The real history behind the Stonewall riot: one of the most pivotal moments in LGBT history

  • Any mention of the LGBTQ pride movement in the US will no doubt include the Stonewall Inn.
  • The Stonewall riots in 1969 are considered to be the turning point of the LGBTQ movement that led to June pride celebrations today.
  • As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising approaches, here’s what really happened before, during, and after the riots.
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With June come rainbows. They’re waving on flags, making the rounds on social media, and are plastered across T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and every other conceivable item of merchandise. The colourful symbol of LGBTQ pride and its national month have come a long way since the social movement of the 1970s.

The month of June has officially signified LGBTQ pride in the US since President Bill Clinton first declared it “Gay & Lesbian Pride Month” in 1999 and 2000. But June has been the month of LGBTQ pride marches and celebrations in commemoration of the Stonewall Inn riots since 1970, the year after the riots commenced.

The Stonewall uprising has taken on an almost mythical reputation in the LGBTQ community and among allies during Pride month. Here’s what actually happened leading up to that fateful night, and how the pride movement was shaped by those at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.

The riots at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 were not the first time LGBTQ people protested for their rights, but it did mark a turning point in the activist movement that led to future successes.


In the decade prior to the Stonewall uprising, the LGBTQ movement attained heightened public visibility and was boosted by an environment full of other social movements that intersected with LGBTQ rights, including the Black power movement, second-wave feminism, and Vietnam war protests.

In 1950, the gay rights movement in the US officially organised with the founding of the Mattachine Society in LA, and groups for LGBTQ people – who at that time were broadly referred to as gay people – sprung up in other cities.

There were also multiple public confrontations between the LGBTQ community and police forces, including at Cooper Do-Nuts in LA in 1959, at a fundraiser for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in San Francisco in 1965, and at the Black Cat Tavern in LA in 1967.

In the midst of these movements, the Stonewall Inn opened in 1967 as a “private” gay club, owned by a member of the Mafia known as “Fat Tony” Lauria.

25th June 1989: A man enthusiastically gives a ‘Thumbs Up’ to the camera, at the 1989 Gay Pride Parade in Greenwich Village, Manhattan commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Walter Leporati/Getty Images

It was one of the few known gay clubs in Greenwich Village where patrons could dance, and at the time it was one of the largest gay clubs in the US. It did not have a liquor licence.

The term “private” means that, not unlike today, a bouncer guarded the club. The entry fee to Stonewall in 1969 was $US1 on weekdays and $US3 on weekends, and patrons had to sign a club register, where people often used fake or joking names.

Patrons of the Stonewall Inn usually included homeless LGBTQ teens, trans women of colour, lesbians, drag queens, and gay men.

At around 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, police forces raided the Stonewall Inn.

Gay celebrations in London as supporters take part in a carnival at the end of the International Gay Pride Week, an event marking the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York, and with them the birth of the gay Liberation Movement. Photo by PA Images via Getty Imagesv

Raids on gay clubs were common since it was illegal to serve alcoholic beverages in “disorderly” environments and having a group of gay patrons counted as being disorderly.

Patrons and managers were usually arrested selectively, with cash registers and alcohol impounded and front doors padlocked. Management of gay bars and clubs typically bribed officers, members of the Mafia, and State Liquor Authority officials for advance warnings of when these raids would occur.

Sometimes, management of gay bars and clubs would turn on the dance floor lights ahead of a raid, so that gay patrons would stop dancing together or showing each other signs of affection, which could have led to being arrested.

The Stonewall Inn regularly paid off police officers already, but undercover officers entered the club that night for a raid anyways.

Spontaneous demonstrations at New York City’s Stonewall Inn by members of the LGBT community were sparked by a police raid during the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. July 08, 1969. Photo by Jerry Engel/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

The raid did not go as planned. Lights on the dance floor flashed, signalling the arrival of five police officers to join the four undercover officers already on the dance floor. But the patrol wagons responsible for transporting arrested patrons and confiscated alcohol took longer than expected to arrive.

A crowd of patrons who were released, along with bystanders, grew outside. Lesbian patron Stormé DeLarverie reportedly threw one of the first punches, which contributed to the escalation of the mob. Police hid inside the bar for 45 minutes while the crowd grew outside. A fire department and a riot squad were needed to quell the first night’s riot.

Raymond Castro, a patron of Stonewall who was at the bar the night of the uprising, told PBS he had never confronted police before then, and that he abstained from “flaunting” his homosexuality in that period of his life.

When police began to raid Stonewall on June 28, Castro was initially ushered outside, along with most of the patrons that night.

“I happened to see a friend of mine inside, a young fellow with no ID and he motioned to me like he wanted out. So naturally I tried to help him,” Castro said. “[I was] pushed back into the Stonewall by these plain clothes cops, and they would not let me back out. At that point they wouldn’t let anybody out. It was like a hostage situation.”

“The first brick thrown at Stonewall” is a historic action that’s been popularly attributed to several important historical LGBT figures, mostly those who did actually participate in the riots, but the truth is no one knows who threw the first brick, proverbial or literally, at Stonewall.

Stonewall Inn nightclub raid. Crowd attempts to impede police arrests outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

When the police began raiding the club, a six-night confrontation unfolded, with patrons fighting back with fists and objects. The most intense fighting occurred on the first and last night, with several nearby businesses being looted on the final evening.

Between 500 and 600 members of the LGBTQ community swarmed the Stonewall Inn the first night of the riot once word spread that patrons were fighting back. 2,000 people surrounded Christopher Street the second night, and while the third and fourth nights were relatively quiet, the fifth and sixth nights brought 500 to 1,000 people back after The Village Voice published accounts of the riots.

Castro was one of the initial patrons to resist arrest, but news of the riots brought LGBTQ individuals from places like Riverdale, New York, where Virginia Apuzzo told PBS she was a novice in the Convent of Mount Saint Vincent.

“I read about Stonewall in the newspaper and I was very, very curious,” Apuzzo said. “Before I entered the convent at age 26, I’d had two lovers and knew I was a lesbian, but I tried to play by the rules. I thought I’d have to live my life with this deep dark secret.”

Apuzzo left the convent and moved to Greenwich Village.

“When you live a lie, as I was living, you wait for someone to whisper the truth so you can give up the lie, too. That’s so much of how I saw and experienced Stonewall and how I’ve experienced the gay movement,” Apuzzo said.

13 arrests were made the first night, three on the second night, and five on the sixth night.

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

There were no direct fatalities, but on the second night, a group of rioters rocked a taxi cab on Christopher Street back and forth with the driver still inside, and he died later that night from an apparent heart attack.

Two trans women who were involved with the riots in at least some capacity, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, will soon become the first two trans women to be honored with statues – not only because of Stonewall, but because of their contributions to the LGBTQ movement before and after, as well.

What made Stonewall different was the decision of organisers to commemorate it each year, securing a parade permit on the anniversary of the raid. Widespread media coverage of the Stonewall uprising also led to commemorative events in other cities besides ones on the East coast.

The first Pride march, on what was then called Christopher Street Liberation Day, occurred a year after the riots to commemorate them. Thousands marched in cities like San Francisco, LA, and New York.

The Stonewall Inn as it stands today is located at 53 Christopher Street, but after the 1969 riots, the original bar went out of business.

The space where the first inn stood was leased out as two separate locations, and none of the original interior finishings remain. In between those periods, the buildings were leased as several different businesses, including a bagel shop, Chinese restaurant, and a clothing store.

In 1990, a bar named New Jimmy’s at Stonewall Place opened, and about a year later the owners changed the official name to Stonewall. The current management of the Stonewall Inn have operated the bar since 2006, while 51 Christopher Street, which the original Stonewall took up, is now privately owned.

In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park across the street as the Stonewall National Monument.

It remains the only US national monument dedicated to LGBTQ history. The buildings between 51 and 53 Chistopher Street are also the first properties listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places to be directly related to the LGBTQ community.

As the buildings where the original Stonewall Inn once stood were separated and leased off, LGBTQ progress continued on with the uprising serving as a catalyst for the movement. Before the riots, there were more than two dozen LGBTQ organisations, but afterward, hundreds more were founded.

As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riot approaches, its home base in Greenwich Village in New York City is celebrating with exhibits, panels, movie screenings, walking tours, and even an opera.

But the anniversary of a political uprising demands a political overtone, too, and the New York Police Department delivered this year.

On June 9, New York City’s Police Commissioner James O’Neill apologised for the raid of the Stonewall Inn, saying “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong” that night fifty years ago in Greenwich Village.

The admission carries weight in a time when the LGBTQ community grapples with whether police forces should be allowed at pride, or whether the anti-police sentiment of the Stonewall riots era should carry through to this day.

These past few years, many members of the community along with its prominent voices and activists such as Kitty Stryker have denounced the roles of police and corporations at pride.

Writing for Teen Vogue, Stryker says police violence against LGBTQ people has been and continues to be a part of the community’s history, and that today, LGBTQ people of colour are especially vulnerable to police violence.

“To tell young LGBTQ activists that they are being divisive for not wanting an institution that regularly abuses them at an event that was forged to protest that institution’s practices feels disrespectful to the history of Pride,” Stryker wrote. “Police cannot peacock as allies for one day a year and not expect to be held accountable for their actions the rest of the time.”

These conversations aren’t new, but as the LGBTQ community progresses, the lack of a central cause like same-sex marriage has led to division and disagreement about the movement’s goals.

That being said, LGBTQ people have never operated as a uniform group, as the history behind the Stonewall riots clearly illustrates.

The shared identity of experiencing same-sex attraction, being transgender, or experiencing any other type of queerness has never resulted in an absolute shared political perspective.

The Stonewall Inn is both a literal and figurative landmark for the LGBTQ community, existing throughout the decades of activism and into the movement’s uncertain future.

“Stonewall happens every day,” Apuzzo, who served as the executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force after leaving her convent, told PBS.

“When you go to a Pride march and you see people standing on the side of the road watching and then someone takes that first step off the curb to join the marchers, that’s Stonewall all over again.”