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What Were the Stonewall Riots and Why Were They Important?

When the New York Police Department descended upon the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, the violent raid sparked six days of riots and protests—and launched an LGBTQ revolution.

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The moment that changed everything

The 1960s marked one of the most turbulent eras in 20th century America, and by the end of the decade, tumult had exploded into cultural warfare. The idealism of 1967’s Summer of Love had given way to social and political unrest over the Vietnam War and the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Black people and women were already demanding equal rights, and on June 28, 1969, the LGBTQ community launched its own battle against status-quo morality and systematic abuse by the police at a bar in New York City’s West Village called the Stonewall Inn. Gay pride was on the cusp of full bloom. So, what happened during the Stonewall Riots, exactly, and how did they begin the slow charge toward equality? Let’s take a closer look. Then check out these other protests that changed American history.

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The Stonewall Inn opens as a gay club in the ’60s

The Genovese Mafia family purchased the Stonewall Inn in 1966 and reopened the Greenwich Village tavern the following year as a gay bar. It was one of the few in New York City that welcomed drag queens and allowed dancing, and homeless gay runaways sought refuge there night after night. Police raids were regular, as they were for other gay bars in the city, but for a quid pro quo $1,200-a-month payment by the owners, the cops would tip them off beforehand, so they could hide the booze being sold illegally. (Stonewall had no liquor license.) Meanwhile, the NYPD ignored safety and hygiene violations such as the lack of a rear exit. The clientele may have had to drink watered-down cocktails out of dirty glasses as a result, but they still valued the bar as one of the few local safe spaces for the entire LGBTQ community. The Genovese family has been one of the most powerful crime organizations in New York and New Jersey for decades. Here are some other notorious criminals in every state.

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The police launch a surprise raid on Stonewall

On the night of June 28, 1969, the police showed up at Stonewall without warning (one theory is that the owners failed to pay them off). They physically assaulted customers and arrested 13 employees and patrons who were in violation of liquor laws and a New York statute requiring gender-appropriate clothing to be worn in public. “The police came in, and they tell me: ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, I came in here to just see a friend.’ They said, ‘Get out of here!'” transgender activist Judy Bowen, who had just finished her shift at a nearby dance club, told PBS in 2019. “So, as soon as I got outside, they locked the door, and then I started hearing screams of people being beaten. Those things you do not forget.”

This night, though, the 200 or so patrons weren’t going down easily. Perhaps emboldened by the civil rights movement of the ’50s and early ’60s that had resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they fought back, throwing bottles and bricks. The cops barricaded themselves inside the bar and called for backup as the crowd outside tossed makeshift firebombs at the barricade. A few officers were injured that night and several protesters required medical treatment, but no one died or was critically wounded.

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Six days of protests inspire a revolution

Although the police managed to disperse the crowd after about an hour, and the fire department put out the fires, the events of that night set off days of protests. Thousands joined in, and the demonstrations spread to the nearby Christopher Square and neighboring streets, with occasional bursts of violence flaring up. While the riots didn’t immediately change anything for the LGBTQ community, it was a galvanizing force that inspired them to seek true equality.

One year later, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, thousands of people marched from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park for Christopher Street Liberation Day, the first gay pride parade in the United States. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Square, and the area around it as a national monument, recognizing their contribution to gay rights.

“There had been previous riots in the United States involving gays and lesbians fed up with routine harassment, but Stonewall, erupting when it did amid protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights and gender equality, marked a decisive break from the more passive sexual-orientation politics of the day,” Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor who specializes in LGBTQ culture and history, told the Harvard Gazette in 2019. As a result, the Stonewall Riots paved the way for some huge milestones and strides toward equality over the next 51 years.

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1970: The first film to feature gay main characters debuts

Exploring such LGBTQ themes as coming out and monogamy, the 1970 film The Boys in the Band broke Hollywood ground as the first feature film to focus on a circle of gay characters. Debuting the year after the Stonewall Riots, it was based on Matt Crowley’s 1968 Off-Broadway play and directed by William Friedkin, who would win a Best Director Oscar the following year for The French Connection and score a second nomination for 1973’s The Exorcist.

Friedkin told the New York Post in 2018 that he wasn’t daunted by the then-taboo subject matter of homosexuality. “And you know why? Because the play is brilliant,” he said. “The characters are finely drawn, and there is wonderful wit. It’s a bit reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. It can be mentioned in the same sentence.” Friedkin, who directed another gay-themed movie, 1980’s Cruising, starring Al Pacino, added: “I hear from guys all the time that this was the film that helped them come out of the closet. It gave them the courage not to be ashamed.”

Don’t miss some other great LGBTQ+ films in our list of the 50 best romantic movies of all time.

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1971: A gay couple marries for the first time

Marriage equality was put to the Supreme Court test for the first time when a Minneapolis couple, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, appealed to SCOTUS for permission to legally marry. In 1970, they had been denied a marriage license in Hennepin County after becoming the first known same-sex couple to apply for one in the United States. The court dismissed the case in 1972, citing “want of a substantial federal question,” but the couple were, by then, already technically married. Baker had legally changed his name to the gender-neutral Pat Lyn McConnell, and in 1971, McConnell went alone to nearby Blue Earth County and successfully applied for a license there. Roger W. Lynn, a sympathetic pastor, then performed the ceremony.

In 2018, after 47 years of their marriage not being officially recorded by the state, a Minnesota judge finally ruled it valid. Although they had to wait decades for the state and federal governments to officially recognize the union, McConnell, who enrolled in law school in 1969 to find a way around the system, considered their 1971 marriage both a personal and an LGBTQ victory. “We outfoxed them,” he told the New York Times in 2015. “That’s what lawyers do: make the law work for them.” On that note, here are 14 secrets lawyers will never tell you.

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1973: A transgender man wins custody of his four children

In 1973’s Christian v. Randall, a Colorado court upheld a transgender man’s right to retain custody of his four daughters, reversing the ruling of a trial court that previously had granted custody to his former husband, Duane Christian. The girls had lived with Mark (formerly Gay) Randall following his 1964 divorce from Christian, who filed for custody in 1972 after Randall began the process of gender reassignment. By recognizing that the four girls were thriving in Randall’s care and should remain with him, the court awarded trans rights an early but all too rare win in one of the first opinions involving a transgender parent.

In case you’ve ever wondered, this is how the rainbow became the symbol for LGBTQ+ pride.

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1979: A gay California couple becomes the first in America to adopt a child

In 1968, Bill Jones made LGBTQ history as the first single man in California to legally become the father of an adopted child. The twist: A social worker advised him not to reveal that he was gay. “She looked up at the ceiling, and she said, ‘You know, I think homosexuals would make very good parents. But if I was told that, the committee would be obligated not to make the placement. So I hope that if a homosexual ever wants to adopt, they don’t tell me,'” Jones recalled in a 2015 NPR interview.

In 1979, 11 years after Jones became a father, and a decade after the Stonewall Riots, a gay couple in California became the first in the United States to adopt a child together. It would take 18 more years before a state, New Jersey, would allow same-sex adoptions statewide and 13 more until Florida became the final state to overturn its ban on adoption by single gays and lesbians. Adoption is a beautiful thing, and these six stories of foster kids finding their forever homes will melt your heart.

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1990: Moviegoers are introduced to Black and Latino LGBTQ culture

Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary that celebrated drag and ball culture in New York City, was significant for a number of reasons. Coming two decades after the Stonewall Riots, it offered a then-rare look inside the LGBTQ community, but most importantly, it highlighted two minority groups—Blacks and Latinos—that had long gone overlooked in the mainstream. “The experience of queer people of color had not really been captured in the documentary world until Paris Is Burning,” says Alexis Fish, Billboard‘s Pride Editor. Although it wouldn’t launch an immediate revolution in queer cinema, its success did pave the way for future LGBTQ movies and TV shows revolving around Blacks and Latinos, including Noah’s Arc, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Pose.

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1996: The Supreme Court rules against targeted LGBTQ legal discrimination

After an amendment to a Colorado law banned cities from passing anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and bisexuals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Romer v. Evans that laws couldn’t single out or take away the rights of LGBTQ people. It was the first time SCOTUS recognized that the LGBTQ community could not specifically be denied certain protections that applied to everybody else. Speaking for the 6-to-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted: “If the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.” The court made the right call here, but do you agree with these four lower-court rulings?

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2001: The Netherlands becomes the first country to legalize same-sex marriage

Although legalization in the United States was still 14 years away, when Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands signed the world’s first same-sex marriage bill, it set off a chain reaction in other European countries and the rest of the world. Three years later, Massachusetts emerged as the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage, and on May 17, 2004, Marcia Kadish, 56, and Tanya McCloskey, 52, of Malden, Massachusetts, became the first same-sex partners to legally marry in America.

The Stonewall Riots were 35 years behind us, and it would be 11 more years before same-sex couples throughout the United States had the right to marry, but the LGBTQ community was off to a decisive, if slow, start. “We wanted to lead by example, not that we were leaders of anything,” Kadish told NPR in 2019. “We just wanted to make sure that the world saw the most positive side of being a gay couple.” The Netherlands is one of the most popular European countries, but many people call it by the wrong name.

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2003: The U.S. Supreme Court overturns anti-sodomy laws

In the landmark decision Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 ruling that upheld laws criminalizing sodomy. “[Lawrence v. Texas] was a crucial legal moment in which the court held that laws banning same-sex sexual relations were unconstitutional,” says Ann Pellegrini, Professor of Performance Studies and Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU. “So that was a landmark decision in 2003, and this gave added steam to efforts already underway by some LGBT advocacy organizations to legalize same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of marriage equality nationwide, in 2015. In legal time, these are fast developments.” At the time of the ruling in 2003, 14 states still had anti-sodomy laws on the books. Dumb laws have a way of sticking around. Here are 50 of them, one for every state.

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2009: The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is passed

The federal law was named for Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming college student who was killed in 1998 by two men he met in a bar, and Byrd, a Black man who was murdered by three White men in Jasper, Texas, the same year. It expanded a 1969 hate-crime law to include crimes committed because of a victim’s gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Some activists criticized the act for not requiring states to enact their own hate-crime laws that cover anti-LGBTQ crimes (the majority of which are prosecuted at the state level). Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, told AP News in 2018 that while she was encouraged by the act, she was hoping for further steps in the future. “We are seeking to create environments where victims of hate violence do not fear re-victimization by the police,” she said.

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2011: President Barack Obama announces the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

For 17 years, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” required the LGBTQ community to remain in the closet if they wanted to serve in the U.S. military. In short, if you were openly gay, you were shut out of serving your country. The legislation passed in late 2010, but it didn’t go into effect until the following year. “As of September 20, service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. Becoming a soldier is one of the noblest things a U.S. citizen can do, and here are some real stories from former and current members of the U.S. military.

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2013: The Defense of Marriage Act starts to crumble

In United States v. Windsor, SCOTUS struck down the portion of 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” The catalyst for the case was Edith Windsor, who had married Thea Spyer in Canada before moving to New York, a state where their marriage was recognized as legal at the time. After Spyer’s death, Windsor’s attempt to claim a tax exemption as a surviving spouse was blocked by the Defense of Marriage Act. SCOTUS decided that the Defense of Marriage Act violated due process and the right to equal protection, and ordered the United States to refund the taxes Windsor had paid on her inheritance from Spyer.

According to a New York Times op-ed the following year: “While the Supreme Court has so far declined to decide whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, it is increasingly clear that because of its holding in Windsor, the court will be confronted with that issue sooner rather than later.”

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2015: Same-sex couples win the right to legally marry throughout the United States

Sooner arrived two years later when, in the historic Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the Supreme Court extended full marriage equality to same-sex couples in the United States. After 14 same-sex couples and two men whose partners were deceased filed suits in their home states’ federal district courts, SCOTUS ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to provide marriage licenses to everyone, including same-sex couples, and that it also requires each state to recognize marriages, including same-sex ones, that were legally performed out of state.

“It was a relief that the majority opinion recognized the evolution of marriage over time, including in the direction of greater equality,” Linda McClain, a Boston University School of Law professor, told BU Today in 2015. Forty-six years after the Stonewall Riots, gay relationships were finally given equal legal status to straight relationships. Marriage may not always be forever, but here’s some surprising advice from happy couples about the secret to staying together.

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2020: SCOTUS protects LGBTQ workers

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 15 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed five years before the Stonewall Riots, protects the rights of gay and transgender employees. In other words, wrote Justice Neil M. Gorsuch in the 6-to-3 ruling, “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” Before the decision, more than half of U.S. states allowed employers to fire people for being gay, bisexual, or transgender.

President Donald Trump, who had opposed extending protections to gay and transgender employees, called it a “very powerful decision.” Suzanne B. Goldberg, a Columbia University law professor, concurred: “This is a simple and profound victory for LGBT civil rights,” she told the New York Times. “Many of us feared that the court was poised to gut sex discrimination protections and allow employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity, yet it declined the federal government’s invitation to take that damaging path.”

Next, check out these LGBTQ+ heroes you didn’t learn about in history class.

Jeremy Helligar
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer and editor at People, Teen People, Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly. He has covered entertainment, pop culture, travel, politics, race, and LGBTQ issues for Reader's Digest, HuffPost, Queerty, The Root, Variety, and The Wrap, among other websites and publications. Before returning to New York City in 2019, he spent 13 years living and working in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok, Cape Town, Sydney, and across Europe while writing his two travelogue memoirs, Is It True What They Say About Black Men? And Storms in Africa.