The Stonewall Inn is housed in a quaint brick building on a tree-lined street in the heart of Greenwich Village. On June 28, 1969, the indomitable energy that was unleashed from Stonewall was so huge, that it sparked the modern gay rights movement. That energy still exists today–and this year, our movement is celebrating its 45th anniversary.
On that historic night at Stonewall, four and a half decades ago, a police raid occurred in which 13 people were arrested. The police officers—some in uniform, some undercover—entered the bar and began harassing the patrons. During the 1960s, gay bars were raided frequently, and homosexuality was widely regarded as immoral and a mental illness. LGBT people were considered “perverts.” Cops had the right to question, ID, intimidate, threaten and torment anyone in a gay bar. And they often made arrests. But that night the Stonewall patrons, tired of being maligned, resolved to stand their ground. They fought back. Rowdy demonstrations, or what we now call the Stonewall Riots, continued for days.
Although a gay rights movement existed before Stonewall, the peaceful demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s were led by “homophile” organizations. They just wanted to achieve basic rights that everyone else enjoyed, like freedom of assembly and access to jobs. Above all, they sought to prove that lesbians and gay men could behave morally and respectably in society. Women wore dresses and men wore suits; they held picket signs and walked in a circle. They didn’t chant or yell or scuffle with the cops.
By 1969, however, civil rights activism in the United States had become confrontational. And that changed the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Riots didn’t coalesce just because gays decided to make some noise. It represented a sea change, a break with the past. People who weren’t even involved in the uprising said that they felt the emotional toll it had on the neighborhood, the city and beyond—something was changing. We were sticking up for ourselves.
Within a year of Stonewall, there were gay rights groups sprouting up throughout the world like dandelions—in major American cities, as well as in Canada, Australia and Western Europe.
Today, the Stonewall Inn is not only a landmark (listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000) but still a wildly popular LGBT hangout. What’s it like to own and operate a gay rights monument? Kurt Kelly, owner of the Stonewall Inn, says, “It’s like owning Rosa Parks’ bus. That’s how meaningful the Stonewall Inn is to me. What I love about Stonewall is that it still stands as a place for a social and activist movement.”
People come from all over the world to visit the site, and locals go there to drink, socialize and see familiar faces. On Friday nights, lesbians like us go there to dance, party and let our freak flags fly.
“We wanted to create a fun space, where everyone feels welcome. We wanted to keep the same community feeling that was there in 1969,” says Stacy Lentz, who co-owns the bar. “We get visitors…who want to take their picture out front or come in for a drink, just to say they have been to Stonewall. As New Yorkers, I think sometimes we forget how impactful the Stonewall rebellion was on the world.”
Kelly adds: “We have come so far as a community in our struggle for equality, and have had so many activists and organizers who have fought for our lives, our rights and our ability to be who we are and to love openly and freely. We can never forget those brave men and women who sparked a revolution in 1969. We feel very fortunate to be shepherds of history, and to keep the bar and its history not just alive and thriving but educating younger generations as they come in to have fun, of the importance of our past and those who have paved the way for us. If we want a future of full equality, we can’t forget. We must know our past.”
The Obama Administration recognizes how important LGBT history is, too. This June, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the National Park Service is convening a panel of scholars to identify sites and landmarks that are essential to LGBT history, with the aim of preserving them for the next generation. Jewell’s announcement, on the steps of the Stonewall Inn, marked the government’s first effort to recognize LGBT historical sites as an integral part of our nation’s cultural fabric.
So this year at Pride, let’s remember and honor those heroic game-changers who stood their ground at the Greenwich Village watering hole and launched the radical movement that got us where we are today.
We wish a happy 45th anniversary to ourselves and to the historic Stonewall Inn, the place where we were first set free.