LGBT+ History Month: How the Press Reported the Stonewall Riots in 1969

In the early morning hours of June 28th 1969, LGBT+ New Yorkers took a sporadic stand against police officers following a raid that took place earlier that evening. The spontaneous raid – to ensure the three piece clothing law was being adhered to – buckled the New York City queer community following years of violence and discrimination.

Today we regard the happenings as revolutionary, brave and necessary, and champion the LGBT+ people who took a stand against lawful discrimination for living as their true selves. But this wasn’t always the case. As part of LGBT History Month 2017, we’ve delved into the archives to discover how American press covered the Stonewall Riots in the Summer of 1969.

New York’s Sunday News describe the Stonewall Inn as a place to drink and dance “and do whatever little girls do when they get together,” with every attempt to emasculate gay men and deny LGBT+ people of their identity, masc or femme. The headline itself – “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad” – attacks gay, lesbian and trans people simply for standing up for their rights.

Sensationalism runs wild in the article, focusing not on the movement that was about to begin, but focusing on the fact that drag queens, do in fact, exist. “She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry,” the article begins. “She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave. A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.

“Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs; the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St, in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt. New York City experienced its first homosexual riot. “We may have lost the battle, sweets, but the war is far from over,” lisped an unofficial lady-in-waiting from the court of the Queens, the article continues.

Similar to the coverage in the 1950s, many newspapers still commonly referred to homosexuals as “queers”, “faggots” or “queens”. For instance, the Village Voice newspaper referred to the riot as “fag follies” and the homosexuals involved as “forces of faggotry”.

The New York Daily News reported the night, drawing on the fact that three police officers were injured during the riots, describing the momentous night as a “melee”. They went on to inform readers that the protest was “A predawn police raid on a reputed Greenwich Village homosexual hangout, the second raid within a week, touched off a two-hour melee yesterday as customers and villagers swarmed over the plainclothes cops.”

The article dismisses the notion that the raids were an attack on LGBT+ people, rather focussing on a claim that the raids were to seize illegal alcohol.

“Yesterday, at 2 am, plainclothesmen, under direction of Inspectors Seymour Pine and Charles Smyth, moved in under orders to gather fresh evidence of illegal sale of alcohol, arrest offending parties and close the bar. After 28 cases of beer and 19 bottles of liquor were confiscated, police began clearing the bar.”

The New York Times published a series of news reports in the week following on from the riots, criminalising the gay men who protested, referring to them as “hostile”. Throughout the three reports, the Stonewall Inn was widely reported as a bar “frequented by homosexuals”, however the LGBT+ men and women who fought in the riots did not have their sexual orientation recognised or acknowledged.

In the politically turbulent times where ‘alternative facts’ are the norm, protests are becoming more and more frequent. Let’s all do our part in holding power to account by making sure that we consult a range of sources before passing judgement on those who are protesting.

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