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A Brief History of the Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement

LGBT Angst and Police Entrapment


Three police officers kept a tight rein on a crowd at the Stonewall Inn.

Three police officers kept a tight rein on a crowd to keep them on the sidewalks, and off the streets, at the corner of Waverly Place and Christopher Street, half block from the Stonewall Inn.

© Larry Morris/The New York Times
The history of the gay rights movement can be traced to the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, which is considered by many to be the launch of the modern gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights movement. June of 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the protests at Stonewall Inn. This brief history of the Stonewall Riots explores the angst by LGBT young adults and police entrapment that led up to the riots and the early activism and marches that ensued throughout the country:

LGBT Angst and Police Entrapment

The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 is widely considered the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. The six-day riot, which began inside of the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, was the breaking point of years of tensions between police and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender street youth and pedestrians.

The 1960's were a heightened time for human and civil rights issues in the United States. Tensions boiled as the population tired of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam. Race dynamics were compounded by continued disenfranchisement of African-Americans, bubbling the rise of the Black Panthers and calls by Louis Farrakhan and Dr. King to stand against discrimination and disempowerment were being heard. And lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people grew increasingly intolerant of continued harassment and arrests by police.

LGBT people were subjected to civil laws that criminalized sodomy and, in New York City, allowed bars to refuse service to LGBT patrons. Arrests, harassment and instances of entrapment by police were frequent. Civil laws reinforced their actions. Establishments often cited Section 106, Subsection 6 of the New York State Penal Code to refuse service to queer patrons. The code barred premises from becoming "disorderly houses." Many, including the courts, considered homosexual patrons to be disorderly.

And, in establishments where LGBT patrons were served, they could not touch each other while they danced. Section 722, Subsection 8 of the New York State Penal Code made it an offense to "solicit men for the purpose of committing a crime against nature." Again, it was argued that homosexuality was an act against nature. Queer patrons were often entrapped by plain clothes police officers, posing as regular bar patrons. Transgender people were openly arrested on the streets.

One establishment where LGBT patrons found refuge was the mob-run Stonewall Inn. To enter, bar goers paid a $3 cover and signed a register (often with a fictitious or humorous name). Bar management was often tipped off when the local police district planned a raid on the bar and would warn LGBT patrons by turning on the lights.

However, on the morning of June 28, 1969, instead of the usual command, the NYPD First District raided the bar. But that particular time, the drag queens and street youth fought back. There were reports of stilettos, bottles, coins, bricks and debris thrown. The altercation spilled into the streets and more queer street youth joined in the uprising. As word spread, more LGBT people from surrounded neighborhoods joined the riot. The rebellion, which lasted six days, marked the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement.

Next: The Transgender and Street Youth of Stonewall
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