45 Years Ago, A Movement Was Born: Why The Stonewall Riots Matter

Ahead of NYC's Pride Parade on Sunday, MTV remembers the LGBT movement's watershed moment.

Only 45 years ago, LGBT people were forced to hide in the shadows, their way of life criminalized – marriage wasn’t even a consideration. Police would raid gay bars (if they weren’t getting paid off by the owners) and arrest people on the spot if they didn’t have identification, or if they were in drag. But that all began to change in a small tavern in New York City on June 28, 1969.

What started as a riot became the beginning of the LGBT Civil Rights Movement: Stonewall Riots.

On Saturday, June 28, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. This was routine at the time, but this raid would be like no other before. As police they were lining bar-goers up for inspection, all hell broke loose.

“When they came in the door, they were pushing and shoving people,” Tree, a bartender at the Stonewall Inn who was there when the riots happened, told MTV News. “They actually pushed this guy with a mustache — who turned out to be a lesbian with a mustache — and it took two cops to pull her off the cops.

“[Storme DeLarverie, who recently died at 94] was arrested with a few other people, he continued. “When the cops came in, my friends Fred, Charlie and I kicked the plywood wall out this door. There were like 30 of us out here. Within a few hours, it was 3, 4, 500 people. The cops were afraid to leave the building.”

“We broke the window, broke the wall behind the window, we pulled a parking meter out of the ground and used it as a battering ram to knock the doors in,” he said, pointing at the Stonewall’s now open doors, which wafted a bit of air conditioning and bar smell out on Christopher Street. “But when you start a bar on fire — with the police in it — that’s when the riot squad did come. Because we lit the garbage cans on fire and threw them through the windows.”

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The riots became national news the next day, and what was just one night of chaos turned into an organized movement with LGBT groups popping up around the city, and soon, around the country. Today, marriage equality is sweeping the nation, gay men and women can proudly and openly serve their country and our generation is leading the charge.

“To me, Stonewall is an act from people who were tired of being pushed into the shadows of society, taking a stand for their human dignity,” said Susanna Aaron, a volunteer working for Stonewall’s 45th anniversary. “There was a moment of fury which was these riots at this bar but this community turned it into a real political movement with very clear goals.”

Today, when states are reexamining their gay marriage bans (Indiana just overturned theirs on Wednesday), the Stonewall Riots’ significance in the fight toward equality is recognized even more strongly.

“Stonewall means to me: a beginning, a beginning of progress,” said Bob Russo, who has been with his partner Eliot Idoff for 45 years. Idoff, who likes to finish Russo’s sentences, concurred: “It means that a persecuted group finally had enough courage to fight back, and that started the whole movement.”

For Autumn Young-Tsan, the Stonewall Riots gave her the legal ability to get married — her whole life, she told us, tearing up.

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“The Stonewall riots gave me my life,” Young-Tsan said. “They gave me the ability to say ‘yes, I want to be with the person that I love more than anything in the world,’ and those people that put their lives on the line for that, I thank every day because without them, I would still have to live a life of fear and of not being accepted. For them, now I can live my life, and have my wife and my baby and our dogs. It’s wonderful.”

Now, after 45 years, even though there’s been lots of progress, Congress has yet to take action on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against employees based on sexual-orientation or gender identity. And only 19 states out of the 50 have legal gay marriage — not even half of the U.S.

Will it take another 45 years to unify the country? Young-Tsan thinks it’ll be five, but for her friend Peter Rockwitz, who was hanging out at the Boots & Saddle on Christopher Street with her, the completion of gay marriage is not about time.

“It’s a question of being vigilant,” said Rockwitz, a second-grade teacher. “There’s always going to be someone who looks to step on someone’s rights and treat you as less than someone else, and with our struggle, as we get closer to the end, we have to be mindful of the next group that’s going to struggle.”

And as we stick together for human rights, we remember those who came together back in 1969, when being who you were was taboo.

“They gave me the gift to be who I am,” Rockwitz said, remembering the protesters. “And they didn’t always have that.”

Almost half a decade later, Tree stands in front of the bar he fought for, the bar where he tells the story of the riots almost every day to his customers, the bar that’s draping its rainbow flag proudly before Sunday’s Pride Parade. He smiles.

“Now it’s our history. It’s a 45-year party.”

Member of MTV News' Cat Braintrust, has an unhealthy obsession with pork dumplings and tweeting Austin Mahone's mom. Follow @emileelindner