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Stonewall National Visitor Center Will Bring LGBTQ History to Life

The 1969 New York City uprising was a turning point in the fight for equality

Rainbow flags outside the Stonewall National Monument in Manhattan
BRYAN R. SMITH/Getty Images
UNITED STATES - JUNE 28:  Stonewall Inn nightclub raid. Crowd attempts to impede police arrests outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.  (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

New York Governor Kathy Hochul (C-L) and NY Senator Charles E. Schumer (C-R) attend the  Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center Groundbreaking event June 24, 2022 in New York City
Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center groundbreaking ceremony on June 24, 2022.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

The Stonewall uprising, which took place more than 50 years ago, kicked off a wave of LGBTQ activism in the battle against discrimination. A new visitor center will celebrate that history and help those who come to see the Stonewall National Monument understand the significance of the event. 

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The Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center is scheduled to open in New York City in the summer of 2024. A June 24 groundbreaking kicked off the project. 

The 3,700-square-foot visitor center will be the first LGBTQ facility of its kind within the National Park Service, according to Pride Live, an LGBTQ advocacy group overseeing creation and fundraising. The center will be located next door to the Stonewall Inn bar, where the uprising occurred in 1969 and which was designated as a U.S. national monument in 2016. It’s the first national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history. 

“The designation as a national monument and the opening of this visitor center will memorialize their important legacy in the gay rights movement, and we hope will inspire future generations to continue fighting for LGBTQ+ equality,” said Ann Marie Gothard, president of the Pride Live board of directors, in a statement. 

AARP is one of the founding members of the project, said Shani Hosten, vice president of audience strategy in the AARP Office of Diversity Equity & Inclusion. “Stonewall was a watershed moment for the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. The visitor center “will ensure a continued commitment to the fight for progress and equity for all LGBTQ+ Americans.” Funded by donations, the visitor center will offer an immersive experience, with in-person and virtual tours, lectures and exhibits, according to Pride Live.

Uprising history

By all accounts, the night of Friday, June 27, 1969, started out like any other at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, a popular gathering spot for the gay community. It wasn’t even out of the ordinary when police stormed the bar around 1 a.m. — raids were common at a time when LGBTQ life was criminalized and acts like same-sex dancing or hand-holding could lead to arrest.​

But what happened next would change history: Instead of dispersing as usual, patrons clashed with police, and the confrontation swelled to include hundreds of people. Thirteen arrests were made that first night, and riots would continue into the following week. The Stonewall uprising, as it came to be known, galvanized a new wave of LGBTQ activism across the country.​

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TOPSHOT - A man raises a fist while marching along the parade route during the San Francisco Pride parade in San Francisco, California on Sunday, June, 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josh Edelson        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, more than 50 years after that fateful night, the uprising’s impact lives on — and, advocates say, is more important than ever.​

"Before Stonewall, you had a handful of activists in the United States who were doing very pioneering demonstrations,” said Jason Baumann, coordinator of the New York Public Library’s LGBTQ Initiative and editor of The Stonewall Reader, a collection of first-person accounts of LGBTQ activism in the years around the uprising. “After Stonewall,” he said, “you had the emergence of this group, the Gay Liberation Front, that had a totally different perspective.”​

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Pre-Stonewall organizations such as the Mattachine Society, founded in Los Angeles in 1950, and the Daughters of Bilitis, founded in San Francisco in 1955, were part of what was then known as the “homophile” movement. They were at the helm of planned demonstrations around the country, such as the Mattachine Society’s 1966 “sip-in” to protest frequent police raids of gay bars, which were, as at Stonewall, carried out for so-called “disorderly conduct.”​

This early activism, according to Baumann, was in many ways assimilationist, concerned with integrating LGBTQ people into broader society. In contrast, the Gay Liberation Front, which sprung up in response to Stonewall and would ultimately spread across the United States and abroad, took a more radical approach. “Gay liberation does not just mean reforms,” reads the group’s 1971 manifesto. “It means a revolutionary change in our whole society."​

The start of a movement

Another thing that set Stonewall apart was timing, says Mason Funk, founder of Outwords, an archive of interviews with LGBTQ pioneers and elders from across the country. “By 1969, everything was either a little or a lot more combustible.” Post-Stonewall LGBTQ activism, he notes, took inspiration from the feminist, black liberation and anti-war movements of the era to advocate for societal change on a grander — and sometimes radical — scale.​

One year after Stonewall, marches were held to commemorate the uprising in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. By one estimate, the number of LGBTQ organizations in the United States had soared from approximately 50 to at least 1,500. In 1971, the movement went worldwide, with parades and demonstrations taking place in West Berlin, London, Paris and Stockholm. And in the decades that followed, victories that were once unthinkable — from the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973 to the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015 — became reality.​​​

And as members of the Stonewall generation — those who came of age around the time of the uprising — reach their 70s and beyond, they’re more likely than their heterosexual peers to struggle when it comes to finding housing and health care that meets their needs.​

For Karyn Skultety, the former executive director of the LGBTQ housing and services organization Openhouse, which has served older LGBTQ adults since 1998, Stonewall is not only a reminder of the progress that has yet to be made, but also an opportunity for younger generations of LGBTQ people to learn from those who came before them.​

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"We have a tendency to separate our history from our history-makers,” she said. “But we have an opportunity that other civil rights movements don’t have — to meet the founders of the movement.” And, she emphasizes, it’s not just activists and organizers who should be celebrated, but the people she calls “one-person riots,” the older LGBTQ adults whose everyday bravery helped them survive — and thrive — in the pre-Stonewall era.​

As for Stonewall itself? After years of changeover — including stints as a bagel shop, shoe store, restaurant and nightclub — the premises reopened in 2007 as the Stonewall Inn once more.

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Michelle R. Davis, AARP Home & Family editor, contributed to this story. 

Sarah Elizabeth Adler is a former writer for AARP, who covers science, art and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.  

Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 26, 2019. It has been updated to reflect new information.​​

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