Stonewall: Nightlife as a Social Movement

By Gamal Hennessy

There is an important benefit that nightlife brings to society. In many ways, nightlife is the grease that keeps the wheels of society turning. Several groups who have been marginalized in ‘normal’ society have found refuge in bars and clubs. These same groups have used the connections they create to organize, spread their message and alter the perception of their cause within the general public. As the Stonewall riots celebrate their 40th anniversary, we all have a chance to see this event as a clear example of how nightlife culture can alter all of American culture.


Homosexuals in America were shunned, rejected and maligned through most of the history of this country. They were lumped together with anarchists, communists, and other people deemed subversive as late as the 1960’s. During the paranoia of the McCarthy Era, homosexuals were considered threats to national security.

During the 1960’s, many homosexuals sought refuge in the counterculture of places like Greenwich Village. Social movements of all types were growing during this period and homosexuals often found like minded souls within the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar demonstrations. The underground mentality of nightlife left over from the Prohibition speakeasies gave homosexuals a refuge in an otherwise hostile environment.

Local government attempted to remove gay element from the cities using the police and the liquor authority. Robert Wagner, the mayor of New York in the 1960’s, revoked liquor licenses of bars that served gays and used undercover police to entrap homosexual men. The gay bars that did survive were frequently raided. Men in drag were arrested during the raids and women who were not wearing three pieces of feminine clothing were also subject to arrest. It was this backdrop that set the stage for the events of June 28, 1969.

Nightlife Impact:

The actual incident seems to have come about through a combination of isolated defiance, police miscalculations and a general anti establishment mood that coalesced into a riot. Forty years later, it is still unclear why events unfolded the way that they did at Stonewall, when four other gay clubs including the Checkerboard and the Tele-Star were raided on the same night.

The Stonewall Inn was a dive bar owned by organized crime figures and frequented by gays, transvestites, homeless youth and hustlers. According to published accounts, a group of male and female undercover officers went into the bar to collect “evidence” that would justify a raid. At a given signal, uniformed policemen entered the venue and began rounding up the patrons.

Standard procedure was to line up the patrons and check their identification. Female police officers would check people dressed as women to determine what gender they actually were. Although many of the patrons had experience with raids before, on this night some of them simply refused to follow the female officers into the bathroom to have their genitals inspected. This defiance gave courage to the other patrons. Many of them began to refuse to offer their identification. So the police decided to arrest everyone in the bar,

When they tried to move everyone outside, the police suddenly realized that they didn’t have enough officers to arrest 150 people. As the crowd grew outside the bar, people who weren’t in Stonewall began to join the group against the police. The officers became more and more aggressive in response to the overwhelming odds. Their aggression angered the mob and soon police vehicles were being attacked, bottles, bricks and coins were being thrown and the police were trapped inside until reinforcements arrived to disperse the crowd. It was the first prominent case of homosexuals fighting back against police.

Over the next few nights the riots spread around Greenwich Village with Stonewall as its epicenter. Riots broke out on Christopher Street when gays were joined by street gangs, bystanders and other police provocateurs. Running battles continued for the next several nights involving hundreds of police and thousands of protesters. At the same time, Village residents quickly organized into groups to establishing better places for homosexuals to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of being arrested.


The Stonewall riots brought national attention to the discrimination of homosexuals. Six months after the riots, two activist organizations and three newspapers were formed in New York to promote rights for gays and lesbians. One year later, the first Gay Pride marches took place in New York City and Los Angeles, commemorating the anniversary of the riots. In 1994, 1.1 million people participated in the Stonewall 25 march through Manhattan. In 1999 the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Stonewall as a National Historical Landmark, the first significant site of its type for homosexuals. Today Gay Pride events are held annually throughout the world toward the end of June to mark the occasion.

The riots spawned from a bar raid became a literal example of gays and lesbians fighting back, and a symbolic call to arms for many people. In the same way that Rosa Parks, Kent State, and Tiananmen Square focused public awareness on social issues and united people around a cause, Stonewall became a rallying point that organized resistance and ultimately changed the cultural identity of a marginalized group. Stonewall hasn’t ended discrimination based on sexual preference any more than that lone protester staring down a tank brought democracy to China, but it has altered American culture in ways that might not have happened but for the role that bars like Stonewall played.

I reached out to several people within the LGBT community to try and determine what patrons today think of events that occurred 40 years ago. Thomas Shevlin is a member of the Stonewall Democratic Club an organization that advocates equality and fairness for the LGBT community in New York City and Lynn Dukette is an attorney and organizer of the Proposition parties here in New York.

GH: What do you think is the most significant change that came about after the riots?

TS: I think the most significant change that came after the riots was a sense of empowerment in the LGBT community. Until then, the community just seemed to take for granted that the police would raid their bars and arrest them. There was no sense that anything could be done about it. The scene of members of our community visibly fighting back, and having this getting into the mainstream media, gave people the feeling that there was something we could do. Raising these issues was a way to change public perception and ultimately the laws.

LD: Prior to the riots, members of the LGBT community were forced to live in a perpetual state of fear of being harassed, turned away from business, and brutalized by the police. The riots brought this abuse into the public eye and encouraged the community, particularly the youth, to fight back. Overnight, the riots sparked the gay rights movement, which has spread throughout the world. Forty years later, perhaps the most significant the legacy of the riots has been the enabling of members of LGBT, individually and collectively, to live - out, loud and proud.
GH: Do you feel that the current generation of LGBT people see nightlife as fundamental to their lifestyle or have they found other arenas to express themselves?

TS: I believe that nightlife is absolutely critical to the LGBT community, because there are so few institutions that brings us together and provides us with support. Many in our community are still rejected by their families and churches and feel they need to be closeted at work. LGBT nightlife venues are really the only place we can go to be surrounded by our own kind. Working in finance, I am surrounded by straight colleagues whom I like and respect very much, but at the end of the day I really want to be somewhere where people understand me in a way that they just cannot. Being in a gay club or bar gives me a feeling of safety and liberation that you just can't get anywhere else. The internet has definitely changed things, because now it is possible to meet people online, but nightlife remains extremely important to our community.

LD: Many youth today are might be unaware of the historical significance of the Stonewall riots, and the affect of the event on the liberation of the community. Fortunately, today’s youth do not face the conditions that pre-dated the riots. However, the current generation of LGBT is continuing the Stonewall legacy. They won’t settle for mere tolerance. They are pushing for full equality.

Have fun.