The Night at Inn Became a Proud Shrine. Still a bar, but a highly visible one.June 28, 2019, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which is considered the most significant event in the LGBT+ liberation movement, and the catalyst for the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States which slowly spread to the world. Today, as we celebrate 50 years of the movement here, is a brief account of why the inn is gradually becoming a shrine.
In 1969, the Stonewall was part of a Greenwich Village discreet yet known gay scene. At the time, showing same-sex affection or dressing in a way considered gender-inappropriate could get people arrested. Bars had lost liquor licenses for serving such people. Some gay nightspots simply operated illegally. A former horse stable in adjoining buildings at 51 and 53 Christopher Street, the Stonewall was a divey, unlicensed spot with darkened windows, black-painted walls and a doorman who scrutinized would-be patrons through a peephole. But it also had a sweeping, pulsating dance floor that attracted a diverse, mostly young crowd.
On June 28, 1969, Greenwich Village, The New York City Police Department, with a backdrop of homophobia and transphobia, raided the Stonewall Inn, a neighborhood gay bar, in the middle of the night, fueled by bigoted liquor licensing practices. The raid was met with a series of responses that went down in history as the most crucial period in the world’s fight for sexual and gender liberation: a rebellious reaction from the bar’s patrons and surrounding community, followed by six days of protests.
The bar itself didn’t last long after the raid. Over the ensuing years, space was divided and used by a bagel shop, a Chinese restaurant and other establishments, including a gay bar called Stonewall that briefly operated at 51 Christopher in the late 1980s. Renovations changed the interior decor. The current Stonewall Inn, at 53 Christopher, dates to early 1990.
The Stonewall was raided just four days before that uprising, arresting employees and seizing liquor that Tuesday night. But as the police were leaving, someone said with disdain, “We’ll be open again tomorrow.” Gay New Yorkers were feeling increasing pressure and harassment in Greenwich Village and beyond, and the violent eruption at the Stonewall was a result of this mounting tension. Within days of the Stonewall uprising, the police had raided five gay bars in the Village, shutting three of them — the Checkerboard, the Tel-Star and the Sewer — down for good.
Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman, threw the first brick at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago, sparking the modern gay liberation movement. She, along with a fellow transgender woman Sylvia Rivera, who was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage, became inspirational leaders of the movement born in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
Soon after the rioting, Johnson and Rivera became active in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), the first known pro-transgender group in the United States, providing shelter for the abandoned and homeless.
The months after Stonewall was a time of LGBTQ unity that would not last long. Gay men, mostly white, assumed leadership and ostracized trans women like Johnson and Rivera in the name of “respectability.”
By the time of the fourth-anniversary parade, organizers banned “drag queens,” so Johnson and Rivera marched in front of the parade banner, outside the official event. Rivera was booed when she took the stage in the rally at Washington Square Park.
“Transgender,” as the term was not yet familiar. Instead, words such as “transvestite,” “drag queen,” and “transsexual” were used interchangeably.
Johnson died at age 46 under mysterious circumstances, her body pulled from the Hudson River in 1992. Rivera, who had been homeless at times and suffered from addiction, died in 2002 of liver cancer at age 50.
As the 50th anniversary of Stonewall approaches, Johnson and Rivera are receiving a belated measure of recognition in death that coincides with a growing awareness of transgender rights. New York City announced last month it would build a memorial to Johnson and Rivera near the Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village bar.
Last week, the New York Police Department apologized for the first time for the raid. Transgender activists revere Johnson and Rivera for becoming the public faces of the most marginalized among LGBTQ people, for standing up to police harassment, and for insisting on respect.
The Movement Now
In the years since then, a new understanding of gender identity has pushed its way into the mainstream. That has brought about a measure of reconciliation between transgender women and gay men, who have become a powerful coalition influencing policy on LGBTQ rights and fighting discrimination.
The month of June is Celebrated as the Pride Month throughout the globe. Most major cities in the world have pride marches in June with the community coming out together and celebrating their identity. Many countries have struck down laws that made homosexuality illegal, and transgender people are getting recognition in some, but the work began by Johnson and Rivera is far from complete.