In 1917, foreign LGBT people were barred from legally immigrating to the United States due to their supposed “psychopathic personality disorder.”2 Illinois was the only state in the country, since 1961, where homosexuality was not explicitly outlawed. New York’s penal code called for the arrest of anyone in public wearing fewer than three items of clothing “appropriate” to their gender. And California’s Atascadero State Hospital was compared with a Nazi concentration camp and known as a “Dachau for queers” for performing electroshock and other draconian “therapies” on gays and lesbians.

Sex between consenting adults of the same sex, even in a private home, was punishable for up to life in prison, confinement in a mental institution, or even castration. “Loitering in a public toilet” was an offense that could blacklist a man from work and social networks, as lists of arrestees were often printed in newspapers and other public records. Most states had laws barring homosexuals from receiving professional licenses, which could also be revoked upon discovery. In a society filled with hatred, fear, and ignorance of homosexuality there was at least one public venue for socializing where gays and lesbians in most major towns and cities could go—the bars. But as with all public life for LGBT people,the bars also provided a site for police and authorities to harass and humiliate their victims. From police entrapment in public cruising spots and raids on bars for perceived “disorderly” conduct within, the cultural openings and nascent activism of gays and lesbians was frustrated by state repression from California to New York.

Despite there being no explicit laws against serving gays, many bars refused to do so, and there was no legal recourse since kissing or dancing with a member of the same sex and cross-dressing were considered disorderly. It was in this context that the Mafia came to run many of the drinking establishments that catered to gays, lesbians, and transgendered people in New York City. The Stonewall Inn was no exception.

New York’s Greenwich Village. The Stonewall Riots that began in the wee hours of June 28, 1969,1 lasted six nights and catapulted the issue of sexual liberation out of the Dark Ages and into a new era. What separates the Stonewall Riots from all previous gay activism was not merely the unexpected nights-long defiance in the streets, but the conscious mobilization of new and seasoned activists in the riot’s wake who gave expression to this more militant mood.


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Victor van der Meer

Founder & Director of My Rainbow Net Pty. Ltd.

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