We Shall Not Be Moved
Bonhams marks the half century since revelers at a NYC gay bar fought back against a police raid with an auction, [email protected]

It had been a hot summer night in Greenwich Village. In the small hours of the morning of 28 June 1969, New York City police raided a seedy, Mafia-owned gay bar. That was the spark.

As we reach the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (or Uprising, or Rebellion), it is a good moment to reflect on this pivotal event in LGBTQ history. Certainly none of the people who joined the spontaneous popular revolt could have imagined that it would become so celebrated. But then the same could be said of the artisans and shopkeepers who stormed the Bastille: they had no idea they were starting a revolution, let alone one that would profoundly change the world.

So what exactly happened at the Stonewall Inn that June morning, what triggered the Riots, and what is their legacy?

While the 1960s are well known as a time of freedom, this was not the case for American homosexuals. Indeed, the repression of the LGBTQ community had been increasing since the Great Depression and accelerated, in particular, after World War II. The negative view of homosexuality was intensified by the warping of Freud's theories by his American followers. This group came to see homosexuality as a pathology of such seriousness that they felt justified in putting gay people into mental hospitals and performing electroshock 'therapy', even lobotomies, on them. When this medical view of homosexuality combined with both the religious condemnation of gay people as sinners and the legal condemnation of them as criminals, the existence of the LGBTQ community in Cold War America became very bleak indeed.

In New York City, police entrapment of gay men had reached a high point in 1966, when more than 100 men were entrapped weekly for 'homosexual solicitation'. Gay bars were also de facto illegal, which meant that the only public spaces that most gay men and lesbians had to socialize in were controlled by the Mafia, increasing the precariousness of the community's legal situation.

In these bars, gay men and lesbians were served drinks at greatly inflated prices and prohibited from dancing.

It is no wonder, then, that when a large new gay bar opened in 1967 that not only allowed gay men to dance but even allowed slow dancing, as well as having the best jukebox in town, it soon became the city's most popular. At a time when it was rare for a gay bar to last as long as a year, the Stonewall lasted for more than two years, in part because its owners paid the police very handsomely.

Its Mafia owners not only made large profits by overcharging their patrons; they also ran a prostitution ring that drained the bank accounts of some of their clients by blackmailing them. That ring also gathered information that was used to pressurize patrons who worked on Wall Street into stealing from the brokerage houses that employed them. Still, the club remained popular because, for most of its clients, it was a unique place of rare camaraderie and freedom.

When an honest police officer, Inspector Seymour Pine, was appointed in 1969 to head the morals division for the section of Manhattan that included the Village, he was ordered to close the Stonewall because of its blackmail operation. But this was such a closely held secret that Pine did not even tell the men he commanded the reason for the raids he led on the Stonewall, leaving the LGBTQ community to assume that the only purpose of the raids was to harass them.

And so it happened that, when the morals police led a large raid on the Stonewall club at the end of June 1969, clubgoers spontaneously resisted them. Not only was the club popular within the community and viewed as a special place, but the aggressive raid made the lesbian and gay populace feel as if the few square feet in New York City where they felt some degree of ownership and liberty was being taken away from them.

Thus began a six-day mass uprising, the first time – and, still to this day, the only time – in history that thousands
of homosexuals took to the streets day after day to fight the police in defense of their rights. It is no surprise that the gay people who participated in and witnessed the event were stunned and exhilarated by it. But the most perspicacious members of the community realized that not only had they been handed a very rare opportunity, but if something was not quickly made of it, that potential would evaporate as quickly as dry ice left in the open air.

As activists talked about and debated what should be done, a very radical organization, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), quickly came into being. But with its Marxist and confrontational approach to 'liberation', the GLF soon became distasteful even to many of its founders. Another organization in the mold of the New Left was founded five months later: the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). This group eschewed violence, emphasized democratic decision-making, and adopted a policy of working only for gay equality. The GAA was politically astute and media savvy. Soon they created a new kind of protest, 'the zap', the purpose of which was to attack hardcore opponents of gay equality in unexpected, creative and humorous ways that were tailored for public consumption through the media. Soon these demonstrations were being reported nationally. Such brash assertions of gay pride and militancy electrified the gay community, and the previously tiny movement – to use today's language – went viral. Soon sodomy laws were being overturned and legislation that outlawed discrimination against gay men and lesbians was being passed.

What is Stonewall's legacy? First, Stonewall created a mass movement by inspiring the creation of a new phase of the 'gay liberation movement'. It was because this became a mass movement that almost all of the gains
of the last half-century were made possible. Second, Stonewall has become an international symbol of LGBTQ pride and freedom. Finally, the history of the gay liberation movement began to be recognized as a legitimate – indeed, significant – part of national and international history, as well as a legitimate civil rights movement with its own distinct story. And Bonhams is proud to help celebrate this history with [email protected], offering an exceptional collection of photography at the New York Photographs online sale in June, which will raise money for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The Stonewall Uprising site has now been made into the nation's first National Monument based on LGBTQ civil rights history. And so Stonewall's fame continues to grow, planting the seeds for a more general interest in the rich and fascinating history of gay liberation – a history that is on its way to being seen as part of the world's common political and cultural heritage.

David Carter is a social historian and author of the definitive account Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution (2004)

Sir Elton John
Founder, Elton John AIDS Foundation welcomes Bonhams contribution to the ongoing fight against discrimination across the globe:

"Stonewall is a symbol of our community's determination to stand tall in the face of enormous challenges, bravely demand dignity and justice, and relentlessly fight to make the world a better place for all. Fifty years after the Uprising, we've made remarkable strides toward equality both in the laws and in the eyes of our brothers and sisters. But this progress is incomplete. Homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries around the world, in some even punishable by death. Our fight for gay rights today is also part of the fight against HIV. Almost half of all new HIV infections globally occur in people who are marginalized because of who they are or who they love: people who lack access to lifesaving healthcare; people who don't know about the importance of getting tested and knowing your status. I'm delighted that Bonhams' sale will help support the Elton John AIDS Foundation's efforts to save lives of some of the most vulnerable LGBT groups in the world. It is a very fitting part of Stonewall's legacy."

[email protected]:
a legacy of liberation

Hollywood actress Sharon Stone on Stonewall's significance:

"The 1969 Stonewall riots opened the world's eyes to the injustice and discrimination of targeted police brutality against the gay community like no other act of violence before. While there is much movement within police education, with recent mass shootings and ongoing attacks against the LGBTQ community, Stonewall's 50th anniversary highlights the importance of enduring social justice and evolving activism to protect civil rights and the basic humanity in us all".

Bruce Roberts, songwriter for Donna Summer, Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston, describes the freedoms and cultural shifts opened up by the Riots:

"Stonewall paved the way for artistic freedom and acceptance that is now considered mainstream but was taboo 50 years ago,allowing artists, musicians and especially photographers – Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts, as well as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury – to have creative expression regarding their sexuality.

"Herb's images are timeless; I was there when he shot many of them. He made his subjects feel extraordinarily comfortable, so that they were emboldened to be themselves when they posed. Herb always had the final image in his head even before he set up the shot, but the actual magic happened in the moment. His vision was about beauty within sexuality, which he captured photographing some of the most prominent gay icons in the world. Herb didn't start his career with nudes because it was difficult and controversial as a young photographer to get them placed. He was very fortunate to have had early supporters such as Alain Perrin, President of the Cartier Foundation, who believed in his work and exhibited it internationally.

"My Herb Ritts photographs included in [email protected] were not his most famous images, but his favorites, and he knew how much I loved them and wanted them in my life. After living with these for decades, I feel that the timing is now right to release them to collectors who will not only cherish them, as I did, but who will also relish the fact that their acquisitions are supporting the Elton John AIDS Foundation, especially as Herb was on their board. Herb's photographs
are everlasting."

Sale: [email protected]
Online sale: 28 June-10 July
Enquiries: Laura Paterson
+1 917 206 1653
[email protected]


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest and most renowned auctioneers, offering fine art and antiques, motor cars and jewelry. The main salerooms are in London, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, with auctions also held in Knightsbridge, Edinburgh, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney. With a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 22 countries, Bonhams offers advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full list of forthcoming auctions, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments, please visit bonhams.com.


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