This Is Stonewall History You Should Know

Written by | Lifestyle

stonewall with protest signs

Photo by Deborah L. Martin

Every LGBTQ person should know about the history of the Stonewall riots. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided The Stonewall Inn, a bar in the West Village of New York City. The bar was known not only for its Mafia ties but also its inclusive atmosphere for members of the LGBTQ+ community (and, no, the bar was not named after Stonewall Jackson). At Stonewall, queer patrons could dance with members of their own sex, as well as cross-dress, both of which were illegal acts in that era. Jerry Hoose, an early gay activist and Stonewall patron, told PBS, “The bar itself was a toilet, but it was… a temporary refuge from the street.”

Police frequently raided bars in the area, but they targeted places like Stonewall for selling liquor to queer patrons, which was illegal. The morning of June 28, the police entered the bar around 1:15am and made arrests while other patrons stood outside on Christopher Street in protest, refusing to go home. The crowd outside Stonewall grew until a riot broke out, which lasted until 4:30am. Further conflict between police and the LGBTQ+ community erupted over the following days.

The Stonewall Uprising was a tipping point for LGBTQ+ activism in the United States. Longstanding social and legal discrimination had subjected the community to lives of silence and secrecy. Even the few existing LGBTQ+ activist groups in the U.S. used conservative—and often unfruitful—approaches to change. After the radical symbol of violence at Stonewall, the 50 to 60 LGBTQ+ groups in the States multiplied many times over. By 1970, there were about 1500.

1970 was also the year of the first Gay Pride March. Timed at the first anniversary of Stonewall, this demonstration was a political outcry along the streets of the West Village, signalling to the community and the world at large that change was on its way. With that, the LGBTQ+ community and their allies were mobilized, and Pride was born.

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Since 1969, Stonewall has lived many lives, as so many structures in New York do (in fact, the building began its life as two 19th-century horse stalls!). It has been a juice bar, bagel shop, Chinese restaurant, and shoe store. In 2006, co-owners Kurt Kelly and Stacy Lentz bought The Stonewall Inn in an effort to reclaim its identity as what Lentz calls “gay church.”

The Stonewall Inn became a National Historic Landmark in 2000, and in 2016, President Obama named Stonewall and Sheridan Square a national monument. In Obama’s speech honoring these landmarks, he likened the Stonewall Uprising to other groundbreaking American civil rights demonstrations such as the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on behalf of African-American voting rights.

The Stonewall Inn is now the preeminent LGBTQ+ bar in the country. Every night of the week, you can find a diverse group of patrons enjoying a drink, a drag show, comedy, karaoke, and many other events at this two-story space. There’s even branded Stonewall merch like t-shirts, tote bags, and hats. Kelly and Lentz have also established The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, a nonprofit serving LGBTQ+ organizations around the world. The neighborhood of the West Village has remained a hub of LGBTQ+ culture as well, with several queer bars lining Christopher Street to the west of Stonewall.

Stonewall stands as a gathering place not only for fun but also for pivotal moments in recent history. When the Supreme Court passed same-sex marriage in 2015, Governor Cuomo married two gay men on Christopher Street outside The Stonewall Inn. After the 2016 Pulse shooting at a gay club in Orlando, many left flowers outside Stonewall in solidarity. And of course, every year at Pride, the bar is full of celebration by locals and visitors alike. On the last Sunday in June, the March processes by Stonewall each year to throngs of proud onlookers.

The Stonewall Inn is open seven days a week, 2pm-4am. Ages 21+. Visit at 53 Christopher Street. Call 212-488-2705 or visit thestonewallinnnyc.com for upcoming events and more.

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Last modified: October 23, 2019