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Gay Rights Movement: 40 Years Since Stonewall Riots

Luis Torres de la Llosa

NEW YORK  - Forty years ago, a New York City bar called the Stonewall Inn shot to global attention when its gay clientele staged a revolt against police harassment, launching the US homosexual rights movement.

The popular bar in the Greenwich Village community gave its name to the spontaneous uprising that rocked the neighborhood for five consecutive nights, as homosexuals fought back against police raids targeting gay-friendly establishments.

"Stonewall was a surprise -- it was a surprise to everyone that participated, as much as it was a surprise to the city," said Martin Boyce, who back then was a 16 year-old participant in the riots.

Raids on gay bars were commonplace then, but by the time police stormed the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969, beleaguered members of New York's homosexual community had had enough.

"When the police tried to disperse us we came in on them -- and the time had come for it," Boyce told AFP.

As the raid continued inside the bar, a crowd gathered on the street outside and tensions -- already at a near boiling point between the city's gay community and police -- overflowed.

"This was our street, it was the street where we were safe on," Boyce told AFP.

"This was never a riot against straight people, this was a riot against the police, which caused us so much sorrow, but led to this movement."

Observers and participants looking back said in hindsight the riots, involving about 200 mostly young gays, among them drag queens and lesbians, should have been no surprise, given the anti-authoritarian mood of the era.

At the time, they note, revolution was all the rage, including the 1968 student protests, the Black Power Movement, demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the hippie counter-culture movement.

"There was a general dislike of the police -- even in the straight world," said Robert Bryan, 63, another veteran of the uprising.

"Hippies and Black Panthers hated the police, so we were sort of joining this feeling.

"It was a revolutionary feeling against the establishment and against the police -- looking for more freedom to be whoever we were," said Bryan, who at the time worked for a bank, before finding work in the fashion industry.

He said the raid quickly evolved into a pitched battle between police inside the bar and scores of protesters who gathered outside of it.


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"It was Friday night so everybody was out, and one thing led to another. Things just got out of control," Bryan told AFP.

"I arrived not long before things started to get violent that night. People were in a very festive mood, there were laughing and making fun of the police and one thing led into another," he said.

Before long, Bryan continued, "I was digging up stones from around the parking meters and hurling them at Stonewall. Someone tried to set The Stonewall on fire at some point and the police who were inside came out and dragged in people from the crowd and beat them."

In the end, 13 people were arrested and four police injured that night, according to press accounts. Police battled gay demonstrators over the four ensuing nights with equal ferocity.

But the uprising gave rise to the gay pride movement that still marks the anniversary every year with a parade down Fifth Avenue, on what has come to be known as Gay Pride Day.

This Sunday's parade, on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, is one of several events planned to mark the Stonewall anniversary.

Among other events -- an recent exhibition about the riots was held at the New York Public Library, and a documentary film is scheduled to air next year on public television stations.

David Carter, author of one of the definitive works about the uprising, "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparkled the Gay Revolution," said America's gay pride movement advanced only in fits and starts until Stonewall, which helped forge a sense of gay outrage and identity.

"Here in the United States there were organized, ongoing political movements since 1950. But the movement did not have much success, mainly because it never became a mass movement," he said.

"Stonewall changed a small movement into a mass movement and therefore put it forever on the map of American politics."

Bryan said many things have changed since then, not least the atmosphere.

"Now there are gay bars all over the place and people can go anywhere and do anything, but still it is not as crazy, as it was then," he told AFP.

"Down there in Christopher Street there were trucks that were parked under the west side highway, and hundreds and hundreds of people would go down to these trucks that were left open, and it was a wild orgy. There is nothing like that now."

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