Skip to content

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

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.

“Progress has been enormous,” Kameny says. “Sodomy laws were repealed, so we’re no longer criminals. Mental health classification changed, so we’re no longer loonies. The government is finally recognizing and respecting us. Just this year, an openly gay man [John Berry] was appointed head of the Office of Personnel Management, the group [then called the Civil Service Commission] that fired me over 50 years ago in 1957, and I was acknowledged at his swearing-in ceremony. That is deeply satisfying. It’s a storybook ending. At age 84, I am not sure that I will see full equality in my lifetime, but I have no doubt that we’re heading toward it.”

What Does It Mean to Be Gay and Gray?

“The meaning of Stonewall to me is that we now have personal freedom and liberation, and that means a lot,” says Ellen Ratner, bureau chief for the Talk Radio News Service and an openly gay White House correspondent since 1993. “We’re not ‘less thans’ in society anymore. We have the freedom to marry … in several states. We have freedom to work and can’t be fired because we’re gay … in several states. To me, that means we’re equal members of society.”

It’s been 40 years since Stonewall, and systemic persecution of gay men and lesbians has given way to justifiable concerns of aging and care. Ratner wonders what will happen to gay and lesbian boomers as they age.

“Who’s going to take care of us?” Ratner asks. “Aging and caregiving is a huge issue for us. We are more likely to be caregivers, but what support systems will we have in place? What about our benefits? If I want to transfer my apartment to my partner, it’s OK with a state like Massachusetts, but it’s not OK with the feds. Why should I have to pay a 45 percent gift tax when [heterosexual married couples] don’t? We face housing issues if there are no specific laws to protect us.”

“This is a tipping point,” says Bob Witeck, coauthor of Business Inside and Out and CEO and cofounder of Witeck-Combs, a strategic communications firm that’s been instrumental in giving voice to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “On the heels of Barack Obama, anything seems possible. The ‘what ifs’ become ‘why nots.’ The next 10 years will be dramatic ones. We will see resolutions to what we’ve started. By the time our community turns 50, we will be able to report that a lot of our biggest struggles are behind us.”

The memory of the Stonewall riots is kept alive through annual gay pride parades that are held in June around the country. During this 40th anniversary year, you can participate in celebrations in major cities such as Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas or Chicago. Or visit the Stonewall Inn and New York-based events.

Dave Singleton is the director of planning and promotion with AARP publications.

« Stonewall Riots