When a group of youths stood up to police raiding a popular gay hangout in New York City on the night of June 28, 1969, they had no idea where their actions would lead.
The kids were mostly what we now would identify as LGBTQ. But 1969 was a different time. The gay rights movement was in its infancy, and police officers weren’t in the habit of donning rainbow colors and marching in parades to show their support.
On that summer night in Greenwich Village, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, a club where homosexual activities were said to occur.
The kids fought back, and the event became known as the Stonewall riots. The first night of the riots brought out as many as 600 people, according to the website for the Stonewall 50 Consortium, a group that brings together scores of nonprofit groups and other organizations for programs and exhibitions and to produce educational materials. The second night drew perhaps 2,000 people; the sixth and final night attracted as many as 1,000.
There were a handful of arrests but no fatalities.
The riots might have slipped into the nation’s memory, as other similar riots have no doubt done. Some Southern Californians may remember the 1959 Cooper Do-nuts disturbances in downtown L.A., when a group of transgender women, lesbians and gay men fought with police who had been arresting LGBTQ folks who gathered along Main Street.
Perhaps because the Stonewall riots took place in New York City, they were noticed. “The Stonewall Riots were a key turning point and a catalyst for dramatic growth in LGBTQ rights and for a movement that spread around the world,” said Eric Marcus, founder and chairman of the Stonewall 50 Consortium.
“What I find so inspiring is that a group of people who may have been considered weak and fearful, people who turn and run at the drop of a hairpin, confounded all expectations and had the police on the run,” Marcus said.
“When Stonewall happened, it was like we were driving 20 mph and then hit the gas,” said Cathy Renna of Target Cue, an LGBTQ-focused public relations and communications firm. “The news spread like wildfire to cities like Philadelphia and Washington, where there already were burgeoning gay/lesbian rights groups working.”
The next summer, marchers gathered at the Stonewall Inn and marched to Central Park in the first Pride parade. Slowly, gay pride became a household phrase from California to Croatia.
To mark a half-century of progress since the Stonewall uprising, what’s now called WorldPride will take place this summer in New York City, its first time in the United States. Exhibitions and other events are being held throughout June in what New York City tourism officials are calling “The Year of Pride.”
“The arts and cultural communities have really stepped up in powerful ways,” said Fred Dixon, president and chief executive of NYC & Co., the city’s tourism marketing group. “We’ll have exhibitions throughout the five boroughs. The Bronx Museum of the Arts will have an exhibit on an amazing photographer who captured the gay scene in the city in the 1970s. The Met will have an exhibit. The New-York Historical Society will have three exhibitions.”
NYC’s Pride events “are about standing up for who you are,” Dixon said. “And that’s a very New York concept.”
Four million people are expected to descend on New York City for Pride events this year, many from distant corners of the world.
The June 26 opening ceremony will be at Barclays Center in Brooklyn; guests include Whoopi Goldberg, Cyndi Lauper and many others. The official WorldPride parade will take place June 30, beginning near Madison Square Park and passing by the Stonewall Inn and the Stonewall National Monument in Greenwich Village.
The monument was established by President Barack Obama in June 2016 and consists of Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding streets where the 1969 riots took place.
The current Stonewall Inn doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original. The bar closed not long after the riots, and the building later housed a Chinese restaurant, a clothing store and a bagel shop. Today it’s back in business as the Stonewall Inn, at 53 Christopher St., likely to be an overwhelmingly popular spot throughout June.
Formal accreditation is needed to take part in the official June 30 Pride parade, which shows how far the movement has advanced in 49 years. Accreditation for marching in the official parade must be arranged in advance through WorldPride. Another march the same day — the Queer Liberation March and Rally — will be open to anyone who wants to join.
“You won’t be able to go anywhere in New York City — and I don’t mean just the Village or Manhattan but anywhere — and not see the manifestation of support and political relevance of the Stonewall Uprising,” Renna said. “WorldPride is like the Olympics of Pride.”
Renna remembers taking part in an early Pride march in Washington, D.C., with a few hundred people. This year’s event in New York, sanctioned by state and local officials who have embraced LGBTQ issues and the visitor dollars that gay tourism brings, will conclude with thousands of people gathered in Times Square.
“It’s a physical manifestation every year of the progress we made and community we’ve created,” Renna said. “For some, it’s protest and politics. For others, it’s just an opportunity to come and be joyous and maybe go to a party.”
Pride around the world
Pride festivals are huge gatherings around the world every year. But things will take on a more serious note this year as people mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, which led to the first gay pride march the following year. This year’s WorldPride event is in New York City in June. But there are many other places around the globe where the riots will be remembered. Here are a few of them.
Pride Toronto honors “those that started this world-changing movement 50 years ago.” The 39th annual Pride Festival in Toronto runs June 21-23 as part of a monthlong series that includes 50 events over 23 days. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Canada’s abolishment of laws that made homosexual behavior a crime. The Royal Canadian Mint in April issued a special LGBTQ “50 years of progress” dollar coin to commemorate the law change.
The “Stonewall 50” exhibition was conceived “as a snapshot of the complexion, interests and activities of a diverse group of queer and allied artists,” according to the Brown Foundation Gallery at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, which is hosting the exhibition through July 28. Pride Houston is June 22.
The L.A. Pride Parade takes place in West Hollywood on June 9 between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Santa Monica Boulevard between Fairfax Avenue and Doheny Drive.
Philadelphia celebrates Pride and commemorates the 50th anniversary of Stonewall on June 9. The party begins with a colorful procession from the Gayborhood to Penn’s Landing, where the day unfolds around a stage hosting celebrity guests, drag performances and local and national musical acts. The city this year also will host a Trans Wellness Conference July 25-27.
This year’s Pride festivities in San Francisco carry the slogan “Generations of Resistance.” The city’s Pride Parade is June 29 and 30.