Stanford scholar discusses history of Stonewall riots, gay pride parades

Stanford historian Estelle Freedman reflects on the legacy of the Stonewall riots and how gay pride parades evolved from serious protest marches to colorful, international celebrations.

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.

2017 Gay Pride Parade in New York City

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)

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 in the School of Humanities and Sciences, 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.


Estelle Freedman

Estelle Freedman, Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

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.


What is the connection between the riots and the LGBTQ+ pride marches that happen today every June? Why did the LGBTQ+ movement choose annual pride parades as a way to call attention to their cause? How are pride parades today different from those in the 1970s?

In late June 1970, to commemorate the Stonewall riots, gay liberation groups marched in New York and elsewhere, initiating the first gay pride weeks and annual marches.

The anti-gay culture at the time – from the social stigma associated with being queer, to laws that discriminated against sexual non-conformity, to the risk of being institutionalized as a “deviant” – forced many LGBT people into the closet, hiding their identities and desires. Marching publicly in the streets represented a mass coming out, a defiance of the stigma of being gay/queer, and an opportunity to celebrate rather than hide an alternative sexual culture.

“The rights gained in the past decades remain fragile in the face of persistent homophobia and hostility to queer people.”

—Estelle Freedman

U.S. history professor

The pride parade gatherings have changed in many ways over the decades; for example, responding to the AIDS crisis and government inaction and diversifying – like the acronym LGBTQA, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and asexual – in the light of proliferating sexual and gender identities. At first the annual gatherings had more elements of protest marches, along with celebration, but over time they more often resembled parades. The early militant calls for liberation – from capitalist and patriarchal, as well as sexual, oppression – gave way to demands for liberal rights, including same-sex marriage. One measure of acceptance, related to growing economic and political clout: In major cities parades acquired corporate sponsors. In small towns, however, coming out to march can remain daring. It is important to note, as well, that the rights gained in the past decades remain fragile in the face of persistent homophobia and hostility to queer people, especially when mobilized for conservative political goals.


The New York City Police Department has recently apologized for the Stonewall raid in 1969. What does this apology signify?

This is a very belated recognition of the wrongs committed for decades, not only at Stonewall, but wherever sexual and gender non-conforming people have been denied the right to congregate in public and have been treated with brutality by police.