The Beatles recorded Abbey Road,
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became
the first humans to set foot on the Moon and
the first Woodstock Festival attracted over
350,000 fans. What do these events have in common? They all occurred during the year of 1969.
But 1969 also saw the start of a social upheaval for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered (LGBT) communities, when the police raided the Mafia run gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, in New York. Regarded as a pivotal aspect of liberation history, the Stonewall Riots are considered the first stand against years of oppression for LGBT communities. Ever since that fateful night, the word ‘Stonewall’ has entered the vocabulary of LGBT people
as a significant emblem of the physical
rights towards liberation. AM

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To comprehend the significance of Stonewall, it is crucial to first understand the context of the time. Still classified as a mental illness in the US, those who identified with being LGBT were subject to constant victimisation from the police and society. Prior to the Riots, activism for the rights of LGBT people in New York began with the rise of protest actions by “homophile” organizations during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Homosexuals opted to be called homophiles as the then Homophile Movement wanted to emphasise a message of love rather than sex, and that it was not a crime for how their bodies responded to the love they felt in their hearts. In 1969, it was still illegal for any homosexual acts to take place in every state, other than Illinois – where it had been legalised since 1962. Many bars across the US refused to serve those who identified as being LGBT, and it was because of this that the Mafia came to run many of the establishments which catered to such communities in New York City, and the Stonewall Inn was no exception to this.

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Few areas in the US saw a more diverse mix of subcultures in New York than the area of Greenwich Village, which was plagued with frequent harassment against some of the most marginalised LGBT communities. As the years went by, tensions between the New York City police department and these communities grew. The Stonewall Inn catered to an assortment of patrons and was known to be popular among some of the poorest and most marginalized people in these communities such as; drag queens, transgender people, young men, lesbians, prostitutes, and the homeless youth.
The Stonewall Riots occurred in the early hours of the morning on Saturday 28th June 1969. Although police raids at gay bars were common-place during the 1960’s, this particular raid did not go as planned. Thrown out on to the streets, the patrons of the Inn turned on the police, which  triggered a riot.
Multiple accounts of  the night  emphasised  that there was no  pre-existing organisation or  apparent cause for  what happened  and what  followed was  entirely  spontaneous.

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Crowds gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn the next evening and demonstrations continued each evening through to Wednesday 2nd July 1969. Within weeks, residents of Greenwich Village quickly organized themselves into activist groups with the intent of establishing areas for the LGBT community to be themselves without the fear of being arrested.

The Stonewall Riots came from years of marginalised communities being immersed in shame and secrecy. It was a seminal moment which inspired a new militant phase in the movement for gay rights. 2017 marks the 50th year of the decriminalisation of being gay for men in the UK.


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Since the 20th century, the gradual liberalization of American sexuality led to the elimination of sodomy laws in the US. But it wasn’t until 2003 that the United States Supreme Court struck down the law in Texas and, by extension, invalidated such laws in 13 other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every US state and territory.

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Celebrated activist and journalist Mark Segal was at the Stonewall Riots when they occurred, Here Mark explains what it was like to be part of one of the greatest liberation movements in history to date:

Growing up in the 1950’ and early 60’s was a time when LGBT people were invisible. It was a time before cell phones, cable TV. In the U.S. at that time LGBT people were considered immoral by all religions, illegal by police and military and government, unemployable if known and mentally ill by the medical profession. LGBT people who were in professional organisation as Doctors and lawyers could lose their accreditation if discovered. Due to all this LGBT people were a whisper. We did not appear on TV, we were not in magazines or radio talk shows…. we were invisible. Those of us felt that they were the only ones and major cities like New York were the only place that people like us “might be” , which precipitated my move to New York where I believed my people would be.

There was definitely a different feeling of community amongst the gay scene in New York once I moved there. It was like night and day. From no gay friends, I found a place to “hang out” with those who were like me. That was Christopher Street where people in their late teens would walk up and down the street, sit on the steps of buildings and just talk. We  would pop  in and  out  of the  various  bars  in the  area  and  sit  and drink  coffee at the Silver Dollar  dinner.

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The night of the riots happened like any other usual night for New York’s gay community, which meant hanging out on the street, and as part of that it meant popping into places like Stonewall and chatting or dancing with friends. Tempers flared at the Stonewall Inn because of the way the police carried it out and you can not underestimate the historic times. We were in the counter cultural 1960’s where people of my generation were fighting for Black rights, Latino rights, and women’s rights. That night my thoughts were why not our rights. It was a riot, a riot is spontaneous, no one planned it. 

It was a place to be ourselves. Regardless of who owned it or that it was illegal, once you were in you would be with your friends.

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One of the myths about the riot was that there were consecutive riots after the initial raid. The riot was only the first night. The following three nights there were demonstrations and speakers which from the ashes of Stonewall was born Gay Liberation Front.


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The Stonewall Riots was the first time we as a community really stood up and decided to fight back, but fight back and create an organisation that stated very clearly, we were out and in your face. Out Loud and Proud. We were no longer going to ask politely for our rights, we were now demanding them. To each of us, Stonewall has been not only a surprise, but a realisation that history has a way of its own. To me personally it did not really sink in until President Obama used it in his second Inaugural address.

The shift in the gay rights movement has been turbulent since Stonewall, and although 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of being gay in the UK, we have not come far enough. But all struggles for equality have long struggles. All we must do is look at similar rights movements. Here in the states the Black & brown community is still fighting for social justice.

Mark Segal is author of And Then I Danced: Travelling the Road to LGBT Equality and has established a reputation as the dean of American gay journalism over the past five decades. He is one of the founders and former president of both the National Gay Press Association and the National Gay Newspaper Guild and was recently inducted into the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s Hall of Fame.

7All images courtesy of:
Stonewall National Museum & Archives
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