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Milestones in Gay History

In the past 50 years—particularly after the Stonewall riots—social, political, and cultural changes have improved the standing of LGBT people. Watch

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Stonewall Riots

40 Years Later: A Look Back at the Turning Point for Gay Rights

stonewall veterans

— Photo: The New York Times/REDUX

For gay and lesbian Americans, June 28, 1969, was the day that changed everything.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, law enforcement officials kept track of suspected homosexuals and places that catered to them. Police regularly raided gay bars, seizing alcohol, shutting down establishments and arresting patrons. It wasn’t uncommon for gay men and lesbians to be exposed in newspapers, fired from their jobs, jailed or sent to mental institutions.

Homosexuality was then considered to be such subversive behavior that it was listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders I as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”

What Happened at the Stonewall?

On that June night, police entered the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, at 1:20 a.m. and launched a raid.

While the police waited for patrol wagons to cart away the arrested suspects and the seized alcohol, the bar’s patrons began to resist. They refused to follow police orders. Men refused to show their IDs, and men dressed as women refused to accompany female officers to the bathroom to have their gender confirmed.

Those who weren’t arrested exited through the front door, but they didn’t go far. Within a short time, the crowd swelled to an estimated 2,000. As police put the arrested into the wagons that were now on the scene, the crowd threw what they had—pennies, beer bottles, trash cans—at the police and shouted, “Gay power!”

Thirteen people were arrested, and four police officers were injured at Stonewall.

The riots continued for six nights.

The resistance wasn’t planned, nor were the riots that followed.

“Every movement arrives at a moment when people say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” says Michael Adams, executive director of Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, or SAGE. “That was the Stonewall riots for the gay rights movement.”

Martin Boyce, a participant in the riots, shares this sentiment.

“We were feeling anger and resentment, but the big thing was that we had a chance to do something now,” Boyce says. “People got hurt. I got hit in the back with a club. But you could see and feel the person next to you wasn’t going to run.”

Stonewall’s Significance

“People will point out there were acts of resistance before Stonewall. But those acts of resistance were on a smaller scale,” says David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. “This was an act of resistance that was a mass movement. It was mass crowds. These other events were smaller, they weren’t sustained, and they didn’t get in the media. Plus, the Stonewall riots sparked the gay liberation movement, by the founding of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance.”

Frank Kameny, a leader in the gay rights movement, estimates that there were 1,000 organizations formed within a year after Stonewall. After two years, 2,500. After three years, he stopped counting.

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