History Stories

The movement for LGBT rights in the United States dates at least as far back as the 1920s, when the first documented gay rights organization was founded. Since then, various groups have advocated for LGBT rights and the movement accelerated in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Below is a list of surprising facts about Stonewall and the struggles and milestones of the gay rights movement.

1. The first documented U.S. gay rights organization was founded in Chicago in 1924.

Henry Gerber, a German immigrant, founded the Society for Human Rights, the first documented gay rights organization in the United States. During his U.S. Army service in World War I, Gerber was inspired to create his organization by the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, a “homosexual emancipation” group in Germany.

Gerber’s small group published a few issues of its newsletter “Friendship and Freedom,” the country’s first gay-interest newsletter. Police raids forced the group to disband in 1925. But 90 years later, the U.S. government designated Gerber’s Chicago house a National Historic Landmark.

READ MORE: A History of the U.S. Gay Rights Movement

2. The pink triangle was co-opted from the Nazis and reclaimed as a badge of pride.

Homosexual prisoners at the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, wearing pink triangles on their uniforms on December 19, 1938.

Homosexual prisoners at the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, wearing pink triangles on their uniforms on December 19, 1938.

Before the pink triangle became a worldwide symbol of gay power, it was intended as a badge of shame. In Nazi Germany, a downward-pointing pink triangle was sewn onto the shirts of gay men in concentration camps—to identify and further dehumanize them.

In 1972, The Men with the Pink Triangle, the first autobiography of a gay concentration camp survivor, was published. The next year, post-war Germany’s first gay rights organization, Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW), reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of liberation.

READ MORE: What Is the Meaning of the Pink Triangle?

3. Three years before Stonewall, a protest for gay rights started in another New York City bar.

Julius' Sip-In

After pouring their drinks, a bartender in Julius's Bar refuses to serve John Timmins, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and Randy Wicker, members of the Mattachine Society who were protesting New York liquor laws that prevented serving gay customers, 1966.

In 1966, three members of the Mattachine Society, an early organization dedicated to fighting for gay rights, staged a “sip-in”—a twist on the “sit-in” protests of the 1960s. The trio visited taverns, declared themselves gay, and waited to be turned away so they could sue.

Although the State Liquor Authority initially denied the men's discrimination claim, the Commission on Human Rights argued that gay individuals had the right to be served in bars. For the next few years in New York, the gay community felt empowered. Police raids became less commonplace and gay bar patrons, while still oppressed in society, had recovered their safe havens.

READ MORE: The Gay Sip-In That Drew From the Civil Rights Movement

4. The Mafia ran gay bars in NYC in the 1960s.

An NYPD officer grabs someone by their hair as another officer clubs a young man during a confrontation in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1970. 

An NYPD officer grabs someone by their hair as another officer clubs a young man during a confrontation in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1970. 

It was an unlikely partnership. But between New York’s LGBT community in the 1960s being forced to live on the outskirts of society and the Mafia’s disregard for the law, the two became a profitable, if uneasy, match.

The State Liquor Authority and the New York Police Department regularly raided bars that catered to gay patrons. Where the law saw deviance, the Mafia saw a golden business opportunity. A member of the Genovese family, Tony Lauria, a.k.a. “Fat Tony,” purchased the Stonewall Inn in 1966 and transformed it into a gay bar and nightclub.

To operate the Stonewall and its other gay bars, the Mafia bribed the NYPD to turn a blind eye to the “indecent conduct” occurring behind closed doors. They also blackmailed wealthy gay patrons by threatening to “out” them.

READ MORE: How the Mob Helped Establish NYC’s Gay Bar Scene

5. Police used a 19th-century masquerade law to arrest people dressed in drag.

People in drag being arrested

Many men dressed as women were locked up on charges of masquerading and indecent exposure at the National Variety Artists' Exotic Carnival and Ball held at the Manhattan Center in 1962. Police and detectives herded the costumed guests into police wagons in front of the ball. 

In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, LGBT people were regularly arrested for violating what became known as the three-article rule—or the three-piece law. The rule stipulated that a person was required to wear at least three gender-appropriate articles of clothing to avoid arrest for cross-dressing. It was referenced everywhere—including in reports about arrests in Greenwich Village in the weeks and months leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

The problem is, the law technically never existed.

Instead, accounts suggest that police generally used old, often unrelated laws to target LGBT people. In New York, a law commonly used against the LGBT community dates to 1845 and was originally intended to punish rural farmers, who had taken to dressing like Native Americans to fight off tax collectors.

READ MORE: How Dressing in Drag Was Labeled a Crime

6. On the night of the Stonewall Riots, police barricaded themselves inside the bar.

After midnight on an unseasonably hot Friday night in 1969, the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village was packed when police officers entered the bar. As they began making arrests, patrons started to resist and push back.

What ensued was an uprising that would launch a new era of resistance and revolution.

Close to 4 a.m. on June 28, 1969 the mob of protestors outside the Stonewall had grown so large and unruly that the original NYPD raiding party retreated into the Stonewall itself and barricaded themselves inside. Some rioters used a parking meter as a battering ram to break through the door; others threw beer bottles, trash and other objects, or made impromptu firebombs.

No one died or was critically injured on the first night of the Stonewall Riots, though a few police officers reported injuries.

READ MORE: What Happened at the Stonewall Riots? A Timeline of the 1969 Uprising

7. Organizers of the first gay pride parade opted for the "Pride" slogan over "Gay Power."

The Stonewall Riots made clear that the LGBT movement needed to be loud and visible to demand change. Five months after the riots, activists proposed a resolution at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations in Philadelphia that a march be held in New York City to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the raid. Their proposal was for an annual march on the last Saturday in June with “no dress or age regulations.”

When organizers were looking for a slogan for the event, a member of the planning committee, L. Craig Schoonmaker, suggested “Pride.” The idea of “Gay Power” was thrown around as well, but Schoonmaker argued that while gay individuals lacked power, one thing they did have was pride.

The official chant for the march became: “Say it loud, gay is proud.”

READ MORE: How Activists Plotted the First Gay Pride Parades

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