In the 1960s, America’s sexual revolution marked a shift in public awareness and acceptance for sexual and romantic relationships outside of the then traditional heterosexual structure.
The Stonewall Riots sometimes called the Stonewall Uprising) is widely considered the watershed event to transform the gay liberation movement and the twentieth-century fight for LGBT+ rights in the US.
The one-year anniversary, in 1970, was dubbed Christopher Street Liberation Day, with the ensuing parade in NYC becoming the first Pride festival in the world.
The Stonewall Riots, sometimes called the Stonewall Uprising, in 1969 was a series of spontaneous demonstrations by members of the gay community (then more of an umbrella term for all LGBTQ+ identities) and their allies fighting back against continued police brutality.
Lesbians and trans women of color were some of the key people involved in the act of resistance, including names you may have heard like Stormé DeLarverie, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.
The Stonewall Riots began in the early hours of June 28, 1969 when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village in New York City.
The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly handled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets and in nearby Christopher Park.
Raids were not uncommon and how the mafia factors into all of this
The 1960s and preceding decades were not welcoming times for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer Americans. In NYC, for instance, as with many places around the world, solicitation of same-sex relations was illegal.
This is what made so-called ‘safe spaces’ (gay bars and clubs) so integral, because they were places of refuge where gay and queer folk could express themselves openly and with less fear of harm.
However, the New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or suspected LGBT individuals, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals, due to our criminal status, was “disorderly.”
Thanks to activists’ efforts, these regulations were overturned in 1966, and LGBT patrons could then be served alcohol. However engaging in ‘gay behavior’ in public (holding hands, kissing or dancing with someone of the same sex) was still illegal, so police harassment of gay bars continued and many bars still operated without liquor licenses—in part because they were owned by the Mafia.
The Mafia – which had a stranglehold on nightlife since the end of Prohibition – spotted a gap in the market. There was a whole new audience who wanted to go to a bar or nightclub to experience the then luxury of being among other gay people.
“The Mafia didn’t much care about enforcing societal mores or respecting government rules,” historical author Phillip J Crawford told Vice.
“Sure, many mobsters had a homophobic bent and often expressed their contempt for gay patrons, but generally there was a benign tolerance for the LGBT+ community based on financial interests, and they separated their personal lives from business affairs.”
The mafia still weren’t particularly friendly – it was business. Not caring too much about the patrons’ experience Stonewall had no fire exits, no running water, and the toilets routinely overflowed. Patrons accepted cheap, watered-down alcohol sold at extremely high mark-ups just to feel safe around each other and because it became a place where LGBTQ+ people were free to be themselves, it quickly became an institution.
“The mob’s exploitation of the gay community was among the reasons for the 1969 protests outside the Stonewall Inn,” Crawford continued.
“Indeed, after the Stonewall protests, one of the principal goals of the activist groups such as Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front was to get organised crime out of the gay bars.”
Some UK activists were involved in some of these key moments in the US movement, and they came back to Britain to form a British chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, meeting for the first time at the LSE library in October 1970, with the first UK Gay Pride Rally taking place a few years later on 1 July 1972, in London.
While community marches and demonstrations had taken place prior to this date, the first officially coordinated UK Gay Pride march was held in London on 1 July 1972.
This took place soon after the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, which were a response to continued oppression and harassment from the city and police forces. The first London march both celebrated LGBT+ individuals and demonstrated the need for improved representation and rights.
The march was made up of many prominent organisations which represented LGBT+ people across the UK, with around 2,000 people in attendance.