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Stanford scholar discusses history of Stonewall riots, gay pride parades

Gay pride parades have evolved from protest marches in the 1970s to colorful celebrations like this one in New York City in 2017.

Image credit: Kirkikis/Getty

Fifty years ago, the Stonewall rioters’ call for the recognition of gay rights in the United States launched annual gay pride parades that initially were more serious protest marches than the colorful celebrations known today, Stanford historian Estelle Freedman said.

Here, Freedman reflects on the night of June 27, 1969, when New York City Police Department officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan, and harassed its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender customers.

Since then, the event now referred to as the Stonewall riots or uprising has become a powerful symbol of gay liberation. The incident catalyzed protests across the country about how the police treated the LGBTQ community and marked a turning point in the gay rights movement in the United States. But according to Freedman, gay rights activism efforts date back to at least the 1950s.

Freedman, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History, has studied and written about gay and LGBTQ culture and history. She also co-founded Stanford’s Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her recent books include Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America and Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation.

Can you summarize what happened during the Stonewall riots and how they occurred?

New York City police regularly raided bars and clubs that catered to gay men, lesbians and drag queens, including the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. On the night of June 27-28, 1969, however, the patrons – many of them young people of color – successfully fought back. They forcibly halted the arrests and held police in the bar while thousands of locals rioted in the streets. The riots recurred for the next few nights. The crowds drew energy from accumulated anger over harassment and discrimination against LGBT people and adopted the militant language and tactics of the black power, anti-war and women’s liberation movements. The Stonewall rioters’ call for “gay power” helped to accelerate the nascent gay liberation movement.

What is the legacy of the Stonewall riots today?

For some, Stonewall marks either the beginning of the gay protest movement or the rise of a militant gay liberation movement, the boiling point at which sexually stigmatized groups that we now call “queer” turned the tables on their oppressors. The history, of course, is more complex, given the earlier pursuit of homosexual rights since at least the 1950s homophile movement and the earlier protests and riots that took place nationally, including by drag queens who fought police harassment at San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria in 1966. The legacy of Stonewall persists in part because commemorations of it launched the annual pride marches that have spread internationally.