In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a police raid of the Stonewall Inn exploded into a riot when patrons of the LGBT bar resisted arrest and clashed with police. The Stonewall Riots are widely considered to be the start of the LGBT rights movement in the United States. In this lesson, students analyze four documents to answer the question: What caused the Stonewall Riots?
Document 1 is a New York Daily News article by reporter Jerry Lisker.
Document 2 is a speech by Sylvia Rivera. Born and raised in New York City, Sylvia Rivera participated in the Stonewall Riots as a teenager. Throughout her life, she fought for equal rights for LGBT people. This is an excerpt of a speech she gave at a meeting of the Latino Gay Men of New York, a community organization.
Document 3 is an excerpt from an article written by Dick Leitsch, a founder of the Mattachine Society of New York, an early gay rights organization. Leitsch wasn’t present at the Stonewall Inn when the riot began, but he came to the scene when he heard a report of the conflict on the radio.
Document 4 is an excerpt of an article that appeared in The Ladder, which was the first nationally distributed lesbian magazine in the United States.
1. Read Chapter 30.
2. Read and analyze all documents.
3. Answer the questions that follow at the end of this page. One full single page or two full double space pages is required for Primary Source Exercises. Submit your responses in the accepted formats and label your answers.
Document 1: New York Daily News
Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad
The New York Daily News, July 6, 1969
By JERRY LISKER
She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave. A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.
Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt. New York City experienced its first homosexual riot. “We may have lost the battle, sweets, but the war is far from over,” lisped an unofficial lady-in-waiting from the court of the Queens.
“We’ve had all we can take from the Gestapo,” the spokesman, or spokeswoman, continued. “We’re putting our foot down once and for all.” The foot wore a spiked heel. According to reports, the Stonewall Inn, a two-story structure with a sand painted brick and opaque glass facade, was a mecca for the homosexual element in the village who wanted nothing but a private little place where they could congregate, drink, dance and do whatever little girls do when they get together.
The thick glass shut out the outside world of the street. Inside, the Stonewall bathed in wild, bright psychedelic lights, while the patrons writhed to the sounds of a juke box on a square dance floor surrounded by booths and tables. The bar did a good business and the waiters, or waitresses, were always kept busy, as they snaked their way around the dancing customers to the booths and tables. For nearly two years, peace and tranquility reigned supreme for the Alice in Wonderland clientele.
The Raid Last Friday
Last Friday the privacy of the Stonewall was invaded by police from the First Division. It was a raid. They had a warrant. After two years, police said they had been informed that liquor was being served on the premises. Since the Stonewall was without a license, the place was being closed. It was the law.
All hell broke loose when the police entered the Stonewall. The girls instinctively reached for each other. Others stood frozen, locked in an embrace of fear.
Only a handful of police were on hand for the initial landing in the homosexual beachhead. They ushered the patrons out onto Christopher Street, just off Sheridan Square. A crowd had formed in front of the Stonewall and the customers were greeted with cheers of encouragement from the gallery.
The whole proceeding took on the aura of a homosexual Academy Awards Night. The Queens pranced out to the street blowing kisses and waving to the crowd. A beauty of a specimen named Stella wailed uncontrollably while being led to the sidewalk in front of the Stonewall by a cop. She later confessed that she didn’t protest the manhandling by the officer, it was just that her hair was in curlers and she was afraid her new beau might be in the crowd and spot her. She didn’t want him to see her this way, she wept.
The crowd began to get out of hand, eye witnesses said. Then, without warning, Queen Power exploded with all the fury of a gay atomic bomb. Queens, princesses and ladies-in-waiting began hurling anything they could get their polished, manicured fingernails on. Bobby pins, compacts, curlers, lipstick tubes and other femme fatale missiles were flying in the direction of the cops. The war was on. The lilies of the valley had become carnivorous jungle plants.
Urged on by cries of “C’mon girls, lets go get’em,” the defenders of Stonewall launched an attack. The cops called for assistance. To the rescue came the Tactical Patrol Force.
Flushed with the excitement of battle, a fellow called Gloria pranced around like Wonder Woman, while several Florence Nightingales administered first aid to the fallen warriors. There were some assorted scratches and bruises, but nothing serious was suffered by the honeys turned Madwoman of Chaillot.
Official reports listed four injured policemen with 13 arrests. The War of the Roses lasted about 2 hours from about midnight to 2 a.m. There was a return bout Wednesday night.
Two veterans recently recalled the battle and issued a warning to the cops. “If they close up all the gay joints in this area, there is going to be all out war.”
Bruce and Nan
Both said they were refugees from Indiana and had come to New York where they could live together happily ever after. They were in their early 20’s. They preferred to be called by their married names, Bruce and Nan.
“I don’t like your paper,” Nan lisped matter-of-factly. “It’s anti-fag and pro-cop.”
“I’ll bet you didn’t see what they did to the Stonewall. Did the pigs tell you that they smashed everything in sight? Did you ask them why they stole money out of the cash register and then smashed it with a sledge hammer? Did you ask them why it took them two years to discover that the Stonewall didn’t have a liquor license.”
Bruce nodded in agreement and reached over for Nan’s trembling hands.
“Calm down, doll,” he said. “Your face is getting all flushed.”
Nan wiped her face with a tissue.
“This would have to happen right before the wedding. The reception was going to be held at the Stonewall, too,” Nan said, tossing her ashen-tinted hair over her shoulder.
“What wedding?,” the bystander asked.
Nan frowned with a how-could-anybody-be-so-stupid look. “Eric and Jack’s wedding, of course. They’re finally tieing the knot. I thought they’d never get together.”
“We’ll have to find another place, that’s all there is to it,” Bruce sighed. “But every time we start a place, the cops break it up sooner or later.”
“They let us operate just as long as the payoff is regular,” Nan said bitterly. “I believe they closed up the Stonewall because there was some trouble with the payoff to the cops. I think that’s the real reason. It’s a shame. It was such a lovely place. We never bothered anybody. Why couldn’t they leave us alone?”
Shirley Evans, a neighbor with two children, agrees that the Stonewall was not a rowdy place and the persons who frequented the club were never troublesome. She lives at 45 Christopher St.
“Up until the night of the police raid there was never any trouble there,” she said. “The homosexuals minded their own business and never bothered a soul. There were never any fights or hollering, or anything like that. They just wanted to be left alone. I don’t know what they did inside, but that’s their business. I was never in there myself. It was just awful when the police came. It was like a swarm of hornets attacking a bunch of butterflies.”
A reporter visited the now closed Stonewall and it indeed looked like a cyclone had struck the premisses.
Police said there were over 200 people in the Stonewall when they entered with a warrant. The crowd outside was estimated at 500 to 1,000. According to police, the Stonewall had been under observation for some time. Being a private club, plain clothesmen were refused entrance to the inside when they periodically tried to check the place. “They had the tightest security in the Village,” a First Division officer said, “We could never get near the place without a warrant.”
The men of the First Division were unable to find any humor in the situation, despite the comical overtones of the raid.
“They were throwing more than lace hankies,” one inspector said. “I was almost decapitated by a slab of thick glass. It was thrown like a discus and just missed my throat by inches. The beer can didn’t miss, though, “it hit me right above the temple.”
Police also believe the club was operated by Mafia connected owners. The police did confiscate the Stonewall’s cash register as proceeds from an illegal operation. The receipts were counted and are on file at the division headquarters. The warrant was served and the establishment closed on the grounds it was an illegal membership club with no license, and no license to serve liquor.
The police are sure of one thing. They haven’t heard the last from the Girls of Christopher Street.
Source: Jerry Lisker, The New York Daily News, July 6, 1969.
Document 2: Sylvia Rivera
We did have connections with the Mafia. You must remember, everyone was doing drugs back then. Everybody was selling drugs, and everybody was buying drugs to take to other bars, like myself. I was no angel. I would pick up my drugs at the Stonewall and take them to the Washington Square Bar on 3rd Street and Broadway, which was the drag queen third world bar. Even back then we had our racist little clubs. There were the white gay bars and then there were the very few third world bars and drag queen bars.
The night of the Stonewall, it happened to be the week that Judy Garland had committed suicide. Some people say that the riots started because of Judy Garland’s death. That’s a myth. We were all involved in different struggles, including myself and many other transgender people. But in these struggles, in the Civil Rights movement, in the war movement, in the women’s movement, we were still outcasts. The only reason they tolerated the transgender community in some of these movement was because we were so gung-ho, we were front liners. We didn’t take no shit from nobody. We had nothing to lose. You all had rights. We had nothing to lose. I’ll be the first one to step on any organization, any politician’s toes if I have to, to get the rights for my community.
Back to the story: we were all in the bar, having a good time. Lights flashed on, we knew what was coming; it’s a raid. This is the second time in one week that the bar was raided. Common practice says the police from the 6th Precinct would come in to each gay bar and collect their payoff. Routine was, “Faggots over here, dykes over here, and freaks over there,” referring to my side of the community. If you did not have three pieces of male attire on you, you were going to jail. Just like a butch dyke would have to have three pieces of female clothing, or he was going to jail. The night goes on, you know, they proof you for ID, you know, back then you could get away with anything. Fake IDs were great back then (audience laughter), because I wasn’t even 18 yet; I was gonna turn 18. We are led out of the bar. The routine was that the cops get their payoff, they confiscate the liquor, if you were a bartender you would snatch the money as soon as the lights went on because you would never see that money again. A padlock would go on the door. What we did, back then, was disappear to a coffee shop or any place in the neighborhood for fifteen minutes. You come back, the Mafia was there cutting the padlock off, bringing in more liquor, and back to business as usual.
Well, it just so happened that that night it was muggy; everybody was being, I guess, cranky; a lot of us were involved in different struggles; and instead of dispersing, we went across the street. Part of history forgets, that as the cops are inside the bar, the confrontation started outside by throwing change at the police. We started with the pennies, the nickels, the quarters, and the dimes. “Here’s your payoff, you pigs! You fucking pigs! Get out of our faces.” This was started by the street queens of that era, which I was part of, Marsha P. Johnson, and many others that are not here. I’m lucky to be 50 in July, but I’m still here and I’ll be damned if I won’t see 100 (laughter).
One thing led to another. The confrontation got so hot, that Inspector Pine, who headed this raid, him and his men had to barricade themselves in our bar, because they could not get out. The people that they had arrested, they had to take into the bar with them, because there was no police backup for them. But seriously, as history tells it, to this day, we don’t know who cut the phone lines! So they could not get the call to the 6th precinct. Number one, Inspector Pine was not welcome in the 6th precinct because he had just been appointed to stop the corruption and, you know, what they called back then, we were a bunch of deviants, perverts. So he was there for that purpose, so who knows if one of his own men didn’t do it, that was, you know, taking a payoff himself.
The police and the people that were arrested were barricaded inside this bar, with a Village Voice reporter, who proceeded to tell his story, in the paper, that he was handed a gun. The cops were actually so afraid of us that night that if we had busted through that bar’s door, they were gonna shoot. They were ordered to shoot if that door busted open. Someone yanked a parking meter out the floor, which was loose, because it’s very hard to get a parking meter out of the ground (laughter). It was loose, you know, I don’t know how it got loose. But that was being rammed into the door.
People have also asked me, “Was it a pre-planned riot?” because out of nowhere, Molotov cocktails showed up. I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians but I always like to correct it; I threw the second one, I did not throw the first one! (laughter). And I didn’t even know what a Molotov cocktail was; I’m holding this thing that’s lit, and I’m like, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” “Throw it before it blows!” “OK!” (laughter)
The riot did get out of hand, because there was Cookie’s down the street, there was The Haven, there was the Christopher’s End. Once word of mouth got around that the Stonewall had gotten raided, and that there’s a confrontation going on, people came from the clubs. But we also have to remember one thing: that it was not just the gay community and the street queens that really escalated this riot; it was also the help of the many radical straight men and women that lived in the Village at that time, that knew the struggle of the gay community and the trans community.
So the crowds did swell. You know, it was a long night of riots. It was actually very exciting ‘cause I remember howling all through the streets, “The revolution is here!” (laughter), you know? Cars are being turned over, windows are being broken, fires are being set all over the place. Blood was shed. When the cops did finally get there, the reinforcements, forty-five minutes later, you had the chorus line of street queens kicking up their heels, singing their famous little anthem that up to today still lives on, “We are the Stonewall girls/ we wear our hair in curls/ we wear our dungarees/ above our nelly knees/ we show our pubic hairs,” and so on and so forth.
At that time, there were many demonstrations. They were fierce demonstrations back then. I don’t know how many people remember those times, or how many people read of the struggle in this whole country, what was going on. So then the tactical police force came and heads were being bashed left and right. But what I found very impressive that evening was that the more that they beat us, the more we went back for. We were determined that evening that we were going to be a liberated, free community, which we did acquire that. Actually, I’ll change the ‘we’: You have acquired your liberation, your freedom, from that night. Myself, I’ve got shit, just like I had back then. But I still struggle, I still continue the struggle. I will struggle ‘til the day I die and my main struggle right now is that my community will seek the rights that are justly ours.
Source: Sylvia Rivera, speech to the Latino Gay Men of New York, June 2001. Reprinted in Centro Journal, Spring 2007.
Document 3: Mattachine Society of New York Newsletter
Leitsch Gay View: Coming on the heels of the raids of the Snake Pit and the Sewer, and the closing of the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star and other clubs, the Stonewall raid looked to many like part of an effort to close all gay bars and clubs in the Village. It may be true that the Checkerboard and Tele-Star died without police assistance. (It is said that the woman who managed the Checkerboard came in one night, ordered all the customers out of the place, cleaned out the cash register and called the police to get rid of those customers who stayed around.) It is very likely that the Sewer and the Snake Pit were raided because they had no licenses, as the police said.
But how are people in the street and the customers of the places to know that? The police don’t bother to explain or send press releases to the papers (and when they do, the papers make it seem that the bar was raided because it was gay.) . . .
Since 1965 the homosexual community of New York has been treated quite well by the City Administration and the police have either reformed or been kept in line by Lindsay and Leary. . . . .
Now we’ve walked in the open and know how pleasant it is to have self-respect and to be treated as citizens and human beings. . .
We want to stay in the sunlight from now on. Efforts to force us back in the closet could be disastrous for all concerned.
The above, while a true evaluation of the situation does not explain why the raid on the Stonewall caused such a strong reaction. Why the Stonewall, and not the Sewer or the Snake Pit? The answer lies, we believe, in the unique nature of the Stonewall. This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.
The “drags” and the “queens”, two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the “regulars” at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them. . . . Apart from the Goldbug and the One Two Three, “drags” and “queens” had no place but the Stonewall. . . .
Another group was even more dependent on the Stonewall: the very young homosexuals and those with no other homes. You’ve got to be 18 to buy a drink in a bar, and gay life revolved around bars. Where do you go if you are 17 or 16 and gay? The “legitimate” bars won’t let you in the place, and gay restaurants and the streets aren’t very sociable.
Then too, there are hundreds of young homosexuals in New York who literally have no home. Most of them are between 16 and 25, and came here from other places without jobs, money or contacts. Many of them are running away from unhappy homes (one boy told us, “My father called me ‘cocksucker so many times, I thought it was my name.”). Another said his parents fought so much over which of them “made” him a homosexual that he left so they could learn to live together.
Some got thrown out of school or the service for being gay and couldn’t face going home. Some were even thrown out of their homes with only the clothes on their backs by ignorant, intolerant parents who’d rather see their kid dead than homosexual.
They came to New York with the clothes on their backs. Some of them hustled, or had skills enough to get a job. Others weren’t attractive enough to hustle, and didn’t manage to fall in with people who could help them. Some of them, giddy at the openness of gay life in New York, got caught up in it and some are on pills and drugs. Some are still wearing the clothes in which they came here a year or more ago.
Jobless and without skills—without decent clothes to wear to a job interview—they live in the streets, panhandling or shoplifting for the price of admission to the Stonewall. That was the one advantage to the place—for $3.00 admission, one could stay inside, out of the winter’s cold or the summer heat, all night long. Not only was the Stonewall better climatically, but it also saved the kids from spending the night in a doorway or from getting arrested as vagrants.
Three dollars isn’t too hard to get panhandling, and nobody hustled drinks in the Stonewall. Once the admission price was paid, one could drink or not, as he chose. The Stonewall became “home” to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why the Stonewall riots were begun, led and spearheaded by “queens”.
Source: Dick Leitsch, “The Stonewall Riots: The Gay View,” from the Mattachine Society of New York Newsletter, August 1969.
Document 4: The Ladder
GAY POWER IN NEW YORK CITY:
Gay power—social and political power for homosexuals—has become a reality in New York, with the inadvertent help of the Police Department. At about 2 A.M. late Saturday night of June 29, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar at 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. They had previously closed The Sewer and The Checkerboard, also gay bars within the territory of the Sixth Precinct; but this was the first raid during peak hours, when the bar was jammed.
The raid touched off a riot by approximately 400 homosexual men and women, who yelled “gay power” and threw pennies, garbage and even uprooted parking meters at the police. An unknown number of homosexuals were injured. Four policemen were sent to the hospital, one with a broken wrist. Several homosexuals, who claimed that they were suddenly attacked from behind while passing through the area, are suing the Police Department for assault and battery.
Homosexuals continued to riot on the streets of Greenwich Village on Sunday night, June 29, and of Wednesday, July 2nd Both the Mattachine Society of New York and the Homophile Youth Movement began leafletting the Village in order to organize protest against the conditions which sparked the riots. The newspapers did an excellent job of coverage, particularly the New York Times. WIN radio also gave rapid impartial coverage. The Village Voice, a so-called liberal weekly which serves the Greenwich Village area primarily, but is sold all over Manhattan, did a series of articles on the riots which were noted for a liberal use of such terms as “faggot,” “dike,” etc., and which received violent protest from a heavily gay readership. The Village Voice has long been known to the gay community for its policy of patronizing contempt towards homosexuals.
CORRUPTION IN THE BARS. It is generally believed that the gay bars in New York City are controlled by the Mafia, in cooperation with the police. Reputable leaders of the gay community stated as much in private during the days following the riots, and Craig Rodwell of the Homophile Youth Movement went so far as to make such charges in leaflets distributed on Greenwich Avenue. However, no solid evidence has yet been presented in court.
It is also generally believed that in order to obtain a liquor license from the State Liquor Authority, a bribe ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 must be paid. Dick Leitsch of Mattachine Society of New York states that when some friends of his attempted to get a license to run a gay bar, the SLA turned them down on technicalities, even though a recent decision of the courts has held that gay bars and intra-sexual dancing in public places are legal. Since the SLA refuses to issue licenses to gay bars, these bars are generally run without licensing, under unsanitary conditions, serving watered drinks at outrageous prices—and are therefore a perfectly legitimate target of police raids. During ordinary times, the police have allowed these bars to operate, overlooking violations in return for a percentage of the take. During election years, these bars become the target for raids and roundups of homosexuals.
The raids in the Sixth Precinct are believed to have been triggered off by the presence of a new captain, who wishes to make his reputation as a “law-and-order” man during a conservative year by “cleaning up the Village.”
Source: “Gay Power in New York City,” The Ladder, October-November 1969.
QUESTIONS TO ANSWER
1. What is the historical significance of the Stonewall Riots?
2. What is each document basically stating? Were the authors or the people being interviewed present at the Stonewall Riot? Does their presence or lack thereof make the document more reliable? Why or why not?
3. Do all documents agree as to what caused the Stonewall Riots? Why or why not? Which document do you find more reliable?
4. After reading all documents answer: what caused the Stonewall Riots? Use evidence (quote and analyze) from at least three documents to back up your answer.
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