The Stonewall Riots: A Movement Over 50 Years Old

It was the night of June 28th, 1969 and Yvonne Ritter sneaked out to party and celebrate her 18th birthday and soon to come graduation with her friend. She put on an empire-waisted black and white dress, slipped on some black velvet heels and took a cab to Greenwich Village, which was the hotspot for transgender people, such as herself, gay men and lesbians.

Ritter was drawn to the stonewall inn, a dazzling gay bar in the heart of Greenwich Village, by the crowd and spent the beginning of her night dancing on one of the bar’s dance floors and requesting songs on the jukebox. When the cops showed up and she was arrested, she was scared for her life, but she pleaded her way out and got home safely.

The stonewall riots are looked back upon as the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States, but the patrons of the stonewall inn certainly had no idea of what was to come.

Queens in full drag were performing, and drinks flowed, creating a carefree and festive environment. Few were aware that only four days ago, on June 24th, the cops had raided the stonewall inn arresting many employees, and it was about to happen again.

At the time, police raids at places frequented by members of the queer community were commonplace. So much so that bar or club owners and clientele were often told in advance by the police to minimize the disruption of business.

This time though, it was different. Instead of leaving in an orderly manner, people stayed. Back then, people who were found to be gay by the police were outed in the papers every day; they would then be fired from their jobs, sent death threats, and in some cases, disowned by their families, yet so many stayed. “It’s rare that I met a gay man who says he wasn’t at the Stonewall,” stated Howard Smith, a writer for the Village Voice, “There must have been four million people there that night.”

Unaccustomed to being openly defied by queer folks, the nine cops present continued arresting clients and employees, in an increasingly rough manner, for a number of reasons, such as operating without the proper liquor license, wearing more than three articles of clothing traditionally meant for the opposite gender or for resisting arrest.

Watching their friends and lovers be violently taken into custody for such bigoted reasons sparked a wave of previously unseen anger in the crowd. They began throwing bottles and bricks at the cops and eventually forced the policemen to barricade themselves in the bar and call for reinforcements. Outside, the riots continued, and many attempts were made to set the building on fire with the cops inside.

The reinforcements and firefighters arrived and quickly stopped this from occurring, but nevertheless, the riots continued for days.

Many activist groups got involved, and the rioters were calmer and less violent in the days that followed the initial raid, choosing instead to hold hands, dance and kiss in public, a first for most members of the LGBGTQ2S+ community.

“I stood there with chills. I got a chill seeing guys on the street holding hands and kissing,” said Michael Levine, who was present the day of the raid and throughout the consequential riots.

Now Ritter is a registered nurse that works with HIV patients, and she has started doing peer counselling for transgender individuals. Ritter said, in a recent interview for the 70th anniversary of the stonewall riots, “Just be yourself. You don’t have to play games for people. You are who you are.” She is seen as a gay rights pioneer for her contributions to the movement and as an AIDs activist.