The Day an Army of Rainbow Clad Gays Fought for Liberty
The Mafia, Crooked Cops, a Bar, a Riot and one of History;s Greatest Acts of Civil Disobedience
Many of us know Pride Day for little more than the outlandish parades and traffic jams. Some question why a day to celebrate sexual orientation is even needed. We can learn a lot from the origins of the celebration: a story which includes the mafia, crooked cops, a riot and a small army of gays fighting for liberty.
Up to the 1950s and 60s, ‘open homosexuality’ was illegal in the US. In New York City, despite having a huge gay population for centuries, gay bars and clubs were also illegal. Openly gay people would even be refused entry into public places.
The combination of laws targeting a group perceived as unpopular and weak led to rampant abuse. Immoral police officers and homophobics used the perceived weakness of gays and the law as an excuse to hand out beatings at will. Civilians who decided to “bash gays” for fun would rarely be prosecuted as other violent offenders. Gays, facing stigma, persecution and laws and a justice system stacked against them might not even bother reporting abuse.
Only 40 short years ago, America saw gays afraid to identify themselves, victims of extreme discrimination, the subject of jokes and slurs and victims of legal abuse and physical violence. The late 60s saw civil rights unrest, war protests, increases in crime and, unfortunately, an increase in police brutality and government abuse as well.
Late evening on Saturday June 27, 1969, undercover officers entered the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in NYC, a known gay bar. Many times in recent years people had been harassed, arrested and beaten by police for being gay. Gay clubs and bars were raided or shut down, often violently, with customers arrested, beaten or humiliated. This particular club lasted longer than some because it was owned by a major mafia crime family who made payoffs.
Bad laws bring corruption and a missed bribe, not concern for public safety, brought the officers. Two hours later, the undercover officers were joined by nightstick-wielding uniformed officers and announced they would be shutting the club down. In a big variation of the way this scene had played out a thousand times before, this time, the patrons then said those all-powerful words: “I refuse.”
No. These gay patrons, these people who were marginalized, outlawed, laughed at and abused, who hid in this windowless refuge, these particular American citizens would not comply. Not tonight. These people had enough of thugs and government telling them how to live their lives. When the officers shouted for the “fags” to get in line and do as ordered, they refused. When the nightsticks came out, the gays fought back.
Patrons who had harmed no one were rounded up for arrest or told to line up and leave. When one handcuffed gay woman was hit in the head with a billy club, the crowd reached its tipping point. Some police were trapped inside the club and the Public Morals Squad of the police department waited outside, eventually calling in NYPD Tactical Support. The arrival of more officers brought attention from residents of the village who came out of their homes, people from the community, people from other clubs and a share of blacks and anti-war activists who had also seen their own share of police brutality. Many of these people, gay and straight, stood side by side with the citizens of their community against the police.
The citizens fought the police for over two hours. Most humiliating to the officers and most effective for the citizens were the flamboyant chants and mockery the citizens performed while surrounding the riot phalanx. While the heavily armed officers tried to contain the much larger crowd of citizens, they were mimicked, laughed at, danced around and sung about in a way that only several hundred Greenwich Village gays, including a few “drag queens” and professional entertainers could. The police eventually arrested a handful of people and backed down. They destroyed what was left of the Stonewall Inn with the officers who were defeated by “queers” facing ridicule from bigots for years.
It may seem silly or simple to someone who never walked in the shoes of those who were victims. But their bravery was just as great as the Tiananmen Square tank man or anyone else who faced men with guns and didn’t blink. America is about the freedom to do what you want, be who you want and pursue whatever makes you happy without harming others. Not everyone will agree on lifestyle, religion, morals, beliefs or anything else. We choose to live and let live. Liberty is afforded to all and that no one has the right to harm another unless in defense. This goes for government officers and politicians eager to pass more laws as well. These people fought this night for their freedom.
Sometimes our precious rights are protected and defended by brave strong men who marched ashore on D Day (plenty of whom were gay by the way) and sometimes those rights are protected by citizens who say “I refuse”: a woman who won’t move to the back of the bus, a man who won’t submit to a checkpoint or a teacher who won’t be told what to read. Human rights are not always taken away; sometimes they are lost because they are not exercised, because saying “I refuse” is often too darned hard.
In a perfect end to the saga, gays involved in the riot met the next day at nearby Christopher Park. The park now holds a monument to them and the Stonehill Inn is a National Historic Site. They decided that they would never again be victim to police batons and slurs. They decided that they would never again pay bribes to live life as they chose. They also decided that they would no longer hide behind closed doors. These brave people decided that they would be and act as gay as they wanted, (and then some) and in fact would have a parade to show that pride. And so it was, Pride Day was born. A parade of such ridiculous flamboyance, public affection and queer celebration that it would overwhelm and send those who feared them into hiding. Especially early on, when illegal or shunned, they would risk arrest and beating and even death but they would, on this day, without fear, display who they are and who they have affection for. The day is now celebrated around the world.
Yes, sometimes our rights are protected and defended by Marines, tough as nails civil rights lawyers and gun-toting redneck liberty activists. Sometimes, our most precious rights: the rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are protected and defended by half naked really gay guys wearing really gay rainbow feather costumes and the less flamboyant, less publicized allies who walk with them. To those of you with such courage and you who fought in June 1969, thank you. Gays had their rights as gays protected that day — those of us who are straight had our rights as Americans protected that day. For that you are owed honors as high as anyone who protects these rights.
Happy Pride Day.
Bruce Fenton is a voluntaryist and free market economist who focuses on emerging markets and emerging technology such as Blockchain Tech.