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Stonewall Inn riots happened 49-years ago, one journalist's account may be more relevant than ever

The gay rights movement began at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago.
Photo credit:
Flickr

With the future of gay rights hanging in the balance as word came yesterday that Justice Anthony Kennedy will be retiring from the United States Supreme Court, today marks the 49th anniversary of the day the LGBT community rose up to fight against discrimination. 

The riots at the Stonewall Inn began the LGBT liberation movement that we know today. It was actually six days of uprising in response to a police raid that happened in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.

Gays, lesbians, transgender folks and drag queens fought back against police on that night at the Greenwich Village bar, some were arrested, others injured by the strong arm of the law. 

On that same night, gay journalist Dick Leitsch took a cab to the Stonewall Inn after hearing about the commotion on the radio. He was the first journalist to report on the incident and he later organized “sip-ins” in protest to the NY State Liquor Authority's ban on issuing liquor licenses to gay bars.

Unlicensed bars at that time had to operate illegally, some under the management of organized crime. But on that night the people at Stonewall had had enough and the fight for LGBT rights began with six words from a woman being forcefully taken to jail, “Why don't you guys do something?!"

Despite the advancements we have made in the last five decades, the recent political atmosphere led by a conservative president and his cabinet have left activists and community leaders wondering if we are headed backwards. And as you read Leitsch's words printed almost 50 years ago, it seems we are at risk of repeating it; think of the trans military ban, the refusal to serve gays based on religious beliefs, bathroom issues, discrimination in health care, LGBT homeless youth and so on. 

Here's an excerpt of Leitsch's account taken from Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution and reprinted in The Atlantic:     

"Coming on the heels of the raids of the Snake Pit and the Sewer, and the closing of the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star and other clubs, the Stonewall raid looked to many like part of an effort to close all gay bars and clubs in the Village. It may be true that the Checkerboard and Tele-Star died without police assistance. (It is said that the woman who managed the Checkerboard came in one night, ordered all the customers out of the place, cleaned out the cash register and called the police to get rid of those customers who stayed around.) It is very likely that the Sewer and the Snake Pit were raided because they had no licenses, as the police said.

But how are people in the street and the customers of the places to know that? The police don't bother to explain or send press releases to the papers (and when they do, the papers make it seem that the bar was raided because it was gay.)...

Since 1965 the homosexual community of New York has been treated quite well by the City Administration and the police have either reformed or been kept in line by Lindsay and Leary....

Now we've walked in the open and know how pleasant it is to have self-respect and to be treated as citizens and human beings.

...We want to stay in the sunlight from now on. Efforts to force us back in the closet could be disastrous for all concerned.

The above, while a true evaluation of the situation does not explain why the raid on the Stonewall caused such a strong reaction. Why the Stonewall, and not the Sewer or the Snake Pit? The answer lies, we believe, in the unique nature of the Stonewall. This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.

The "drags" and the "queens", two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the "regulars" at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them.... Apart from the Goldbug and the One Two Three, "drags" and "queens" had no place but the Stonewall....

Another group was even more dependent on the Stonewall: the very young homosexuals and those with no other homes. You've got to be 18 to buy a drink in a bar, and gay life revolved around bars. Where do you go if you are 17 or 16 and gay? The "legitimate" bars won't let you in the place, and gay restaurants and the streets aren't very sociable.

Then too, there are hundreds of young homosexuals in New York who literally have no home. Most of them are between 16 and 25, and came here from other places without jobs, money or contacts. Many of them are running away from unhappy homes (one boy told us, "My father called me 'cocksucker so many times, I thought it was my name."). Another said his parents fought so much over which of them "made" him a homosexual that he left so they could learn to live together.

Some got thrown out of school or the service for being gay and couldn't face going home. Some were even thrown out of their homes with only the clothes on their backs by ignorant, intolerant parents who'd rather see their kid dead than homosexual.

They came to New York with the clothes on their backs. Some of them hustled, or had skills enough to get a job. Others weren't attractive enough to hustle, and didn't manage to fall in with people who could help them. Some of them, giddy at the openness of gay life in New York, got caught up in it and some are on pills and drugs. Some are still wearing the clothes in which they came here a year or more ago.

Jobless and without skills--without decent clothes to wear to a job interview--they live in the streets, panhandling or shoplifting for the price of admission to the Stonewall. That was the one advantage to the place--for $3.00 admission, one could stay inside, out of the winter's cold or the summer heat, all night long. Not only was the Stonewall better climatically, but it also saved the kids from spending the night in a doorway or from getting arrested as vagrants.

Three dollars isn't too hard to get panhandling, and nobody hustled drinks in the Stonewall. Once the admission price was paid, one could drink or not, as he chose. The Stonewall became "home" to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why the Stonewall riots were begun, led and spearheaded by "queens".

With president Trump already gearing up to nominate a new Supreme Court Justice who may affect many future generations of LGBT men and women, many fear the court will become even more conservative, perhaps revisiting historic rulings on gay marriage and women's rights.

And those words screamed by a woman being led into a police van, arrested 49 years ago, may carry just as much weight in 2018 --perhaps more--than ever before, “Why don't you guys do something?!"