gathered outside, watching and chanting in protest of the police actions. In the earliest hours of the riot, the actions of the protesters were peaceful – some gay men and drag queens formed a kickline facing a police blockade. Someone in the crowd began singing “We Shall Overcome.” There was as much a sense of joy as there was of anger among the crowd. For the first time, they were fighting back. For the first time, they outnumbered their oppressors.
Police tactics to get the growing crowd under control became even more violent. One butch lesbian, later credited as Stormé DeLarverie, was hit over the head with a baton after complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. As she fought four police officers, she looked toward the bystanders outside the Stonewall Inn and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
The police – now outnumbered by 500 or 600 – began to flee as the crowd threw coins, bottles, and bricks from a nearby construction site. The Stonewall Inn itself was in ruins – burned and blackened, its windows broken. Several protesters were hospitalized for their injuries, and four officers were injured. As the crowd began to clear out around 4am, a thrum of electricity stayed in the air.
The riots continued the following night, with hundreds of protesters gathered around the defiantly still-open Stonewall Inn. People across America learned of the uprising and began to form groups, coalitions, and organizational meetings. On the first anniversary of the uprising there were marches in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Those marches have continued for fifty years, evolving into what is commonly known as Pride. Now, queer communities across the world celebrate their identities, life, and love throughout the month of June in honor of the sacrifices made that night.
Later in her life, DeLarverie said of that first night, “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” The Stonewall rebellion is largely credited as being the event that sparked the fight for LGBT rights in the U.S. It is impossible to know what the world would look like had the Stonewall uprising not happened, but we can imagine.
Imagine a world without the contributions of countless LGBT artists and activists. Imagine a lifetime of violence at the hands of those whose jobs are to serve and protect. Imagine living in a room under lock and key, with a peephole in the door serving as your only window to the outside world.
Now imagine someone opens the door.