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The First Gay Pride Was A Riot

The 1960’s – and decades before – were not friendly times for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) people in many countries around the world. In New York City police could arrest people for wearing less than three gender-appropriate items of clothing. Because of this, LGBTQ+ individuals gathered together in gay bars and clubs that were seen as places of relative safety, where they could be themselves and socialise with others. The New York State Liquor Authority however stated that any gathering of the LGBTQ+ community was disorderly and would shut down any establishment that served alcohol.

This regulation was overturned in 1966, but it was still illegal to hold hands, kiss or dance with somebody of the same sex, so police harassment of gay bars and clubs continued. In an attempt to keep under the police radar many bars and clubs operated without a liquor licence.

The Stonewall Inn, which opened in 1967, was registered as a bottle bar which meant that they did not need a liquor licence and people were supposed to bring their own drinks. The Inn quickly became important with the area it was situated in, as it welcomed all members of the LGBTQ+ community and was one of the very few gay bars that allowed dancing.

At around 3am on June 28th 1969, police with a warrant raided the Inn. They roughed up customers, arrested employees for selling bootleg alcohol and also arrested a number of customers for wearing less then the three required gender appropriate items of clothing – female police officers even took suspected cross dressing customers into the toilets to check their gender.

Usually if a gay club or bar was raided the customers would quickly leave to avoid being arrested, however on this occasion, fed up with the harassment they faced, the customers and local residents waited outside the Inn. They became increasingly upset with how those being arrested were being aggressively handled. When a police officer hit a lesbian over the head as he forced her into a police wagon the crowd started throwing items at the officers.

Within minutes, a full blown riot involving hundreds of people started. The police and some others barricaded themselves into the bar to escape the crowd, which then attempted to set the Inn on fire.

Police reinforcements and the fire brigade arrived in time to out the fire and rescue those inside the Stonewall Inn. The riots continued for five days.

Although the Stonewall riots did not start the gay rights movement, they did act as a catalyst for a number of gay rights groups coming together to fight discrimination. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the site of the riots a national monument in recognition of the areas contribution to gay and human rights.

Stephanie Hammond is the Head of Operations at Steps To Work. She is also Chair of the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Group.