Throughout history, the quest for civil rights has been waged by many groups of people, seeking not only acceptance in society, but also granting of equal rights to the majority of those societies. Among the groups which has struggled with issues of acceptance and equality are gays and lesbians, who have been accepted only to a certain extent, with injustice periodically rearing its ugly head. One pivotal event in the gay and lesbian civil rights struggle occurred on June 28, 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York, when police clashed with the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay and lesbian nightspot, an event that in retrospect would become known as the Stonewall Riot.
In this paper, the timing and significance of the Stonewall Riot will be discussed, as well as the context of the event in terms of the history of gay and lesbian rights, where necessary.
Timing of the Stonewall Riot
When discussing the timing of the Stonewall Riot, there were two specific events that coincided with the event that may have accelerated the ensuing violence. Overall, the summer of 1969 was a time of social and cultural change in America, as young people fought to express themselves and oppose the actions of the government, especially the increasing level of military involvement in Vietnam (Bull, 2001). Focusing exclusively on the City of New York and its gay and lesbian populations, these individuals were especially distraught in late June, 1969 due to the death of celebrity, and homosexual icon Judy Garland, whose funeral was being held in New York at the time of the Stonewall Riot (Marcus, 2002). In retrospect, it appears that the high emotions among the homosexual community of New York turned aggressive when police raided the Stonewall Inn on that hot summer night.
Stonewall Riot as a Landmark in the Civil Rights Struggle
There are several key reasons why the Stonewall Riot soon became a landmark in the Civil Rights struggle. Overall, the riot stood as an indication of the social climate of the time, when the general feeling in society was that those in authority-in this case the New York City Police, were taking too many liberties with their power and needed to be prevented from abusing that power. The riot also sent a strong message that the homosexual community would no and unequal treatment in society, and demanded equal rights and recognition. Lastly, the riot has such significance because it represents the climax of a struggle which had literally been centuries in the making.
As was mentioned previously, the Stonewall Riot, it can be argued, was also brought about due to the general sociopolitical environment of late 1960s America. Many groups of people who were on the of society, homosexuals included, were staking claim to their piece of the American dream and their fair share of the rights that the to all Americans without exception.
Taking a step backward so to speak, the significance of the Stonewall Riot is amplified when its basic premise is put into historical context, namely the fact that homosexuals sought equal acceptance and rights in society and were willing to fight for it.
Historically, it can fairly be said in general that homosexuality has been overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of society; this is not to say that this rejection is right or just, but the rejection has existed nonetheless. Over the centuries, the message of public rejection of homosexuality has ranged from outlawing of homosexual acts, to violence and death threats against homosexuals themselves, forcing many who had genuine, loving relationships to keep those relationships a , lest they face the wrath of society and the legal system (Rupp, 2002).
The dichotomy between the acceptance of homosexuals by society and the attainment of legal rights for homosexuals is a strange irony that not only was one of the underpinnings of the Stonewall Riot, but also has caused much of the turmoil for this particular civil rights struggle throughout history. For example, in colonial America, there were homosexual men who, by all appearances, were accepted in the social fabric of the time, but faced legal actions due to laws that were hastily passed, outlawing homosexual acts, even between consenting adults (Bull, 2001). This type of situation points out something that becomes apparent when studying these events in retrospect- while the general population claimed to be accepting of homosexuality, there were those who held a great deal of moral outrage for the lifestyle, and used the mechanism of the legal system to show their disdain, much like poll laws, literacy tests and the like were used in opposition to African-Americans in the years before the Civil War.
Exceptions to the Rule
Research also reveals that there were some exceptions to the social and legal exclusion of homosexuals from the mainstream of early America; these specific examples can be seen in a study of the city of Boston in the early days of the American colonies. Ironically enough, Boston, which in itself would eventually come to stand as an icon in the fight for liberty and justice, valued homosexuals not en masse, but rather welcomed worthy people into society without judging them based on sexual orientation, which is the personification of the rights that would be fought for centuries later at an inn in New York on a summer night in 1969 (Frank & the History Project, 1999).
As this paper has shown, the Stonewall Riot is significant in the annals of history for many reasons: in the literal interpretation of the event, we see the fight for homosexuals to be accepted as social and legal equals in a society that claims to embrace everyone but all too often excludes many for the slimmest of reasons. In a larger sense, the Stonewall Riot is symbolic of the American spirit, which declares that infringement of rights will not be tolerated by any oppressed group. Finally, the Stonewall Riot broadcasts a message of hope for all those who seek civil rights that the oppressive nature of the established authority is, and never should be, immune from reprimand from the people from whom their power is derived.
Bull, Chris (2001). Come Out Fighting. New York: Thunder’s Mouth/Nation Books.
Frank, Barney, & the History Project (1999). Improper Bostonians. New York: Harper Collins.
Marcus, Eric (2002). Making Gay History. New York: Harper Collins.
Rupp, Leila J. (2002). Desired Past. New York: Houghton Mifflin Press.