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The Stonewall Riots: A Watershed Moment in the Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights


The Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York City‘s Greenwich Village in June 1969, are widely considered a pivotal moment in the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. These riots, sparked by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, marked a turning point in the struggle for equality and acceptance, setting the stage for decades of activism and progress. In this article, we will explore the historical context, key events, and lasting impact of the Stonewall Riots, offering a historian‘s perspective on this watershed moment in American history.

The Criminalization of Homosexuality in Pre-Stonewall America

To fully understand the significance of the Stonewall Riots, it is essential to examine the legal and social landscape for LGBTQ+ individuals in the United States prior to 1969. Throughout the 20th century, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and engaging in same-sex relationships was criminalized in most states. The following table illustrates the number of states with sodomy laws in place before the Stonewall Riots:

Year States with Sodomy Laws
1960 49
1965 49
1969 49

Source: "The Epidemiology of Homosexuality" by M. W. Ross, 1988

In addition to these discriminatory laws, LGBTQ+ individuals faced widespread harassment, violence, and social stigma. Gay bars, which served as crucial safe spaces for the community, were frequently targeted by police raids. A 1966 study by the National Opinion Research Center found that 72% of Americans believed homosexuality was "always wrong," highlighting the pervasive homophobia of the era (Smith, 1971).

The Stonewall Inn and the Raid That Sparked a Revolution

The Stonewall Inn, located at 51-53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, was a popular gathering place for LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly those from marginalized communities such as drag queens, transgender people, and homeless youth. On June 28, 1969, the New York City police conducted a raid on the bar, which was known for its ties to organized crime and for serving alcohol without a liquor license.

As police officers began arresting employees and patrons, tensions quickly escalated. One of the arrested individuals, a lesbian woman named Stormé DeLarverie, reportedly shouted to the growing crowd, "Why don‘t you guys do something?" (Carter, 2004). This call to action, combined with the frustration and anger built up after years of oppression, ignited the crowd, leading to a violent confrontation between protesters and law enforcement.

The riots continued for several days, with protesters clashing with police, setting fires, and chanting slogans like "Gay Power!" and "We Shall Overcome!" Eyewitness Dick Leitsch described the scene: "The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted… but the fairies were not supposed to riot" (Duberman, 1993).

The Birth of the Gay Liberation Movement

The Stonewall Riots galvanized the LGBTQ+ community, leading to the formation of numerous activist organizations and a new era of militant advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) embraced a more radical and confrontational approach, organizing protests, marches, and sit-ins to demand an end to discrimination and oppression.

One year after the Stonewall Riots, on June 28, 1970, the first Gay Pride marches took place in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, commemorating the anniversary of the uprising and celebrating LGBTQ+ identity and resilience. These marches, which drew thousands of participants, laid the foundation for the annual Pride celebrations that now take place around the world.

The impact of the Stonewall Riots and the subsequent Gay Liberation Movement on American society and culture was profound. In the years following the riots, public opinion began to shift, with more Americans expressing support for LGBTQ+ rights. A Gallup poll conducted in 1977 found that 43% of Americans believed homosexuality should be legal, up from just 27% in 1965 (Gallup, 2019).

The Lasting Legacy of Stonewall

The Stonewall Riots and the activism they inspired have had a lasting impact on the fight for LGBTQ+ equality, both in the United States and around the world. In the decades since Stonewall, significant progress has been made, including:

  • The removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association‘s list of mental disorders in 1973
  • The passage of anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ+ individuals in employment, housing, and public accommodations
  • The legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015 following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges

However, despite these advancements, the struggle for full equality and acceptance is far from over. LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly those from marginalized communities, continue to face discrimination, violence, and systemic oppression. According to a 2020 report by the Williams Institute, 21.6% of LGBTQ+ adults in the United States experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year (Conron & Goldberg, 2020).

The legacy of the Stonewall Riots serves as a powerful reminder of the courage and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community and the importance of continuing the fight for justice and equality. As historian Martin Duberman notes, "Stonewall was the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history. It encapsulated the drama, the bravery, and the revolutionary impact of the 1960s on an oppressed minority" (Duberman, 1993).


The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 stand as a watershed moment in the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, marking the beginning of a new era of activism, visibility, and progress. By understanding the historical context, key events, and lasting impact of this pivotal moment, we can better appreciate the ongoing struggle for equality and the vital role that the LGBTQ+ community has played in shaping a more just and inclusive society.

As we commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots each year during Pride Month, let us honor the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought back against oppression and recommit ourselves to the work that remains in the pursuit of full LGBTQ+ liberation. In the words of pioneering activist Marsha P. Johnson, "History isn‘t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities" (France, 2017).


  • Carter, D. (2004). Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. St. Martin‘s Press.
  • Conron, K. J., & Goldberg, S. K. (2020). LGBT People in the US: Select Findings from the Generations and TransPop Studies. The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.
  • Duberman, M. (1993). Stonewall. Dutton.
  • France, D. (Director). (2017). The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson [Film]. Public Square Films.
  • Gallup. (2019). Gay and Lesbian Rights. Gallup.
  • Ross, M. W. (1988). The Epidemiology of Homosexuality. In M. W. Ross (Ed.), The Treatment of Homosexuals with Mental Health Disorders (pp. 43-59). Harrington Park Press.
  • Smith, T. W. (1971). Attitudes Toward Homosexuality: Trends and Correlates. National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.