Pride Month: What happened at the 1969 Stonewall Riots — ‘You’re not going to do that to us, not tonight’

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The Stonewall riots were the catalyst behind the modern LGBTQ+ rights movements (Getty Images)
The Stonewall riots were the catalyst behind the modern LGBTQ+ rights movements (Getty Images)

“My first day in New York was the day of the Stonewall riots. I was 17-years-old.”

Michael-Antony Nozzi had just graduated high school and arrived in the city to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. That same night, in the early hours of June 28 1969, police raided a gay bar called Stonewall in Greenwich Village. Their visit ignited demonstrations that would change the fight for LGBTQ+ rights forever.

Some half a century later, the LGBTQ+ liberation movement has taken hold and celebratory parades now happen across the globe. This year, Pride in London’s theme is #AllOurPride, a commemoration of key historic events which have broadened and improved diversity across the UK over the past 50-or-so years. While Stonewall was in New York, its impact resonated globally.

“If the cops were bored that night, they could go raid the Stonewall,” Nozzi told playwright Alexis Gregory in 2019. “Punch a few people, take the cash out the register and that was just something ‘fun’ to do.”

Pride over the years - In pictures

Raids on gay bars were common in the 60s, but the management would usually get tip-offs beforehand. This particular night, Judy Garland had just been laid to rest and the place was packed with more people than usual, all paying tribute, or mourning.

“It was the perfect storm,” said Nozzi. “A hot summer night. A bar that normally holds 20 to 30 people, now all of a sudden with 300. The cops stupidly deciding, ‘that’s the bar we’re going to raid’ and Judy [Garland] dying the week before. Our attitude was: ‘No you’re not going to do that to us — not tonight.’”

This raid didn’t go according to plan. Tired of being lined up, frisked and arrested, patrons refused to show identification and resisted being taken away. A delay in the arrival of police wagons to transport the arrested meant that those who had been released began to congregate with passersby outside in the street. The crowd grew as more LGBTQ+ people joined.

Violence broke out when one woman was beaten after complaining about her tight handcuffs. Activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of colour well-known for campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights, were among the first to throw bottles at the police.

You could see people holding their bleeding heads. There was blood all over the sidewalk, all over the walls. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Unable to get the crowd under control, police barricaded themselves in the bar and called in the Tactical Police Force unit, who attempted to stop the rioters. Things continued the following evening, with more joining the fray.

“It was a mess,” said Nozzi, “You could see people holding their bleeding heads. There was blood all over the sidewalk, all over the walls. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

A year later, marchers gathered in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to honour the Stonewall riots, creating the first ever Gay Pride marches. The next year, many more cities — including London — followed suit.

That night in 1969 changed everything for LGBTQ+ people, and is too important to be left as a historical footnote, says Gregory: “Queer history and queer lives are too precious to be reshaped or erased.

“We must never forget what happened that night.”

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