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Stonewall riots
Photograph: Courtesy New York Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesCrowd prevents police arrests outside the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.

"They were treating us like shit"—an oral history of the Stonewall riots

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, bystanders revisit this watershed moment for queer rights

Written by
David Goldberg

Fifty years ago, a handful of New Yorkers changed the world. In the early  hours of June 28, 1969, cops raided the Stonewall Inn in the West Village and roughed up gay patrons, leading to days of protests and lighting a fire that culminated one year later with the very first New York Pride March. “Rebellion could lead to revolution—we really thought like that,” recalls the march’s cofounder, Ellen Broidy. This June, during WorldPride, millions from around the globe will celebrate this essential turning point. This is the story of those brave souls who said enough is enough, a half century back. 

The summer of ’69: Before the riots
Mark Segal: I’d gotten to New York six weeks before Stonewall. Most nights, I would leave my apartment, go to 11th Street between A and B, and pick up my good friend Doug Carber. We’d hit Greenwich and turn on Christopher Street. Whether it was cold or hot, we’d go into the Stonewall. The reason was pretty simple: If you were on the street, you might be harassed. You might be harassed by police or you might be harassed by people wanting to come down and scream at the faggots. You couldn’t be yourself. You’d try not to show any affection to someone. You couldn’t hold hands, even on Christopher Street. You couldn’t hug somebody. If more than three people congregated, the police would come and break you up because it was illegal for homosexuals to congregate. So, when you entered the Stonewall, you were able to be yourself. You could scream. You could shout. You could actually hug, hold hands and kiss people. And, more importantly, for our age—at around 18—you could dance, and we loved to dance. And when I think of the Stonewall, the one song I constantly think of is “Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension. 

Boarded-up window of  Stonewall Inn, after the riots

Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

June 28, 1969: The riots begin
Victoria Cruz: I was living in Red Hook, with a bouncer at the Stonewall. He had not come home on Thursday night, so I went to stalk him. Judy Garland was buried that same day. It was very hot that night—really, really hot—but there was no wind. It was very quiet. A full moon. Just like the quiet before the storm.

MS: I remember being in the Stonewall and the lights blinking. I had no idea what that meant, so I asked the person next to me, “What is going on?” And they said, very nonchalantly: “Oh, it’s a raid.” I panicked because I had never been in a raid before. And the police came in and started pushing around people who were stereotyped: butch dykes and men in women’s clothes. The police would actually go up to the older men who looked like they were establishment and extort money out of them.

VC: They were treating us like shit. You go into the Stonewall, you are going to have a little fun, and as soon as the lights go on: “It’s a raid!” They come over and look at you. If you had too much makeup on, they would start insulting you. They would check for three articles of clothing you were supposed to have on that pertained to your birth sex. They would give the lesbians what we used to call a Robin Hood: The cops would pull the back of their bra straps and let go so it would hurt their back.

MS: I’m across the street, and as the police would let people outside, people didn’t disperse. Anybody who had anything to lose ran away. So, you have this group of people who are not the highlight of society, shall we say. They’re hanging out, and the police on occasion would pop out and say, “Get away from here!” The surprise was that people would hurl insults back at the police. That hadn’t happened before. Eventually, people started throwing things at the door.

VC: The police started coming out with people they had arrested to put in the paddy wagon. I saw [trans activist] Miss Major get into the paddy wagon, and someone said [Miss Major] had been punched inside the bar. After that, the crowd started screaming at the police. I saw this lesbian come out, and a cop hit her. And that’s when the crowd really got upset. I saw a brick—I’m not saying it was from Sylvia [Rivera], but it came from her general area. I saw a brick flying right through the air and into a window. It wasn’t a shoe. It was a brick! And then the shit hit the fan. The cops went inside and locked the door. When we saw the people getting pushed and hurt, we said, “You know, this is enough already. What the hell are they doing?” 

Celebratory hang outside Stonewall Inn, after the riots

Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

June 29, 1969: The revolution builds
MS: I was writing in the street with chalk: “Tomorrow night. Stonewall.” What that ended up being was the second night of Stonewall, when Martha Shelley and Marty Robinson gave speeches from the front door of the closed-up Stonewall. That night was the birth of the Gay Liberation Front. That was probably the most exciting year this community has ever had. There was not a night when I was not on that street. We issued medical alerts, we issued legal alerts, we issued police alerts, and we created the first trans organization, the first gay youth organization and the first gay community center.

June 28, 1970: The first Pride March
Ellen Broidy: It was extraordinary to be in the streets. Of course, there was a tremendous amount of fear, too. We had no idea what was going to happen, none whatsoever. We had no floats, nothing was mechanized, we had handmade signs and handmade banners.  

MS: From out of those 100 people at Stonewall, that day we saw 15,000 people march out of our ghetto and up to Central Park. That had never been done before. We dared the police to stop us. I finally had the feeling of Okay, I can shout I’m gay. On the street. We now own this area. We never had that. You couldn’t walk up and down Christopher Street, which was our home! It was the base of the gay community. You couldn’t do that. You didn’t feel free. Somehow, that night, we knew we would take back that street.   

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