How the Stonewall Riots Worked

The Stonewall Legacy
The riots inspired global demonstrations, like this queer pride march in New Delhi in 2009.  MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

The Stonewall riots weren't the first time LGBTQ people reacted violently to police harassment. Uprisings due to law enforcement raids and misconduct occurred in San Francisco in 1965 and 1966, and in Los Angeles in 1967. Mainstream newspapers virtually ignored all of them, including the Stonewall riots — only smaller independent and counterculture newspapers gave them much coverage [source: Armstrong and Crage]. But the Stonewall riots are viewed as the start of the gay rights movement, while other LGBTQ protests and riots did not take on as much significance.

There are a few reasons for the Stonewall riots' noteworthiness. For one thing, the Stonewall riots were somewhat larger in scale and lasted longer than other incidents. Also, gay rights activists tried and succeeded in finding an effective way to commemorate the riots using a march, which became an inclusive parade that allowed a wide range of LGBTQ people and allies to participate. But an ironic reason the Stonewall riots are considered the start of the gay rights movement is precisely because the riots were not the start of the gay rights movement.

One of the most important factors of an event's legacy is the existence of a community with the desire and capacity to remember it. Those quiet gay rights organizations that were working in the '50s and grew stronger in the '60s created an organized nationwide community of LGBTQ people who communicated with each other. That existing infrastructure is a major part of the story of Stonewall.

"A longer view of gay and lesbian history works to decenter Stonewall as the all-important turning point, as does recognition of the impact of young liberation activists who moved homophile organizations toward greater militancy," Susan Freeman, associate professor and chair of the department of Gender and Women's Studies at Western Michigan University, says via email. "Stonewall as an event took hold of people's consciousness largely because of the grassroots organizing that followed it, plus the annual commemorations and organizations that adopted the name."