The Legacy of Stonewall


Twenty-five years ago, the gay rights movement was born in a wild, late-night melee between police and a group of patrons at the Stonewall, a seedy gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village. The police had come to the Stonewall that night prepared to do what they had done many times previously: roust the clientele, intimidate, harass and humiliate those present and pack anyone who looked the least bit suspicious or disreputable off to jail in the waiting paddy wagons.

To this day, no one knows why that particular July night turned out so differently; why instead of meekly playing out what by then had become a well-rehearsed script of cringing resignation followed by abject submission, the Stonewall's customers turned on their tormentors with a fury. The scuffling escalated into a brawl that spilled into the streets, attracting a crowd that turned into a mob. Some of the fighting was brutal; only a miracle, in hindsight, prevented anyone from being seriously injured or killed.

The incident shocked even hardy New Yorkers, who by temperament and necessity seem inured to deviance so long as they don't have to acknowledge it directly.

In those days, gay bars were part of the city's vast subcultural underbelly, and the people who frequented them were invisible men and women with no claim on the good citizens' compassion or sense of justice.

Stonewall changed all that. The riot marked the end of an era of casual acceptance of official gay-bashing and a new self-awareness and self-acceptance among gays themselves.

From today's vantage point, it's easy to imagine the changes in attitudes since Stonewall -- albeit slow and grudging -- as part of the social and cultural revolution set in motion during the turbulent 1960s.

And yet every revolution has its defining moment. AIDS provided the sense of urgency for the militant gay-rights movement of the 1980s. But before this could occur, people had to decide the government simply had no business telling anyone whom he or she could dance with or love. It took Stonewall to make that happen.

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