How 'Newsweek' Reported on the Stonewall Riots in 1969

"Some law-enforcement officials... still see the gay community as a well of criminal activity," 'Newsweek' reported in the 1969 article 'Policing the Third Sex.'

On June 28, 1969, a raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York's West Village sparked a protest by the city's LGBT community, tired of police harassment, discrimination and marginalization. Today, the Stonewall riots are considered the symbolic start of the modern LGBT rights movement.

stonewall inn
A raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York on June 28, 1969, helped launch the modern LGBT rights movement. Blackwater Images/Getty


On October 27, 1969,
Newsweek published an article addressing the uprising and the changing reality for LGBT Americans at the time, under the headline "Policing the Third Sex." Archaic in its terminology, it nonetheless offers an fascinating insight into the attitudes that led to Stonewall and the progress society was making in its immediate wake. We reproduce it below.

Policing the Third Sex

It began on a balmy June evening with a police raid on one of Greenwich Village's homosexual bars. In summers past, such an incident would have stirred little more than resigned shrugs among the Village's homophile population—but in 1969 the militant mood touches every minority. As the police evicted patrons, hundreds of angry young men gathered outside and began hurling stones, coins, garbage and obscenities. "Give me a G!" shouted a youth in caramel hip huggers and leather halter. "Give me an A! Give me a Y! Give me a P! Give me an O! … What does it spell?" The answer came in a falsetto chorus. "Gay power! Gay power! Gay, gay power to the gay, gay people!"

Inside the bar, Deputy Inspector Charles Smyth and ten patrolmen exchanged incredulous looks as they bolted the heavy wooden doors. Suddenly a brick shattered the plate-glass window, showering the inspector's head with slivers. Another brick struck a policeman's eye. Seconds later a fire bomb exploded in the room. Now the door was beginning to buckle under the mob's weight. Methodically, Smyth and his men drew their revolvers and formed a defensive line. They pointed their guns at the door. At exactly that moment, the wail of patrol-car sirens punctured the uproar. The trapped policemen lowered their guns and, within minutes, beefy reinforcements from the Tactical Patrol Force were dispersing the squealing protesters. "I was shaking for an hour later," Smyth recalled last week. "Believe me, I've never seen anything like it."

Greenwich Village's first gay-power demonstration was surprising enough in itself, but veteran police watchers were even more amazed by what followed—namely, nothing. There were no wholesale arrests, no reprisals, no harassment of the homosexual community. As in major cities around the country, New York's police were observing a real if tenuous détente with the third sex. In the city, which has become a sort of Mecca for homophiles, arrests of homosexuals have fallen from 800 in 1965 to fewer than 80 so far this year, and police have publicly announced announced abandonment of their "entrapment" techniques (in which a plain-clothes police officer poses as a pickup to lure a homosexual into making advances). And for two nights after the first demonstration, homosexuals paraded without police trouble in noisy protest marches under lavender "Gay Power" banners.

"The guys that night were so beautiful," says homosexual poet Allen Ginsberg. "They'd lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago."

Drag

Similarly, Washington police have dissolved their "peephole squad," which for years specialized in spying on lavatories in search of deviant activity. San Francisco police periodically brief homophile communities on their legal rights, while in Detroit this Halloween, the traditional night of homosexual saturnalia, the officers will forget about the city ordinance against transvestism and even guard drag queens from harassment by "straights."

The new tolerance comes grudgingly. Traditionally, the policeman seems to reserve a special contempt for deviants; cases of unprovoked homosexual beatings stain the records of almost every large department. But police aggressiveness toward homosexuals has been curbed by recent court decisions protecting the rights of homosexuals to socialize in private, and also by the new assertiveness of homophile organizations operating in some 50 U.S. cities. Indeed, a recently formed homosexual society in Los Angeles even went so far as to run one of its directors as a candidate during the City-Council primaries last April (he finished fourth in a field of seven).

Some law-enforcement officials, however, still see the gay community as a well of criminal activity. They point out that a growing number of homicides have homosexual overtones and that deviant hangouts are usually owned by organized crime, which sells homosexuals liquor, narcotics and privacy. Blackmailers posing as policemen frequently shake down the patrons of such hangouts on a promise not to go through with the "arrest." One such operator in Washington would establish credibility by taking his victim to police headquarters, where he would greet cops as they passed through the halls. The officers' responses would seem just friendly enough to set up the unsuspecting victim for the subsequent bargain of leniency.

A few cities still wage periodic crackdowns on their homophile communities—often with ludicrous results. During a single month this summer, for example, Atlanta police arrested nearly 200 homosexuals on charges ranging from solicitation to assault and battery. That stirred little notice in the press, but then police zeal got out of hand. Midway through the showing of Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys at a fashionable downtown cinema, the lights suddenly went up as police popped on stage and began snapping pictures of the startled audience. Since the film portrayed homosexual incidents, the official presumption was that the pictures would yield a valuable reference file for future morals investigations. But one member of the audience—a well-known Unitarian minister—promptly slapped the law-enforcement with a $500,000 invasion-of-privacy suit. The crackdown has not been repeated.

Progress

In contrast, the most effective modus vivendi between the Establishment and the third sex has been achieved in San Francisco, which boasts more homosexuals per capita than any other U.S. city. (The Institute for Sex Research estimates the figure at about 10 per cent of population vs. a national average of 4 per cent). The permissive climate nurtures 100 homosexual bars, five theaters specializing in boy/boy movies ("Gay Wild West," "Knight Rider") and a church with a largely homosexual congregation. During the last municipal elections, several candidates for mayor, supervisor and sheriff addressed a homosexual organization and even advertised in its publications. If members of the third sex encounter blatant forms of police harassment, they are encouraged to go to the department's Community Relations division, which usually straightens out matters.

Some among the city's homosexuals attribute their progress to the power that comes with numbers. Recently, for instance, a truck driver delivering beer to a gay bar was jostled by one of the patrons and made some obscenely pointed comments. Word of the incident spread along the homosexual grapevine; within a month, sales of that beer company were off some 20,000 cases. "This is the only city in the U.S. where we're completely organized," claims one San Francisco homophile. But others see more positive reasons for the new official tolerance. "The police just mirror the attitude of the community," says a local methodist minister. "Their attitude has changed because now there are more people seeking to understand and support homosexuals."

Are there? Or does the community at large exhibit tolerance as long as its deviant population remains quietly sub rosa? In New York City borough of Queens this summer, housewives began complaining to their men that a neighborhood park was becoming a homosexual preserve. Apparently, that was getting too close to home. A hastily formed vigilante committee began patrolling the park at night, harassing stag males with powerful flashlights and blunt threats. When that didn't work, the vigilantes simply gathered one night and cut down most of the park's trees.

Bug

While obviously rare, such incidents reinforce the doubts of some police officials about the current détente. "When we rode herd on the fags," says one New York Inspector, "they stayed with their own kind in their own places. They didn't bug people and the people didn't bug them." That view, of course, ignores two facts: that homosexuals are increasing in both numbers and visibility, and that their demands are no longer for simple privacy, but for full legal, economic and social integration.

"Things have changed considerably in the past five years," acknowledges a Greenwich Village homophile. "We don't have kids getting their genitals kicked any more. But we're not kidding ourselves. The cops are walking softly…but we know they hate us, and they still carry the big stick."

newsweek stonewall
An October 27, 1969 Newsweek article titled "Policing the Third Sex." Newsweek