Stonewall Riots: History and Legacy

Riots marked a turning point in the fight for gay rights

Stonewall Inn plaque
A plaque marks the site of the Stonewall riots at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street June 23, 2009 in the Greenwich Village section of New York.

STAN HONDA / Getty Images 

The Stonewall riots were a series of violent demonstrations by members of the gay community protesting the raid of the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, by New York City police officers in the early hours of June 28, 1969. The ensuing six-day-long confrontation is considered to have marked the birth of the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States and around the world.

Key Takeaways: Stonewall Riots

  • The Stonewall riots were a series of often violent confrontations between members of the New York City gay community and police.  
  • The riots were sparked by the police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a popular Greenwich Village gay bar, just after midnight on June 28, 1969. 
  • Extending over a six-day period, the Stonewall riots publicized the persecution of LGBTQ people and gave rise to the gay rights movement in the United States and other countries.  

LGBTQ Movement in 1960s New York

In New York City, as in many U.S. urban centers during the late 1950s, all public displays of homosexual relations were illegal. Gay bars developed as places where gay men, lesbians, and people considered “sexually suspect” could socialize in relative safety from public harassment. 

In the early 1960s, Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., launched a campaign to rid New York City of gay bars. Worried about the city’s public image during the 1964 World’s Fair, officials revoked the liquor licenses of gay bars, and police attempted to entrap and arrest all gay men. 

In early 1966, the Mattachine Society—one of the nation’s earliest gay rights organizations—persuaded newly-elected mayor John Lindsay to end Wagner’s campaign of police entrapment. However, the New York State Liquor Authority continued to revoke liquor licenses of establishments where gay customers might become “disorderly.” Despite Greenwich Village’s large gay population, the bars were one of the few places they could safely congregate openly. On April 21, 1966, the New York Mattachine chapter staged a “sip-in” at the Julius, a Greenwich Village gay bar, to publicize the discrimination against homosexuals. 

Greenwich Village and the Stonewall Inn

By the 1960s, Greenwich Village was in the midst of a liberal cultural revolution. Local beat movement writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg bluntly and honestly depicted the brutal societal repression of homosexuality. Their prose and poetry attracted gays looking for acceptance and a sense of community to Greenwich Village. 

In this setting, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street became an important Greenwich Village institution. Large and inexpensive, it welcomed “drag queens,” transgender, and gender dysphoric people shunned at most other gay bars. In addition, it served as a nightly home for many runaways and homeless gay youths. 

Like most of the other Greenwich Village gay bars, the Stonewall Inn was owned and controlled by the Mafia’s Genovese crime family. Having no liquor license, the bar remained open and protected from raids by making weekly cash payoffs to corrupt police officers. Other “overlooked” violations at the Stonewall included no running water behind the bar, no fire exits, and rarely working toilets. Prostitution and drug sales were also known to take place in the club. Despite its shortcomings, the Stonewall was extremely popular, being the only bar in New York City where gay men were allowed to dance with each other.   

The Raid at the Stonewall Inn

At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, nine New York City policemen from the Public Morals Division entered the Stonewall Inn. After arresting the employees for unlicensed sale of alcohol, the officers cleared the bar, roughing up many of the patrons in the process. Based on an obscure New York law authorizing the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of “gender-appropriate” clothing in public, police arrested several bar patrons on suspicion of cross-dressing. The Stonewall Inn was the third Greenwich Village gay bar to have been raided by police in less than a month. While the previous raids had ended peacefully, the situation outside the Stonewall Inn soon turned violent. 

June 29, 1969 New York Post story about Stonewall Riots
A reproduction of a June 29, 1969 New York Post story about a police raid that led to the Stonewall riots on display at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. STAN HONDA / via Getty Images 

People who had not been arrested inside were released and told to exit the club. However, instead of scattering quickly as in past raids, they lingered outside as a crowd of onlookers gathered. Within minutes, as many as 150 people had congregated outside. Some of the released customers began arousing the crowd by taunting the police and saluting them in an exaggerated “Storm Trooper” manner. When they saw handcuffed bar patrons being forced into a police van, some onlookers began throwing bottles at the police. Surprised by the crowd’s uncharacteristically angry and aggressive behavior, police called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar. 

Outside, a crowd of now close to 400 people began to riot. Rioters breached the police barricade and set the club on fire. Police reinforcements arrived in time to put out the fire and finally disperse the crowd. While the fire inside the Stonewall Inn had been extinguished, the “fire” in the hearts of the protestors had not. 

Six Days of Riots and Protests

As word of the events at the Stonewall quickly spread through Greenwich Village, all three New York daily newspapers headlined the riot on the morning of June 28. Throughout the day, people came to see the burned and blackened Stonewall Inn. Graffiti declaring “Drag Power,” “They invaded our rights,” and “Legalize gay bars” appeared, and rumors that police had looted the bar began to spread.

exterior of the Stonewall Inn
A general view of the exterior of the Stonewall Inn on January 21, 2010 in New York City.  Ben Hider / Getty Images

On the evening of June 29, the Stonewall Inn, still charred by fire and unable to serve alcohol, re-opened. Thousands of supporters gathered in front of the inn and the adjoining Christopher Street neighborhood. Chanting slogans like “gay power” and “we shall overcome,” the crowd surrounded buses and cars and set fire to garbage cans throughout the neighborhood. Reinforced by a swat team-like squad of Tactical Patrol Force officers, police tear-gassed protestors, often beating them back with nightsticks. By around 4:00 a.m., the crowd had been dispersed. 

Over the next three nights, gay activists continued to gather around the Stonewall Inn, spreading pro-gay pamphlets and urging the community to support the gay rights movement. Though the police were also present, tensions were somewhat eased and scattered scuffles replaced mass rioting. 

On Wednesday, July 2, the Village Voice newspaper, which covered the Stonewall rioting, referred to gay rights activists as “the forces of faggotry.” Outraged over the homophobic article, protesters soon surrounded the paper’s offices, some of them threatening to torch the building. When the police responded with force, a short but violent riot took place. Demonstrators and police were injured, shops were looted, and five people were arrested. One witness said of the incident, “The word is out. Christopher Street shall be liberated. The fags have had it with oppression.” 

Legacy of the Stonewall Inn Riots

While it didn’t begin there, the Stonewall Inn protests marked a key turning point in the gay rights movement. For the first time, LGBTQ people in New York City and beyond realized they were part of a community with a voice and the power to bring about change. Early conservative “homophile” organizations like the Mattachine Society were replaced by more aggressive gay rights groups like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front

Stonewall March
A march to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, New York City, USA, 26th June 1994. The banner reads 'The 1994 International March on the United Nations to Affirm the Human Rights of Lesbian and Gay People'. Barbara Alper / Getty Images

On June 28, 1970, gay activists in New York marked the first anniversary of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn by staging the Christopher Street Liberation March as the highlight of the city’s first Gay Pride Week. What began as a few hundred people marching up 6th Avenue toward Central Park soon became a procession of thousands stretching some 15 city blocks as supporters joined the march.

Later the same year, gay rights groups in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities held gay pride celebrations. Fueled by the spirit of activism born at the Stonewall Inn riot, similar movements in other countries including Canada, Britain, France, Germany, and Australia have become and remain influential forces for the realization of gay rights and acceptance. 

Sources and Further Reference