New York police thought it would be just another routine raid of a gay bar. But tonight, Friday night, June 27, 1969, was different. The young black and Latino kids and drag queens who frequented the Stonewall Inn were in no mood for it.
“I was in the back of the bar near the dance floor, where the younger people usually hung out,” recalls Philadelphia Gay News founder and publisher Mark Segal in his memoir And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality. Segal was 18 years old at the time, newly arrived in Manhattan, and a Stonewall regular. As usual, he said, the cops “walked in like they owned the place, cocky, assured that they could do and say whatever they wanted and push people around with impunity. We had no idea why they came in, whether or not they’d been paid, wanted more payoffs, or simply wanted to harass the fags that night.”
As the cops emptied the bar, a crowd gathered outside in Sheridan Square. Onlookers jeered and catcalled as a paddywagon hauled away the bartender, the bouncer, and three drag queens. After a lesbian put up a struggle as the officers steered her through the crowd to a patrol car, all hell broke loose.
“Limp wrists were forgotten,” the Village Voice reported a few days later. “Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows and a rain of coins descended on the cops . . . Almost by signal the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving . . . From nowhere came an uprooted parking meter—used as a battering ram on the Stonewall door. I heard several cries of ‘let’s get some gas,’ but the blaze of flame which soon appeared in the window of the Stonewall was still a shock.” Backups rescued the cops from the flames.
“It was not the biggest riot ever,” says Segal. “There were probably only a couple hundred participants; anyone with a decent job or family ran away from that bar as fast as they could to avoid being arrested. Those who remained were the drag queens, hustlers, and runaways.” Young Puerto Rican transvestites and homeless youths from the ghetto of runaways in the East Village charged against rows of uniformed police officers. “Whoever assumes a swishy queen can’t fight should have seen them,” says Segal, “makeup dripping and gowns askew, fighting for their home and fiercely proving that no one could take it away from them.”
By the next night “Gay Power” was graffitied along Christopher Street. Young gay men, mostly femme according to reports, hung about the streets. Anger and tension hung in the air. Someone threw a bag of wet garbage into the open window of a police car. A concrete block landed on the hood of another patrol car on Waverly Place. Dozens of men immediately surrounded the car, pounding its doors and dancing on its hood. Cops in riot gear swinging their nightsticks broke up a chorus line of gay men. Several dozen queens screamed “Save Our Sister!” as they rushed a group of officers who were clubbing a young man, dragging him to safety.
Trash fires burned, stones and bottles were tossed, and shouts of “Gay Power!” echoed through the Village. When gay countercultural poet-guru Allen Ginsberg arrived on the scene Sunday evening, he commented on the noticeable change along Christopher Street already evident after the Stonewall riots. “You know,” said Ginsberg, “the guys there were so beautiful. They’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.”
Jump forward a year. The Christopher Street Liberation Day parade kicked off from Waverly Place on Sunday morning, June 28, 1970.
Arnie Kantrowitz was one of the marshals. He’d come a long way from turning up his jacket collar so work colleagues wouldn’t recognize him as one of “them.” He was very much one of us, and proudly proclaiming it on this first-ever LGBT pride day. Across his gay liberation lambda T-shirt, Arnie’s buttons shouted “Gay Is Good” and “Gay Revolution,” and winked “Fellatio.”
“Out of the closets and into the streets!” he shouted with the other marchers as they made their way up Sixth Avenue toward Central Park for their planned “Gay-In.”
“Curious crowds began to string along the sidewalks,” Kantrowitz writes in Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, “as we passed up the avenue, flaunting our hearts on our sleeves. There were smatters of giggling, but they were quickly stifled. We were a few too many to offend. The spectators’ faces showed amazement, confusion, shock, resignation, unconcern, affirmation. Ours showed two emotions: pride and determination. We were coming out of our closets, however many of us could, but we were coming out together.”
As the marchers made their way north, no one had dared to look back lest their number prove to be as few as they feared it would be.
“At last we came to the Sheep Meadow,” writes Kantrowitz, “our feet hot and tired. I got to the crest of a small knoll before I turned around. There behind us, in a river that seemed endless, poured wave after wave of happy faces. The Gay Nation was coming out into the light! There was hardly a dry eye on that hill. What had begun as a few hardy hundred had swollen all along its route, until we filled half the huge meadow with what the networks and newspapers estimated as five to fifteen thousand people, all gay and proud of it!”
Forty-eight years after the Stonewall uprising—referred to at the time as the “Gay Power” riots—there is still power in claiming our history for ourselves.