A Photographic Look at the Birth of Gay Pride

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Photo: Diana Davies photographs, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

The sites of great battles often don’t look like much. Visit Gettysburg or Flanders, and the fields themselves are mostly grass and trees, with a few historical markers and the odd reenactment here and there. And so it is with the Stonewall Inn, the Christopher Street gay bar where, during a raid 45 years ago this week, a few dozen men decided that they were fed up. Stop by Sheridan Square today, and although there are a couple of places to pause and reflect — the ghostly George Segal bronzes across the street, rainbow flags here and there, a plaque — there isn’t much to make anyone linger. Even the Stonewall Inn itself went out of business soon after the riots, its storefront becoming a bagel shop for a while, and eventually a heavily renovated tourist version of its earlier self. You can once again order a drink in a bar called the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, but there isn't much physical history there behind the parti-color flags. You have to imagine that overheated night for yourself.

This bothered the longtime West Villager Susanna Aaron. A TV news producer and documentarian, she was struck, she says, by "the lack of sense of place" on Christopher Street, particularly as the social center of gay New York moved up to Chelsea and beyond. This month, as thousands descend on Sheridan Square for Pride Week, she's arranged for the store windows up and down Christopher Street to exhibit posters devoted to the history of the gay-rights struggle, with an eye toward creating a permanent LGBT history walk. (You can see eleven of the images, with text adapted from the 26 panels, below.) "You know," she says, "45 isn't such a big milestone — but the difference from the 40th anniversary is that it's everywhere! Obama is all-in on marriage equality; Barneys' spring campaign was about transgender people. The gay-rights movement has made the leap into being part of our common national history."

This is a short-lived exhibition, one that will come down at the end of the week. It's not enough, of course. A permanent history trail is merely a loose idea at this point, although, Aaron points out, the Department of the Interior is looking into marking and preserving significant sites relating to the gay-rights movement, much as it has for the civil-rights struggle. Until that happens, your imagined view of that night will have to suffice — and do not underestimate the power of even the unadorned place. After all, "the world will little note nor long remember what we say here," Abraham Lincoln said when consecrating that other battlefield, "but it can never forget what they did here."

In the early 1960s, gay-activist groups began pushing for a more public and militant stance. This 1965 protest took place at the Pentagon. Photo: Kay Tobin, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.
In New York State in the 1960s, any person wearing fewer than three articles of clothing deemed appropriate to his or her sex was subject to arrest. This photographic story appeared in the magazine Queen's Quarterly in the summer of 1969. Photo: From Queen’s Quarterly magazine, Summer 1969, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive.
In the late 1960s, the neighborhood surrounding the Stonewall Inn was the country’s main “gay ghetto,” and the Stonewall Inn itself was one of the most popular of the 26 gay bars in the area. Photo: Gay Scene Guide, 1968, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive.
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the crowd that lingered outside the club was still 500 strong, initially festive but increasingly angry as the raid progressed. The turning point came when the crowd saw the police slam a lesbian, who was struggling to resist arrest, against a police car. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.
By the time the sun came up on June 28, the crowd that rioted had dissipated, and slogans began to appear on the boarded-up windows of the Stonewall Inn, striking an unusually defiant tone. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.
The evening after the raid on the Stonewall Inn, a crowd of thousands returned, and violence flared and subsided over a total of six nights. This Daily News story appeared the following Sunday, July 6. Photo: New York Daily News, July 6, 1969.
On July 31, a little less than a month after the uprising ended, a new militant movement was formally born with the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Photo: Photo by Diana Davies, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.
Emboldened by the Stonewall Uprising, protesters became more openly aggressive. On June 24, 1970, five members of the Gay Activists Alliance were arrested after refusing to leave the headquarters of the Republican State Committee. Known as the Rockefeller Five, they were the first people arrested for an LGBT sit-in in New York. Photo: Photograph by Richard C. Wandel, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive.
The anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising quickly became a day of celebration. Twenty groups joined the Christopher Street Liberation Day march toward Central Park on June 28, 1970. Photo: Diana Davies photographs, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
In 1971, members of the Gay Activists Alliance staged a “zap” at the city's Marriage License Bureau to protest the city clerk’s threat to take legal action against any LGBT “unions.” They seized the phones, answering queries with, "Today we're only issuing marriage licenses to homosexuals. Are you homosexual?" Photo: Photograph by Richard C. Wandel, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive.
Just a few months after the riots, the Stonewall Inn went out of business. Photo: Diana Davies photographs, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations