The Stonewall Riots and their Influence on Workplace Discrimination

The Stonewall Riots and their Influence on Workplace Discrimination
By: Kelsey Murray

On the night of June 27, 1969, the Stonewall riots broke out in New York City at the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Inn was traditionally a bar that whose patrons were mostly homosexual or queer. These militaristic style riots caught widespread attention across the United States because it appeared to be sudden and those who were involved were part of an ostracized community. The ostracized community was the queer community. Many historians believe that the Stonewall riots were the first riots in which the queer community participated in as a whole and this created the first large gay rights movement. Although it is arguable whether Stonewall began the gay rights movement, was the first protest, or was the most important part of the gay rights movement, this is not what this paper will be discussing or arguing. What is not arguable, however, is the effect the Stonewall riots had on the nation and the gay rights and gay power movements. This paper will be discussing the effect Stonewall had on queer people in the workplace. This paper will argue that the Stonewall riots, created a less discriminatory workplace for the queer community than prior to the riots.

It is important to understand the discrimination that was directed towards the queer community in the pre-Stonewall workplace in order to see the influence and change the riots had on the workplace. In order to gain this understanding, this paper will address the discrimination that occurred in the workplace, prior to the Stonewall riots. In 1995, the National Association of Gay & Lesbian Journalists released a list of “the 100 Best Companies to Work for Gay Men and Lesbians.” On this list, a grand total of zero companies had anti-discrimination policies prior to 1974.[1] The lack of companies that had anti-discrimination policies prior to 1974 shows that although discrimination was an issue in the workplace, the companies did not take measures to prevent discrimination nor did they have measures to take action against the discriminators. The Stonewall riots occurred in 1969, meaning that no anti-discrimination measures were in place to protect gay professionals in the workplace. Prior to the Stonewall riots stopping or minimizing the discrimination against queer professionals in the workplace seemed like a far off hope for the queer community.[2]

When the Stonewall riots occurred, the nation took notice of the movement. The atmosphere, energy and attitude formed out of the riots were influential on the increase of awareness of the gay rights and anti-discrimination movements. The New York Times wrote about the riots shortly after they started. The newspaper article uses details about the violent “rampage in Greenwich Village shortly after 3 A.M. yesterday after a force of plainclothes men raided a bar that the police said was wellknown for its homosexual clientele.”[3] This quote shows that not only did The New York Times feel that the riots were important enough to report on the day after they happened, but that this would catch the public’s interest. The author of the article wrote the participants in the riot in a bad light, which shows that the media and the public were discriminatory towards the queer community. Police made five arrests during the Stonewall riots and four police officers were injured.[4] The scale of the riot caught many police officers, 26 of who were named in the police reports, off guard. In published police reports, the sergeant describes the chaos at the Stonewall Inn and the riots, which erupted on that night in June, as an “unusual occurrence.”[5] The police report includes a list of names of injured officers and the injuries they sustained. Rioters bit, kicked, hit the police officers which caused a majority of the injuries. The fact that Sergeant Atlas refers to the riots as unusual means that riots that were similar to Stonewall did not occur often, if at all. This statement means that Stonewall was obviously larger and on a different level than previous riots. The Stonewall riots were going to make a difference in the queer community.

The general attitude of the American society was that it was wrong to be queer. This general attitude transferred into the workplace as well as the medical field. This The American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental illness until the 1970s and the corruption of America’s soldiers into homosexuals was still fresh in the mind of many citizens. That being said, prior to the Stonewall riots, homosexuals were considered mentally ill and people believed they had they could corrupt others into becoming homosexuals. Equality did not seem like a realistic dream for the queer community in 1950. Slowly, the far off hope of an anti-discrimination workplace began to see the light of day. There were many reasons for the small steps towards anti-discrimination in the workplace including The Kinsey Reports, the formation of groups, and visibility. Alfred Kinsey, a biologist who focused on sexuality in the human male and female, wrote reports that were immensely influential in the gay rights movement and gave the gay community a sense of pride. These reports were incredibly impactful on the gay rights and gay power movements due to their overwhelming popularity among various different identities across the nation.

When Alfred Kinsey released his reports on sexuality, the number of people who identified as queer became public.[6] Kinsey concluded that 37% of males had at least one orgasm from a same-sex experience.[7] Males were not the only ones who had at least one same-experience orgasm. Kinsey reported that 13% of females had at least one orgasm from a same-sex experience.[8] These high percentages showed that over a third of males and more than one-tenth of women have had non-heterosexual experiences. These shocking statistics showed the public that non-heterosexual activities were more widespread and common than they initially believed. The Kinsey Report’s rise to the top of the non-fiction best-seller lists after its initial release shows the popularity of the publication. From January to July, the Kinsey Report sold over 200,000 and showed no signs of slowing down.[9] This demonstrates the widespread popularity of the Kinsey Report among more than the queer community but also the heterosexual community as well. If employers wanted to continue discriminating against homosexuals at work, they would have to discriminate against a larger percentage of their employees than originally thought. Kinsey’s reports created momentum for the gay rights movement wheel to begin turning. When the gay community began to feel not as alienated and alone, this gave them the knowledge that they were not, in fact, alone as well as the confidence to break into a riot at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969.

Although, Stonewall has not eliminated discrimination towards the queer community, it has decreased it. According to many people who identified with as queer, they believed that their workplaces would not allow complete domestic partners to receive benefits until more gay workers came out.[10] The Stonewall riots gave many gay professionals the courage to come out because they saw the level of power that activists had. A year after Stonewall, multiple organizations including gay rights activists and organizations came together to commemorate the Stonewall riots. The participants in this movement gathered in New York City in order to hold a parade. This parade was the beginning of gay pride parades, which is why gay pride parades occur in June of every year. The Stonewall riots began a movement, which in turn created a movement, which raised more awareness of the queer community. Employers needed to keep up with public awareness by becoming aware of the queer community as well.

In 1973, just four years after the Stonewall riots, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality off its list of mental disorders. When the APA removed homosexuality off the list of mental disorders, this action showed that the medical community and professionals were beginning to understand homosexuality more. This understanding was largely due to Alfred Kinsey’s reports that a larger number of people than was originally thought were not solely heterosexual. The medical community, as well as society in general, began to see homosexuality as more widespread when the small, local riot of Stonewall grew into a larger rights campaign and movement. When the Stonewall riots began, they put the spotlight on homosexuality across the nation. The Stonewall riots’ publicity influenced many individuals to come out which moved the underground gay rights movement to aboveground.[11] The nation experienced a shockwave due to the sudden increase of individuals coming out. The increase of the number of openly gay employees meant that employers needed to examine their policies if they wanted to retain their gay employees.

Within the workplace, gay, lesbian, and bisexual groups are a key part of an employers’ anti-discrimination policy. From 1978 until mid-1998, 69 new GLB organizations within the Fortune 1000 companies emerged.[12] Nicole Raeburn, author of Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights: Changing Corporate America from the Inside Out, reported that there were possibly 98 GLB groups in the Fortune 1000 but could only contact 69 of them. With the total 69 GLB groups, the total averages out to be a grown of 3.37% each year. Before 1978, there were zero GLB organizations within the Fortune 1000.[13] While 1969 and 1978 are nine years apart, the increase from zero GLB workers groups to one GLB worker group is a huge jump. The Stonewall riots created the attitude that made this jump possible. This Stonewall riot attitude was one of self-reliance, action, self-confidence, and a want for equality. These attitudes allowed for the creation of the GLB groups, which were then able to insert themselves into the powerful world known as corporate America.

Companies were not the only institutions who had anti-discrimination policies. “By mid-February 2004, 14 states and 153 localities had prohibited antigay employment discrimination in the private sector,” which meant that before queer people received a job, employers could not be discriminated against them during the hiring process.[14] The fact that almost a third of the states prohibited discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation shows that the gay power and gay rights campaigns had spread across the nation and was no longer located in just large cities with a traditionally high percentage of queer citizens. The gay power and gay rights movements had increased in popularity due to the Stonewall riots’ media coverage throughout the country as well as the dispersion of those who participated in the Stonewall riots. By bringing the militaristic style gay power movement to other states, other states began to realize the influence and the affect the queer community had on that particular location.

In addition to anti-discrimination laws, many companies have added domestic partner benefits for their employees. By 2003, 207 companies in the Fortune 500 offered domestic partner benefits.[15] This statistic, which was almost half of the Fortune 500 companies, shows that even most powerful companies saw the tides changing after the Stonewall riots. In order to maintain customer and employee satisfaction, and even perhaps avoid a Stonewall like riot, companies saw that they needed to focus on equality in the workplace. After seeing the scene that arose at Stonewall and the declaration of gay power, many citizens and employers were afraid of what could happen if they need not start appeasing the gay activists. The weekend of Stonewall, “looked like something from a William Burroughs novel as the sudden specter of “gay power”…’[16] The Stonewall riots were looked at as the start of the gay power movement by many of the spectators and the media who reported on the event. They had never seen a gay power campaign prior to this event, which sent shockwaves throughout the nation and especially the media. Gay activists showed that by being militaristic, they could not only grab the nation’s attention but also wield power across the city and the nation. This power was the catalyst needed to created changes in the workplace.

The Stonewall riots were sudden and caught the nation by surprise. The stunned nation then focused on the riots, which created awareness of the queer community. The Stonewall riots’ militaristic and unpredictable style caused many to worry about the repercussions of not working with the activists. With this awareness, the queer community created gay pride parades as well as gay, lesbian and bisexual groups within the Fortune 1000 companies. Just for years after the Stonewall riots, the queer community received one of their largest and most important boosts for anti-discrimination among employers. In 1973, the American Psychologist Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental illness. In addition to homosexuality no longer considered a mental illness, the number of companies who have anti-discrimination policies has increased. Prior to 1974, no companies had anti-discrimination policies. Five years after Stonewall, however, companies began installing anti-discrimination policies in order to protect their gay professionals. Observers and the media at the time of the Stonewall riots saw the riots as beginning of the gay power movement. With these changes occurring post-Stonewall, after discriminatory policies had been in place for centuries prior to the Stonewall riots, it is clear that Stonewall was a catalyst for these changes and created a workplace which discriminated against homosexuals and the queer community less than the pre-Stonewall time period. Without the Stonewall riots’ catalyst affect, little, if anything, would have changed in the workplace.



[1] The National Association of Gay & Lesbian Journalists, “The 100 Best Companies to Work for Gay Men and Lesbians.” (1995).

[2] Vern Bullough, “Discrimination Against gays, Lesbians, and the Highly Androgynous,” in The Psychology of Sex, Gender, and Jobs: Issues and Solutions, eds., Louis Diamant and Jo Ann Lee (Westport: Praeger, 2002), 148.

[3] “Melee Near Sheridan Square Follows Action at Bar,” The New York Times, 29 June 1969.

[4] Sergeant Tuilly, “Unusual Occurrence,” Police Report, 28 June 1969.

[5] Sergeant Atlas, “Unusual Occurrence,” Police Report, 28 June 1969.

[6] Bullough, “Discrimination Against gays, Lesbians, and the Highly Androgynous,” 146.

[7] Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), 650.

[8] Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 475.

[9] Francis Sill Wickware, “Report on Kinsey,” Life Magazine (2 August 1948): 87.

[10] Annette Friskopp and Sharon Silverstein, Straight Jobs, Gay Lives: Gay and Lesbian Professionals, the Harvard Business School, and the American Workplace (New York: Scribner, 1995), 150.

[11] Bullough, “Discrimination Against gays, Lesbians, and the Highly Androgynous,” 145.

[12] Nicole Raeburn, Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights: Changing Corporate America from the Inside Out (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 24-25.

[13] Ibid., 24.

[14] Ibid., 114.

[15] Ibid., 135.

[16] Lucian Truscott IV, “Gay Power Comes to the Sheridan Square,” The Village Voice, 3 July 1969.