The ongoing fight for LGBTQ civil rights

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, a pivotal moment in the pursuit of LGBTQ equality and civil rights in the U.S.

With the recent gains made by the LGBTQ community in social acceptance and inclusion, it can be easy to forget how different things were just last decade, let alone 50 years ago.

Christopher Rudisill is the executive director of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives.
Christopher Rudisill is the executive director of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives.
Today, loving couples can marry regardless of their sexual orientation, LGBTQ politicians hold offices around the country, and successful media images — such as RuPaul and the TV shows “Queer Eye” and “Will & Grace” — bring LGBTQ stories to life in living rooms every day.

But the LGBTQ community has faced a long struggle to reach this point.

The riots at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969 are generally cited as a catalyst for the LGBTQ rights movement, but efforts had been growing steadily during the previous two decades.

“Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement,” presented by Wells Fargo, is on exhibit through Dec. 31, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (2:47)
Video transcript
This was a time in U.S. history when homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder, and gay behavior was illegal in 49 states. People could be arrested for having a physical relationship with a member of the same sex. The act of wearing clothes resembling the opposite gender was outlawed. In major cities, raids of gay bars were common.

In the 1950s, organizing began with the formation of LGBTQ civil rights groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis. The 1960s gave way to pioneering activists who picketed draft boards to protest the policy of releasing information about men’s sexual orientation to employers. These groups also picketed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the White House in Washington, D.C., to protest the federal government’s policy of discrimination and hostility against its homosexual American citizens.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966 marked the beginning of transgender activism. Marches and protests had been ramping up as well, including at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, the site of a 1967 civil demonstration to protest police raids.

All of this culminated in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City.

‘This is what we’ve been waiting for’
The summer of 1969 had witnessed a surge in bar raids by New York City police. All of the raids took place in the same neighborhood, and the fateful raid on Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn was the second in less than a week.

It was the first hot weekend of the summer. At about 1 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, eight New York City police officers entered the Stonewall Inn and ordered the 200 or so patrons to line up and produce identification. Many refused, and those without proper IDs, drag queens, and several employees were arrested.

As verbal protests over the raid turned to physical violence, the police barricaded themselves in the Stonewall Inn. After several hours of confrontation, things seemed to settle down — only to see the rioting begin again the following night.

A group of young people huddle together for a photo outside the boarded-up Stonewall Inn after riots over the weekend of June 27, 1969.
Young people gather outside the boarded-up Stonewall Inn in summer 1969. In 2016, the site was designated a United States National Monument. Photo credit: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
“There was a very volatile active political feeling, especially among young people … when the night of the Stonewall riots came along. Just everything came together at that one moment,” recalled Craig Rodwell, a gay rights activist who was at the Stonewall riots. “People often ask what was special about that night … there was no one thing special about it. It was just everything coming together, one of those moments in history that if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”

Media coverage immediately afterward was minimal and very few photographs of the riots are known to exist — certainly none of the riots themselves. Beyond personal accounts and a few newspaper articles, the Stonewall riots are virtually undocumented.

In the days and weeks following the riots, a rash of meetings took place, and within a month pioneering organizations such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis secured a city permit and organized the first mass rally for gay rights.

‘A fight that is far from over’
The first anniversary of the Stonewall riots was commemorated as Christopher Street Liberation Day. On Sunday, June 28, 1970, several hundred LGBTQ people gathered at Washington Square in Greenwich Village and marched to Central Park to a “Gay-In.” By the time they arrived at the park, the crowd had grown to the thousands, making it the largest gay demonstration of its time.

The site itself was designated a historic landmark and, in 1999, was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the first listed site with a connection to gay and lesbian history. In 2016, the site was designated a United States National Monument.

A plaque outside of the Stonewall Inn reads: Stonewall Inn, 53 Christopher Street at Stonewall Place, Site of the Stonewall riots, June 27-29, 1969, Birth of the modern lesbian and gay rights liberation.
The Stonewall Inn and surrounding area were the site of a series of demonstrations and riots in June 1969, which led to the formation of the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the United States.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the event has become the symbol of the LGBTQ rights movement. Pride events are held throughout the world to commemorate the riots, and the Stonewall Inn has become a place of pilgrimage. As we celebrate this year, we remember that this moment in time — this flashpoint in an ongoing movement — was a turning point in a fight that is far from over.

The events around Stonewall that occurred 50 years ago are just a small part of LGBTQ history and the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals in America.

Two projects this year — the Rise Up exhibition at Washington D.C.’s Newseum and the Stonewall National Museum & Archives’ LGBTQ History Traveling Exhibition Program — share these important stories of our past and present and celebrate American history through an LGBTQ lens.

In its 45th year of operation, the Stonewall National Museum & Archives is one of only a few museums in the country dedicated solely to the history, civil rights, and culture of LGBTQ people. Through an extensive library, archival collection, programming, exhibitions, and a national education program, the museum works to promote understanding through preserving and sharing the proud culture of the community.

When we share the stories of the Stonewall riots, or monumental things that have shaped our country since — including the AIDS epidemic, “don’t ask don’t tell” law, transgender equality, marriage equality, and adoption rights — we’re sharing the stories of hope, of perseverance, and of community.

These are the stories of the LGBTQ experience of America. These are the stories that will guide the youth of today as they become the next trailblazers of tomorrow — as they take the reins of this movement built upon the contributions of our past.

From Stonewall and the events that led up to that pivotal night in 1969, to the historic events today, it is important this year more than ever that we continue to protect and make visible the social, cultural, and civil rights history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people throughout our communities.