The Stonewall Riots & the Gay Liberation Movement

In the early morning on June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. This was the third raid on the establishment in three weeks. The police began the raid by arresting the employees for serving alcohol without a license.

After police emptied the bar, the crowd refused to disperse, throwing objects at the police and trapping them inside the bar. The police called for reinforcements as the mob outside swelled to over 400 people, which included marginalized groups such as drag queens, transgender people, sex workers, and homeless youth. The riots lasted for five days, with protesters creating barricades, performing kick-lines, and setting bonfires in the streets. The riots galvanized New York’s activists leading to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front (the first organization to use “gay” in its name) and fostered unity with the civil rights and feminist movements.

As a gay rights movement ignited in New York, news coverage outside the city was brief, and the riots’ impact would not be felt in other cities until months later. Mattachine Midwest did not view it as significance, at first. They were busy working on local issues, responding to police harassement, organizing public meetings, hosting membership drives, and conducting political polling.

The Stonewall upended homophile/gay political activism with younger, louder gay and lesbian organizations sprouting up across the country demanding “liberation” from society’s oppression. Organizations like Mattachine Midwest, seen by these younger groups as too closeted and conservative for the new era, were forced to adapt or fade away. Within a year of the Stonewall riots, five gay liberation groups had formed in Chicago.

The gay liberation movement swept across the country. At the November 1969 meeting of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (formerly ECHO), a resolution proposed by NYU’s Student Homophile League was passed to replace the Annual Reminders (homophile marches that were held Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4 since 1965) with “a demonstration [to] be held annually on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstration on Christopher Street.” The proposal also encouraged parallel demonstration on that day in other cities.

On Saturday, June 27, 1970, Chicago hosted the world’s first Pride March. On Sunday, June 28, 1970 marches were held in New York City and Los Angeles. While San Francisco had other marches, it did not hold a pride march commemorating the Stonewall riots until 1972 because activists in San Francisco did not view the Stonewall riots as a significant national event. As with The Trip raid in Chicago, San Francisco had other and earlier raids and responses to raids that rallied their activism.

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Images from the 1971 Chicago Pride Parade

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The first half of the 1970s was a time of transition between homophile organizations established in the 1950s/1960s and new gay liberation organizations. It was also a time of increasing visibility for gay and lesbian people.

Before Stonewall, Mattachine Midwest was the primary organization in Chicago. One of Chicago, Daughters of Bilitis, and Sons of Sappho (a black lesbian organization) also were active. By 1973, there was an community center and over 45 organizations in Chicago, including groups at most of the colleges and universities.

The Stonewall Riots & the Gay Liberation Movement