Michael Olenick was 19 and living a secret social life, letting loose with friends at a speakeasy-like bar with blacked-out windows and one of the few floors in town where men danced with other men. Then the lights came on and the police strode into the Stonewall Inn.
Adrenaline pumping, Olenick worried about getting arrested but also about the action outside — shouting, sirens, sounds of objects being thrown. Gay people got harassed on the streets often enough that he wondered whether they were getting attacked.
He never thought that what he was hearing early June 28, 1969, would echo for 50 years. It was the start of a rebellion that helped propel and transform the modern LGBTQ rights movement, leaving a legacy in politics, policing and personal lives.
“I’m standing there, not knowing what was going on. That was the horror,” recalls Olenick, who was among many patrons police eventually allowed to leave the bar. “And then what came from it was the joy — the enlightenment for the country, for the world, that, ‘Hey, we’re here. Get over it.’”
Many details of what happened at the Stonewall are enveloped in differing perspectives, disputes and the uncertainty of half-century-old memories.
But the outlines are clear. At a time when homosexuality was defined as mental illness and showing same-sex affection could be deemed illegal, a diverse crowd of hundreds of gay men, bisexuals, lesbians and transgender people refused to go quietly after police raided the bar. They confronted the officers, hurling coins, bottles, invective and more.
Some bucked arrest and scuffled with officers, who took cover inside the bar for a time before riot police arrived. Demonstrations, defiance and arrests continued for several more nights.
The U.S. had seen some organized gay protests and spontaneous fights between LGBTQ people and police. But Stonewall proved to be a turning point. It kindled a sustained burst of organizing that changed the tone and volume of LGBTQ activism, and it altered how some people saw themselves in a society that had relegated many to shadows and shame.
“I knew that I deserved the same rights as anybody else, but it took all of that to make me realize that we, as a people, could fight back,” says Mark Segal, who was weeks out of high school when he went to the Stonewall that night and emerged an activist.
“How could anyone have imagined that going out for a night would end up being history?”
‘Things have changed a lot since I was a cop’
The night’s assignment: Search for evidence of unlicensed alcohol sales at the unlicensed Stonewall Inn.
Officer Charles Broughton had been on similar raids before. They were common at New York’s gay bars, often unlicensed and run by the underworld. Patrons rarely made waves.
As Broughton recalls, the focus was on people selling illegal drinks, not buying them. Several Stonewall employees were arrested.
While news and other accounts describe police checking people wearing clothes deemed gender-inappropriate — at the time, sometimes considered an illegal “disguise” — and arresting some, Broughton says he wasn’t involved in that and didn’t judge how bar patrons wanted to live.
He didn’t anticipate being corralled in the Stonewall by an angry crowd, hoping he wouldn’t get hurt as something crashed against the window.
He would ultimately be shoved and kicked by three people, according to an arrest report; Broughton says he doesn’t remember it. Overall, at least six people were arrested in the melee. At least four officers — not Broughton — were treated for injuries, according to police reports obtained by historian Jonathan Ned Katz and others. The reports don’t reflect any protesters’ injuries.
Broughton doesn’t regret the Stonewall raid. “I did my job at the time,” he says.
But the New York Police Department apologized this month.
“The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple,” Commissioner James O’Neill said.
The words of contrition came from a police force that now protects — and participates in — LGBT Pride celebrations that commemorate resistance to its own action.
The Gay Officers Action League has hundreds of members from the NYPD and some nearby agencies. LGBT officers have attained such high-profile positions as precinct commander.
Capt. Kevin Coleman, who oversees a Manhattan precinct, has been open throughout his 16-year career about being “a cop who happens to be gay.”
Other officers appreciate his frankness, he says.
“The NYPD, like all of society, evolves,” he said this week as a rainbow pride flag flew among others outside the stationhouse. “If we look at Stonewall, 50 years ago, through today, that’s an example of how far we’ve come.”
Still, LGBT activists say heavy-handed policing isn’t a thing of the past, particularly for transgender people and minorities. Some activists weren’t assuaged by O’Neill’s apology for the raid, and it elicited mixed feelings in police circles.
“I don’t blame the cops because they worked in a different time period. They answered to different types of policies,” said Sgt. Ed Mullins, a union leader. Like O’Neill, he joined the force in the 1980s.
Broughton, for his part, wasn’t offended by the NYPD’s apology.
“Things have changed a lot since I was a cop. … If it helps, it’s good,” said Broughton, now a long-retired detective. “Listen, all of us have had family members that are part of that community. And none of us are better than anybody else.”
‘We wanted society to change’
Scrawled on the Stonewall’s boarded-up windows the night after the raid were words that blew Dale Mitchell’s mind: “Support Gay Power.”
“I had never seen ‘gay’ as part of a political slogan before,” he recalls, “let alone associated with the word ‘power.’”
Mitchell, then 20, didn’t feel so powerful. He’d had to drop out of college after breaking with his family over his sexual orientation, and he was living in a drug-ridden rooming house with an older man who was mortified by the prior night’s Stonewall rebellion.
Mitchell, though, was struck by it and by the crowd that gathered the night after the raid, calling for gay power as another tense standoff developed with police.
Two years later, he would become Indiana University’s first openly gay student senator and tell a student newspaper gay people were “showing that our power is real.” This month, he was honored as the Boston Pride parade’s grand marshal for his advocacy for LGBT senior citizens through the group SAGE and other efforts.
Heading toward the Stonewall that night after the raid, Charles Evans viewed it from the vantage point of a black man from the segregated South, where he’d seen “you had to fight for everything that you got.”
“Now, I got to fight for my rights to be who I am,” the college student thought as he joined in the second night of protests, heartened at how many supporters had gathered.
Circulating in the crowd, Karla Jay heard the urgency but feared it would fade. Yet a month later, she was among hundreds on a march to the Stonewall, mobilized by the nascent Gay Liberation Front.
Formed in the rebellion’s wake, GLF was more radical than earlier groups that staged pioneering, decorous demonstrations and emphasized a message that gay people were mainstream.
GLF members “didn’t care any more about those niceties,” said Jay, then a graduate student who became the group’s first female leader. “We wanted society to change.”
Short-lived but influential, GLF marched in Times Square and picketed news publications. Members started a spectrum of other groups, including a transgender-advocacy organization founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera .
Activists pressed officials to pass anti-discrimination laws and psychiatrists to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. The new groups held dances to socialize in the open.
“We had to be out, loud and in your face,” concluded Segal, the teen spurred to activism by the Stonewall uprising. A GLF member, he founded a gay youth group, disrupted TV news and talk shows to raise the movement’s visibility, and now publishes the Philadelphia Gay News.
For Paul Glass, Stonewall’s impact was more private but no less important. He came out to his family a few weeks later.
“It was liberating,” says Glass, Evans’ husband.
A winding road of change’
Today, the Stonewall Inn is part of the first national monument to LGBT history . It has undergone various physical and ownership changes over the years, but it’s still a bar, and a rallying point for LGBTQ activists along a winding road of political and social change .
With gay marriage legal nationwide, polls show majorities of Americans now support same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people; 20 states have such laws. A federal proposal passed the House this spring but faces long odds in the Senate.
Enduring differences over the movement are as visible as a rainbow pride flag that went up over the Wisconsin state Capitol this month. Where some saw a banner of inclusivity, others viewed it as waving a provocative cause in the public’s face .
“It is divisive,” complained state Rep. Scott Allen, a Republican.
‘We had come so far, and so much had been forgotten’
One afternoon this month, people started tucking notes and keepsakes into envelopes at the New-York Historical Society, there to stay for the next half-century in the Stonewall 50 Time Capsule.
There were flyers for 1980s nightclubs where one man found a social community, and newspaper clippings about being a lesbian police officer and parent in the 1990s. A young transgender woman left a note to her future self: “I love you for being true to you.”
Wes Enos put in a letter about helping to create a time capsule dedicated to the legacy of an event decades before his birth. At 32, he has regretted how little many of his peers know about the lives of older LGBTQ people.
“It felt like we had come so far, and so much had been forgotten,” says Enos, who founded an intergenerational storytelling organization called the Generations Project. It’s collaborating on the time capsule, to be sealed next year.
Justin Sams wrote out: “You’re beautiful. You’re worthy. You’re brave. You’re courageous.”
The 27-year-old actor hopes to read his message again in 2069. But he also hopes it will “let the fellow LGBTQ brothers and sisters know that they’re worthy and they can keep fighting,” he said.
“And hopefully, they won’t have to fight.”
How the LGBTQ Rebellion Left a Legacy