Despite progress, the circumstances that gave rise to the rebellion that began the contemporary gay rights movement haven't changed as much as we might think.
When President Obama briefly mentioned Stonewall during his Inaugural address, it prompted a lot of chatter about of the Stonewall riot and his historic adoption of the gay rights cause as his own.
But what happened at the Stonewall Inn, really? New York papers tend to call it the Stonewall uprising, not the Stonewall riot, because it played out as six days of skirmishes between young gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals and the New York Police Department in the wake of a police raid of the Christopher Street bar in Manhattan's West Village. The raid came amid a broader police crackdown on gay bars for operating without N. Y. State Liquor Authority licenses, which was something they did only because the SLA refused to grant bars that served gays licenses, forcing them to operate as illegal saloons. Into that void stepped opportunists and Mafia affiliates, who ran the unlicensed establishments and reputedly had deals with the police to stay in business. But on the night of June 27, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall involving the arrests of 13 people inside the bar met unexpected resistance when a crowd gathered and one of those arrested, a woman, cried out to the assembled bystanders as she was shoved into a paddy wagon, "Why don't you guys do something!"
The conflict over the next six days played out as a very gay variant of a classic New York street rebellion. It would see: fire hoses turned on people in the street, thrown barricades, gay cheerleaders chanting bawdy variants of New York City schoolgirl songs, Rockette-style kick lines in front of the police, the throwing of a firebomb into the bar, a police officer throwing his gun at the mob, cries of "occupy -- take over, take over," "Fag power," "Liberate the bar!", and "We're the pink panthers!", smashed windows, uprooted parking meters, thrown pennies, frightened policemen, angry policemen, arrested mafiosi, thrown cobblestones, thrown bottles, the singing of "We Shall Overcome" in high camp fashion, and a drag queen hitting a police officer on the head with her purse.
The New York Post reported on June 28, 1969, that hundreds outside the bar had been observed chanting "Gay Power" and "We Want Freedom."
David Carter, a historian and author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution has compiled "An Analytical Collation of Accounts and Documents Recorded in the Year 1969 Concerning the Stonewall Riots," from which the above anecdotes are drawn.
Also included in the document roundup is this account by Dick Leitsch, then the executive director of the Mattachine Society of New York, the first gay group to ever hold a picket in the city in the early 1960s. He was also the first gay journalist to describe what happened at Stonewall, dropping his packing for a planned trip to London to spend time on the scene.
Coming on the heels of the raids of the Snake Pit and the Sewer, and the closing of the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star and other clubs, the Stonewall raid looked to many like part of an effort to close all gay bars and clubs in the Village. It may be true that the Checkerboard and Tele-Star died without police assistance. (It is said that the woman who managed the Checkerboard came in one night, ordered all the customers out of the place, cleaned out the cash register and called the police to get rid of those customers who stayed around.) It is very likely that the Sewer and the Snake Pit were raided because they had no licenses, as the police said.
But how are people in the street and the customers of the places to know that? The police don't bother to explain or send press releases to the papers (and when they do, the papers make it seem that the bar was raided because it was gay.)...
Since 1965 the homosexual community of New York has been treated quite well by the City Administration and the police have either reformed or been kept in line by Lindsay and Leary....
Now we've walked in the open and know how pleasant it is to have self-respect and to be treated as citizens and human beings.
...We want to stay in the sunlight from now on. Efforts to force us back in the closet could be disastrous for all concerned.
The above, while a true evaluation of the situation does not explain why the raid on the Stonewall caused such a strong reaction. Why the Stonewall, and not the Sewer or the Snake Pit? The answer lies, we believe, in the unique nature of the Stonewall. This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.
The "drags" and the "queens", two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the "regulars" at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them.... Apart from the Goldbug and the One Two Three, "drags" and "queens" had no place but the Stonewall....
Another group was even more dependent on the Stonewall: the very young homosexuals and those with no other homes. You've got to be 18 to buy a drink in a bar, and gay life revolved around bars. Where do you go if you are 17 or 16 and gay? The "legitimate" bars won't let you in the place, and gay restaurants and the streets aren't very sociable.
Then too, there are hundreds of young homosexuals in New York who literally have no home. Most of them are between 16 and 25, and came here from other places without jobs, money or contacts. Many of them are running away from unhappy homes (one boy told us, "My father called me 'cocksucker so many times, I thought it was my name."). Another said his parents fought so much over which of them "made" him a homosexual that he left so they could learn to live together.
Some got thrown out of school or the service for being gay and couldn't face going home. Some were even thrown out of their homes with only the clothes on their backs by ignorant, intolerant parents who'd rather see their kid dead than homosexual.
They came to New York with the clothes on their backs. Some of them hustled, or had skills enough to get a job. Others weren't attractive enough to hustle, and didn't manage to fall in with people who could help them. Some of them, giddy at the openness of gay life in New York, got caught up in it and some are on pills and drugs. Some are still wearing the clothes in which they came here a year or more ago.
Jobless and without skills--without decent clothes to wear to a job interview--they live in the streets, panhandling or shoplifting for the price of admission to the Stonewall. That was the one advantage to the place--for $3.00 admission, one could stay inside, out of the winter's cold or the summer heat, all night long. Not only was the Stonewall better climatically, but it also saved the kids from spending the night in a doorway or from getting arrested as vagrants.
Three dollars isn't too hard to get panhandling, and nobody hustled drinks in the Stonewall. Once the admission price was paid, one could drink or not, as he chose. The Stonewall became "home" to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why the Stonewall riots were begun, led and spearheaded by "queens".
In short, in this account, the Stonewall operated as a sort of de facto community center for gay youth rendered homeless by familial and institutional rejection, who had taken refuge in New York City in hopes of finding a place where they could be in the world. This continues, decades later, to be a major problem, according to a study by the Williams Institute, which found in 2012 that about 40 percent of clients served by 354 youth service agencies were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and that the top reasons they were homeless were that they ran away in the face of family rejection or were kicked out by parents who could not accept their sexual orientation or gender identities.
As Obama's comments showed, there's been a lot of progress on the acceptance of sexual minorities since the Stonewall era. But there's still a long way to go until the background of ill-treatment of young LGBT people that helped give rise to the Stonewall rebellion ceases to be a problem.