The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World

Much had been accomplished for homosexuals, but there were still very few political gains or social acceptance. The true beginning of the homosexual rights movement was at about 3:00 AM on June 28, 1969. It was at this time that police raided Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher Street in New York, New York.

The Stonewall Inn was a homosexual bar in the heart of a three block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. The bar’s clientele consisted of men from their late teens to their early thirties. Street kids, the “sweater set”, college students, drag queens, “flame queens” (men in men’s clothes but with makeup and women’s hair), and even a small number of hippies could be found in regular attendance. Though there were some, not many women attended the club. The club had a dark dance floor, and it was one of the few places in the city where men could dance with each other. The Stonewall Inn sold both drinks and illegal drugs, mainly uppers and acid, and it was because of the drinks that the entire situation began. Homosexuals liked the inn because of its popularity; it had a strength-in-numbers appeal that would inevitably prove disastrous for a squadron of police.

Most people had no trouble with Stonewall Inn. Shirley Evans, a neighbor of the inn with two children, said, “Up until the night of the police raid there was never any trouble there. The homosexuals minded their own business and never bothered a soul. There were never any fights or hollering, or anything like that. They just wanted to be left alone. I don’t know what they did inside, but that’s their business. I was never in there myself. It was just awful when the police came. It was like a swarm of hornets attacking a bunch of butterflies.

Despite most acceptance of the club, some people in the neighborhood and surrounding city felt that the bar was a bad place. They felt that it was unsanitary and it was even suspected to be the cause of a hepatitis outbreak in early 1968. Also, it was common knowledge that the bar was run by the Mafia.

In the 1960s, homosexual bars went unlicensed by the government because there were laws against homosexual close-dancing and serving homosexuals at bars. Though these laws changed in 1969, it was too late for Stonewall Inn. In order to get around this, the Mafia created “private clubs” like Stonewall Inn to avoid the need for liquor licensing. According to the police, the club “had the tightest security in the Village. We could never get near the place without a warrant.” There was a bouncer at the front door who would ask people for their names so that they could sign a guest book which could be used to prove that it was a private club.

On the 28th of June, there was a typical police raid planned. At 3:00 in the morning, police came into Stonewall Inn with a warrant for a search of the club for alcohol. Stonewall Inn had already been raided once before that week. It was about the time for a mayoral election, and the public liked to see the incumbent crack down on homosexual bars. Eight officers, two of them women, entered the bar that morning with the intent of closing Stonewall Inn down.

The people inside the bar were feeling not only depressed but also angry that night in particular. They were feeling pent up oppression that needed to be released with the coming of the sexual revolution. They were fed up with the recent harassment of homosexual bars in the past few weeks, and they were also mourning the death of Judy Garland. She was considered a homosexual icon in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time it was believed that she had taken her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills, though later proof was found that showed that she did not kill herself and that she simply had a negative reaction to her medication. Perhaps if they had not been so depressed over her alleged suicide, the riots would have been avoided.

The policemen ordered an ID inspection of the 200+ people at the club that night. They detained those people with no ID, cross-dressers (which was still illegal), and employees of the bar. The people gathered outside and those who were arrested were taken to the paddy wagon. The others began to crowd around the wagon and both the police and the crowd were becoming agitated.

Reports vary on who exactly began the riot. Some say an enraged lesbian began it, others an arrested drag queen, and still others that a homosexual man did it. In all probability, it was probably a mixture of all three of these things. As word spread of what was happening, homosexuals from throughout the neighborhood flocked to Stonewall Inn and added to the size of the crowd. The homosexuals in the crowd forced the cops into the building and besieged them. Ironically, the cops took a hostage with them, Dave Van Ronk, who ended up being a straight man who came out onto the street to see what was going on. In no time at all, a Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) arrived, which consisted of two dozen policemen. They locked arms and began an assault on the crowd. After two hours, thirteen people were arrested, seven for liquor, and five for assault. One policeman broke his wrist, which is in a way ironically tied to the limp-wristed stereotypical homosexual male.

Word of the riot spread quickly. Graffiti appeared on the side of the club that essentially said “Legalize homosexual bars and stop the Mafia problem”. The next night, after repairing the damaged building, the bar reopened, beer-free, and the attendance was so phenomenal that the crowd poured out into the street. The police tried to clear away the crowd, but the crowd resisted, amongst cries of “Gay power!” and many public displays of affection. Another TPF unit arrived this night too, but the crowd was prepared. A group of cross-dressers circled around the side streets and came in behind the TPF, arms locked to form a chorus line. The locked line of drag queens met the locked line of the TPF with the traditional chorus line kicks, showing that the homosexuals now wanted to fight back and that they wouldn’t take the police lying down. Older homosexuals were ashamed of what these younger homosexuals were doing. They believed that they were now taking the fact that they were homosexual and flaunting it.

That Sunday, the 30th, the Mattachine Society made an attempt to calm the ever-slipping relationship between the homosexuals and the police. They painted a sign on the side of Stonewall Inn that said to the homosexuals that they should not be rioting against the police. Apparently, despite the beginnings of a revolution, many conservative homosexuals still felt that they should hide in the background. While many liked that they were finally getting recognized, others felt that they were getting the wrong attention. Randy Wicker said that the sight “of screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything I wanted people to think about homosexuals… that we were a bunch of drag queens in the village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap.”

Despite disunity in the cause, other activists welcomed the turbulence and tried to harness the “gay power”. Some members of the Mattachine Society began distributing fliers condemning the State Liquor Authority and the police. Craig Rodwell distributed flyers that said, “Get the Mafia and the Cops Out of Gay Bars”. The movement had started, and with a little effort, these people continued it.

Sunday night there were more confrontations between the homosexuals and the police. According to the poet, Allen Ginsberg, “the guys there were so beautiful- they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.” At 1:00 AM, the police swept in again, and the riots repeated.

On Monday and Tuesday, it rained, so not much happened. Wednesday was the last night of the riots, and that night the TPF swept through violently. Tear gas and other debilitating weapons were used against the crowd, and the riots then became called “The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World”. At the time, only a handful of people truly understood that these riots would soon be a part of history.

Over the next few weeks, a rash of meetings were held for homosexual liberation and gay power. In late July, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded. The riots received a lot of biased media coverage, but it was coverage at the least. After the riots, homosexuals would never hide in the background any more. In the fall of 1969, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee was founded to commemorate the riots. The next year, on June 28th, several hundred homosexuals gathered and marched up Sixth Avenue, gathering a crowd of thousands as they went. The movement even took on a nationwide scale as thousands marched in Los Angeles and hundreds marched in Chicago and San Francisco as well. Pressed on by the spirit of protest in the country caused by the civil rights movement, the anti-war sentiment, and the rebellion against President Nixon, the homosexuals used the momentum of the riots to become a visible existence in the United States.

The riots have many myths associated with them. It’s been said that many homosexual organizations came into existence because of them, but in reality, the organizations were always there. The only difference was that before they had been hidden in the background. There was even a small revolution before the riots that challenged the clinical view that homosexuality was a mental disorder and that promoted media coverage of homosexual events. By the late 1960s, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were beginning to take a crack at politics. Just months before the Stonewall incident, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom was created in San Francisco. It was not the beginning of the homosexual rights movement, but rather, the first time that anyone heard “The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World.”


Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth Century America, by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, c 1998

Stonewall, by Martin Duberman, c 1993

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