The First Pride Was a Riot

It’s a warm Saturday night in June. There is a slight breeze blowing through the city streets, but you can barely hear it due to the noise of nightlife sounds. Music is blaring. People are everywhere, conversing. Taxis are honking their horns.

You and your friends duck into the local bar. You are having a drink together and mingling with new people. In that space, all the unique identities are part of a community, which is why you go there.

You are enjoying a drink with your friends and catching up on the week. Your best friend Mark has found the love of his life (again) and is sharing the details of this two-day romance with his flavor of the week.

Suddenly, the music is drowned out by the sound of men yelling. You look over and see that the police are raiding the bar. The music has been turned off. You are yelled at by the officers to get against the wall and have your ID out. The lights are now turned up. You see the look of fear in a couple of patrons’ faces. They can’t be seen at this bar. 

While annoyed, you are used to this routine because it happens regularly. You know the protocol at this point. Stay quiet. Have your ID out. Only answer the questions the officers ask. 

You quickly glance over to your friends to see if they are okay before a cop comes over to you. You give him your ID, answer his questions, and he tells you and your friends to get lost.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, these were common occurrences for any LGBTQ+ bars and restaurants. This was especially true for Stonewall Inn, a small gay bar located on Christopher St. in Greenwich Village, New York City during the late 1960’s. 

Greenwich Village was known as the “gay ghetto” since many LGBTQ+ people who were rejected by family or left their hometown moved there and made it a safe space to express themselves. 

The United States was very homophobic and transphobic during this time. The American Psychiatric Association even listed homosexuality as a mental disorder and LGBTQ+ people were treated violently and poorly because of it. They could be involuntarily institutionalized for just being gay or transgender.

Being gay and trans was also criminal in the United States. Serving a drink to a gay or trans person could get you arrested because being gay was illegal in almost every state.

During this time, Stonewall Inn was a gay bar that was Mafia-owned and did not actually have a liquor license to serve alcohol. You could only get into Stonewall if the bouncer perceived you to be gay. This was a way to prevent undercover cops from entering the bar. This was common for many gay bars. 

The Mafia made a deal with the police to pay them off, and in turn, the police would allow the bar to remain open. When the Mafia didn’t pay up on their bribes, the police would then go to Stonewall Inn and raid the place. 

Police officers (and society as a whole) frequently exerted their power and oppression on this very marginalized group because they knew they couldn’t do anything about it. 

Society and the law were not on their side.

During these raids, officers would rough up patrons, especially transgender men and women. If men or women were caught wearing clothing of the opposite sex, they would get arrested for it. Gay men and women would get arrested and charged with “sodomy” (the official charge for homosexuality back then).

In the early hours of Saturday, June 28th, 1969 at approximately 1:20 a.m., several police officers decided to raid the Stonewall Inn again, but something was different about that night than previous raids.

This time, the police started rounding people up, and they tried to get the transgender women into the bathroom to verify their “gender.” A transgender woman allegedly attacked an officer with her purse. Lesbian patrons were being groped by the police. 

The patrons had finally had enough and when the police started arresting people, the group started to fight back. The LGBTQ+ people started to push the cops back. The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger as more people saw what was happening. A riot soon ensued. 

It is unknown who exactly started the riot, but there are three names that are credited with the start of this revolution. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women of color and prolific LGBTQ+ activists, and Storme DeLarverie, a lesbian woman of color. 

What started as a protest escalated into riot (other people call it a rebellion). For the next few hours, an estimated 100 LGBTQ+ people were outside fighting the police. The original officers that started the raid found themselves trapped inside the bar. Rioters set fires, threw stones through windows and destroyed the police cars. These riots continued over a span of nights.

This event on June 28th is considered the birth of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement (although this was not the first time the LGBTQ+ community fought back). Soon after the riots, the Gay Liberation Movement group was created to fight for gay and trans rights. This was also the first time that “gay” was publicly used in a group name before.

What is extraordinary about this event, and something that makes me get teary-eyed when I think about it, is that after years of oppression and being forced to hide in “the closet,” we stepped out into the light so that world can see us and hear us. 

On June 28th, 1970, the first ever Pride event was held in New York City to commemorate the Stonewall Inn riots. 

On June 2nd, 2000, President Bill Clinton declared June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month to commemorate the events at Stonewall, and now, every year, cities all around the world host Pride events to celebrate our community and our history.

On June 23rd, 2015, Stonewall Inn became a historic landmark due to its significance in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, which was a first for historical landmarks.

This month we celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots and the progress we have made as a community because of that night. The bravery of the people who fought back against oppression has empowered our community to continue the movement.

For many of us who identify as LGBTQ+, this is a huge part of who we are. Society, religion, and politics all have views of who we are and what we can – and can’t – do.

Many of us grew up in a time when same-sex marriage was unheard of and we never thought we would see it in our lifetimes. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a huge blow to the LGBTQ+ community who wanted to serve this nation and for LGBTQ+ service members who were actively servicing but could get discharged for outing themselves. 

Same sex relationships were still considered illegal in some states. We could still legally be fired for being gay or trans in 26 states. We’ve been beaten and murdered by people who don’t understand us.

LGBTQ+ youth are statistically more likely to die by suicide. 

The heart of my pride for the LGBTQ+ community is that we have continued to make progress and fight through the oppression. We have stayed empowered to bring us closer to equality. 

Even when the odds are stacked against us, we continue. We must. That responsibility was passed on to us 50+ years ago and we can’t stop now.

Due to the hard work of LGBTQ+ activists, marriage equality went all the way to the Supreme Court and became law of the land. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. The Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting private, consensual homosexual activity between adults are unconstitutional in the landmark decision of Lawrence v. Texas, and thus knocking down all the sodomy laws across the US, finally decriminalizing same sex relations. 

We are moving in the right direction. We are seeing history being made. Even if we take a few steps back (and we have certainly taken some steps back recently), we take larger steps forward.

On this first day of Pride in June 2023, we have politicians vehemently targeting our community and stripping away the progress that we have made in several states. They are trying to take rights away that are not theirs to take away.

The ACLU reported that about 491 bills restricting LGBTQ+, spanning from gender-affirming care to drag shows, have been proposed or accepted.

The United States is sliding backwards and taking us, women, and BIPOC people with it. Globally, countries like Uganda are passing barbaric laws criminalizing homosexuality as punishable by death.

People like Ron DeSantis, who has been heavily focused on attacking us in Florida, and introduced the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and has caused Pride events to be canceled by making drag shows illegal.

Why are they attacking us all of the sudden? Good question! Politicians will often scapegoat marginalized or underrepresented groups as a way to show that they are making some kind of change or impact when in reality they have not done a single thing. Most politicians are deep in the pockets of lobbyists like the NRA and that is why we don’t see change in thing like gun control or taxing the super wealthy their fare share in taxes.

They choose us because they are in the majority and see us a small group of people that they can bully and also use us to play to outdated and unfounded beliefs driven by the true enemy: religion.

Religion is determined to outlaw us and to erase us. I promise you that is a lost cause because we will never allow that to happen.

I am so proud to be a gay man in this world and to be a part of a community that has so much rich history. I am so fortunate to work at Rocket Companies where we support the LGBTQ+ community and create such an inclusive space that I can be out and proud every single day that I go to work. 

As one of the former leaders of the LGBTQ+ Team Member Resource Network Perspective, I draw my strength from the brave people who came before me at Stonewall – and even before them – so that I could add to the impact they made five decades ago. We continue to bring our community out into the light as a group so that others can learn and connect with us.

We are doomed to repeat history if we do not learn from it. It appears that our country, religion, and conservative politicians forgot what happened when they bullied us at Stonewall Inn on the pivotal moment in our history. We are a small but mighty community.

What started as resistance against oppression over 50 years ago in a tiny dive bar ignited a flame. Today the fire burns hot and will continue to burn brightly. It cannot be stopped! I look forward to seeing what the next 50+ years of LGBTQ+ progress look like!


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