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The Stonewall Uprising, 50 Years Later

What the tipping point for LGBT activism means today

People participate at a rally outside the Stonewall Inn

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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 LGBT 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 LGBT activism across the country.

Now, 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,” says Jason Baumann, coordinator of the New York Public Library's LGBT Initiative and editor of The Stonewall Reader, a collection of first-person accounts of LGBT activism in the years around the uprising. “After Stonewall,” Baumann says, “you had the emergence of this group, the Gay Liberation Front, that had a totally different perspective.”

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, Baumann says, was in many ways assimilationist, concerned with integrating LGBT 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."

Another thing that set Stonewall apart was timing, says Mason Funk, founder of Outwords, an archive of interviews with LGBT pioneers and elders from across the country. “By 1969, everything was either a little or a lot more combustible.” Post-Stonewall LGBT 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 LGBT 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.

Still, a federal nondiscrimination law protecting LGBT people does not yet exist, something that demonstrators were demanding as early as 1979, when the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place. “In 29 states,” says Lynn Faria, the chief officer for external affairs at SAGE, the nation's oldest advocacy organization for LGBT elders, LGBT people “can get married on a Saturday and get fired on a Monday.”

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, executive director of the LGBT housing and services organization Openhouse, which has served older LGBT adults since 1998, the Stonewall 50th anniversary is not only a reminder of the progress that has yet to be made, but also an opportunity for younger generations of LGBT people to learn from those who came before them.

"We have a tendency to separate our history from our history-makers,” she says. “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 LGBT 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. In 2016, the inn and surrounding area became a U.S. national monument, the first dedicated to LGBT rights and history.

Now, co-owners Kurt Kelly and Stacy Lentz say they serve as “innkeepers of history” at a bar that welcomes visitors of all ages and identities from countries around the world. A framed sign near the entrance, salvaged during the uprising, declares that this is a raided premises — reminding patrons of the history of a place that was once subject to police violence and relegated to the sidelines of society, but now offers a special Pride-themed beer and its own line of merchandise, including T-shirts and tote bags, in honor of the milestone anniversary.

"Stonewall 50,” one shirt reads. “Keep on marching!"