Scores of people gathered outside San Jose City Hall Thursday evening to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a protest against police brutality that catalyzed the gay rights movement.
“It was the first spark that ignited a rebellion,” Tony Russomanno, a member of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party said at the rally. “People were coming out of the closet right after the riot. It made people sit up and take notice. It made me notice because I was an 18-year-old in Manhattan.”
It all started at a mafia-run gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, called the Stonewall Inn. In the 1960s, police routinely raided establishments that allowed queer and trans clientele, citing and arresting customers for things like cross-dressing.
Cops would often detain people based on a so-called “three article rule,” an informal policy requiring people to wear at least as many items of “gender appropriate” clothing.
Like many mafia-run gay clubs of the day, the proprietors of Stonewall—led by “Fat Tony” Lauria—bribed police $1,200 a month to look the other way. But on the night of June 28, 1969, police swarmed Stonewall and began violently frisking customers.
Marsha P. Johnson, a drag queen whose resistance that night made her one of the vanguards of the movement, was partying with friends when cops came crashing in.
“Ms. Johnson was celebrating her birthday that night,” Erika Ervin, who is a model, fitness trainer and actress best known for her role in American Horror Story, said during the San Jose memorial. “Ms. Rivera threw a bottle at the police. It went down after that.”
The crowd outside Stonewall Inn taunted the police and threw pocket change at them. As the police sought refuge in the Stonewall Inn, the crowd set the place ablaze. Firefighters and more cops arrived to handle the situation.
But the riots continued for yet another five days.
The uprising of the LGBT community at Stonewall Inn reverberated across the world, said Gabrielle Antolovich, head of San Jose’s Billy BeFrank LGBTQ Community Center. At the time, she was a 19-year-old living in Sydney, Australia. Seeing the uprising changed the course of her life.
“I dropped out of university because of my sexual orientation,” she recalls. “I couldn’t stand the world. And when Stonewall happened, I felt like I belong somewhere.”