Stonewall Riots and Judy Garland: Facts and Myths

For some reasons, the myths persist that the Stonewall Riots and Judy Garland’s death occurred on the same day.

They did not.

The Stonewall Riots, also called the Stonewall Uprising, began in the early hours of June 28, 1969 when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village in New York City.

The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar on Christopher Street, and in neighboring streets.

Up to the late 1960s, solicitation of same-sex relations was illegal in New York. Gay men went to gay bars and clubs, where they could express themselves openly and socialize without worry. However, the New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or suspect, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.”

After activists’ efforts, these regulations were overturned in 1966, and LGBT patrons could now be served alcohol. But engaging in gay behavior in public (holding hands, kissing, or dancing with someone of the same sex) was still illegal, so police harassment of gay bars continued and bars still operated without liquor licenses—in part because they were owned by the Mafia.

The crime syndicate saw profit in catering to shunned gay clientele, and by the mid-1960s, the Genovese crime family controlled most Greenwich Village gay bars. In 1966, they purchased Stonewall Inn (a “straight” bar and restaurant), cheaply renovated it, and reopened it the next year as a gay bar.

Stonewall Inn was registered as a type of private “bottle bar,” which did not require a liquor license because patrons were supposed to bring their own liquor. Club attendees had to sign their names in a book upon entry to maintain the club’s false exclusivity. The Genovese family bribed New York’s Sixth Police Precinct to ignore the activities occurring within the club.

Without police interference, the crime family could cut costs how they saw fit: The club lacked a fire exit, running water behind the bar to wash glasses, clean toilets that didn’t routinely overflow, and palatable drinks that weren’t watered down beyond recognition. What’s more, the Mafia reportedly blackmailed the club’s wealthier patrons who wanted to keep their sexuality a secret.

Stonewall Inn quickly became an important Greenwich Village institution. Relatively cheap to enter, it welcomed drag queens, who received a bitter reception at other gay bars and clubs. It was also a home for many runaways and homeless gay youths. And it was one of few gay bar that allowed dancing.

Corrupt cops would tip off Mafia-run bars before they occurred, allowing owners to stash the alcohol and hide other illegal activities.  The NYPD had stormed Stonewall Inn just a few days before the riot-inducing raid.

When police raided Stonewall Inn on the morning of June 28, it was a surprise, as the bar wasn’t tipped off this time. Armed with a warrant, police officers  roughed up patrons, and arrested 13 people, including employees and violators of the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute.

Fed up with constant police harassment and social discrimination, angry patrons and residents hung around outside of the bar rather than disperse.  When an officer hit a lesbian over the head as he forced her into the paddy wagon, she shouted to onlookers to act, inciting the crowd to begin throw bottles, cobble stones, and other objects at the police.

Within minutes, a riot involving hundreds began. The police, prisoners, and a Village Voice writer barricaded themselves in the bar, which the mob attempted to set on fire.

The fire department and a riot squad were able to douse the flames, rescue those inside Stonewall, and disperse the crowd. But the protests, involving thousands of people, continued for five more days, flaring up at after the Village Voice published an account of the riots.

Judy Garland, who will never be forgotten for her starring role in The Wizard of Oz, in which she sang “Over the Rainbow,” was a gay icon.

She was found dead at age 47 on June 22, 1969. The coroner stated that the cause of death was “an incautious self-overdosage” of barbiturates. Her death certificate states that it was accidental.