Stonewall Day: “When The Gays Fought Back”

Stonewall Day: “When The Gays Fought Back”
Image: March following the Stonewall Riots. Image: The Legacy Project

Today, June 28, is Stonewall Day – the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It honours the day in 1969 when a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City resulted in gay liberation and rebellion, protests and the birth of what we know today as the LGBTQI+ pride movement.


55 years ago today, a routine police raid on a gay bar in New York sparked passionate protests that lasted several days and led to the birth of the gay and lesbian rights movement as we know it.

On the night of June 27, 1969, a handful of both undercover and uniformed police officers entered the Mafia-owned but gay-frequented Stonewall Inn and began arresting patrons. As they were being escorted out of the building and into a waiting police wagon a crowd began to gather and a scuffle broke out.

Opinions differ greatly as to why the crowd decided to fight back on that particular night when similar incidents were commonplace at the time, but one thing was certain, the gays were not taking any more.

As word of what had happened at the Stonewall Inn spread, more and more people flocked to Greenwich Village, and the rioting continued throughout the streets for five nights.

Willamson L Henderson was one of the patrons arrested on June 27 and is a member of the Stonewall Veterans Association, the executive committee of which is made up exclusively of actual participants in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion.

“The people we put on the committee are ones who are active in the community,” Henderson said.

While a number of ‘homophile’ organisations (as LGBTQI+ groups were known in the 1950s and ’60s) existed pre-Stonewall, the rebellion ignited the idea of activism within the LGBTQI+ community.

“Activism was pretty dormant. There was a little activity, but not much, and certainly not much in comparison [to after],” Henderson said.

“To think that in America there might have been five gay organisations before, and then within a year after Stonewall there were 100, that’s pretty amazing.”

While there may still be progress to be made, the LGBTQI+ community has come a long way in terms of equality since the 1960s. Henderson feels that while LGBTQI+ rights would have come eventually, the road would have been a lot more difficult without the events of June 27, 1969.

“It would have happened even more incrementally and it would have been a very delayed process,” he said.

“If it took 40 years to have gay marriage on the front burner like it is now in America, imagine how long it would have taken if there wasn’t a Stonewall Rebellion.”

The very first Gay Pride March made its way through the streets of New York on June 28, 1970 to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

The following year Gay Pride marches took place in Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm, and by 1972 the participating cities included Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Washington DC, Miami, and Philadelphia.

The New York Gay Pride March continues to this day and as every year, the Stonewall Veterans Association (SVA) is there. The SVA’s 2009 entry included both a float and the ‘Stonewall car’, an original 1969, powder-blue, convertible Cadillac that also played a part in the Stonewall Rebellion.

When he was arrested, Henderson admitted that the stunning, brand new Cadillac was indeed his and the police illegally took possession of the car.

“The cops illegally impounded it. Which they know, they acknowledge that now. It was like their prize, it was their trophy,” he said.

“That word came from them; they said it was like their trophy for the Stonewall Rebellion. Except it was someone else’s property. They had no business taking it.”

The Stonewall car was eventually returned to its owner and has since played a part in every New York Gay Pride March.

“It’s a coincidence that the car happens to be a ’69. I mean it could have been any year ’69 or prior. So it’s the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall car as well,” Henderson said.

After the rebellion, the Stonewall Inn experienced an enormous surge in popularity.

“The club reopened about a week to ten days after the five nights of rebellion, then the Stonewall became more popular than ever,” Henderson said.

“They thought that it might not do well because of the stigma or people being afraid. It resumed very quickly and by that autumn, particularly September, October, November, December of ’69, it was just more popular than ever. It was just great.”

It closed at the end of ’69, and was in dispute because the owners of the building either wouldn’t offer a lease renewal or they wanted too much money.

The building at 53 Christopher St housed several different businesses over the years but was eventually re-opened as a LGBTQI+ venue in the 1990s.

Henderson still frequents the Stonewall Inn and says it has, for the most part, retained its original ambience.

“They’ve redone it and it really looks nice,” Henderson said.

“Of course it doesn’t have the dance floor, or the dance room next to it because that now belongs to a different business establishment. It would be nice to see them get that back somehow. I think that will happen, I hope it does.”

The name Stonewall has become synonymous with LGBTQI+ community. Advocacy and rights groups, bars and nightclubs all over the world bear the name. There have been books, plays, documentaries and a feature film made about the Stonewall Rebellion and the whole idea of pride parades and marches started with the rebellion in 1969.

In fact, some gay pride celebrations, such as those in Munich and Cologne in Germany are known as Christopher Street Day, in reference to the street on which the Stonewall Inn is located.

For more stories, photos and articles about Stonewall, the SVA website offers an amazing and thorough selection:

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2009, for the 40 year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Relevant information and terminology has been updated.]

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