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Why the Stonewall Riots represented a ‘sea change’ for LGBTQ rights

On a June night in 1969, patrons of a New York City gay bar called the Stonewall Inn battled with police and set in motion the modern movement for gay rights. Fifty years later, the milestone anniversary of the event has sparked observations and celebrations nationwide -- as well as reflections from LGBTQ Americans about what cultural acceptance has meant to them. John Yang reports.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    When patrons of a New York City gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, battled with police on a June night in 1969, few could have envisioned the movement that battle sparked for acceptance and equality for LGBTQ people.

    As part of our coverage of this week's 50th anniversary, John Yang spoke to two women from different generations about what the movement has achieved and their visions for the future.

  • John Yang:

    For Karla Jay, and her wife, Karen Kerner, even running errands in their Upper West side neighborhood brings reminders of this month's milestone pride celebration.

    Jay, a retired college professor, is among the pioneers of the LGBTQ rights movement, the first female chair of the Gay Liberation Front, one of the earliest activist groups to emerge from Stonewall.

    College student Mya Padilla, who is bisexual, is getting ready for pride weekend, too. She is an intern at the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, what she hopes is the first step in a career of community organizing.

    Jay and Padilla are two links in the long chain of LGBTQ rights activists. We introduced them to each other at New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.

    Their stories provide a glimpse of how attitudes toward the LGBTQ community and protections for their rights have changed over the last half-century and how they haven't. Jay was raised in Brooklyn.

  • Karla Jay:

    I grew up in the early 1950s, and we didn't have any vocabulary for being a lesbian or gay man or trans. I just knew that I wasn't like my mother, I wasn't like my mother's friends. I had no words for being different.

  • Mya Padilla:

    I grew up in Staten Island for a majority of my very young life. I knew one lesbian couple. And even then, the way they were spoken about and the way that their family was spoken about was different.

  • John Yang:

    For both, college was a turning point in very different ways.

  • Mya Padilla:

    I went upstate for school. I really found myself in an area, in a situation where I was removed from the prying eyes of my family, of my friends, and free to be whoever I wanted to be. And it was the first time that I felt removed enough from my reality to play out this part of who I am.

  • Karla Jay:

    The first week of college, at Barnard, I heard that two girls in the dorm room who were making out were seen by a guy across the street at Columbia with a binocular, and they were expelled.

    And that encouraged me to hide in the closet very deeply for a number of years.

  • John Yang:

    She only came out to her parents in her late 20s, when she was about to appear on a nationally televised talk show to discuss gay rights. She wanted to tell her father first.

  • Karla Jay:

    I said, look, my being lesbian is like my being left-handed. And I discovered he wasn't happy that I was left-handed.

  • John Yang:

    They planned to keep her mother in the dark, and away from the television. It didn't work.

  • Karla Jay:

    My aunt called her up in the middle of the night and said, "Your daughter's on television, and she's a queer," she said.

    She called my father into the bedroom. And she said to my father: "Karla's on TV and she says she's a lesbian. What is it?"

  • John Yang:

    What was your — your relationship like with your parents from then on?

  • Karla Jay:

    My mother grew to tolerate if I came to visit them with a partner. But my father never accepted it. And then he finally decided I wasn't his biological child, and he erased me from his life.

  • John Yang:

    I can imagine how painful that was.

  • Karla Jay:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    Mya, what was your experience like?

  • Mya Padilla:

    So, I had a different experience. I came out to my parents in my junior year of college. They were understanding, although there was a little bit of like a knowledge gap: What does it mean to be bisexual?

  • John Yang:

    So, is it harder because you're telling people you're bisexual, rather than telling them you're a lesbian?

  • Mya Padilla:

    Oh, 100 percent. We're spoken of as if we don't exist in the community at all, as if we're playing a game, choosing the ability to be queer and choosing to be straight when it's beneficial.

    But my years in the closet were just as painful.

  • John Yang:

    From the center, we set out through the streets of Greenwich Village for an address Jay remembers well.

  • Karla Jay:

    It wasn't that far in. Here's the address, like 149 or something.

  • John Yang:

    It's now a restaurant. But from 1965 until 1973, it was home to Kooky's, at the time one of New York's few lesbian bars.

  • Karla Jay:

    It was so oppressive in here for us.

  • John Yang:

    She recalls bartenders coercing patrons to buy more drinks and strictly rationing toilet paper for the bathroom, only two sheets per customer.

  • Karla Jay:

    Just for being a lesbian.

  • John Yang:

    So, even though you were treated horribly, it was still a safe haven?

  • Karla Jay:

    Yes. It was the only place we had. We put up with everything gratefully. We were happy to go in and see women who looked like us.

  • John Yang:

    But how do your experiences in lesbian bars compare to what Karla described at Kooky's?

  • Mya Padilla:

    A lot more positive. A lot more positive.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    These days, Padilla has more and more pleasant and nurturing options, like the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, where she is an intern.

  • Mya Padilla:

    This center has given me a lot of different opportunities to grow just as a person. It's really given me place to really integrate all of, I think, the skills that I have and all of the experiences that I have had, and added that last component of queerness into it.

  • John Yang:

    It's a long way from 1969 and Stonewall. The morning after the uprising, Jay headed to the bar. One of the first things she saw was a message in the window.

  • Karla Jay:

    It was a big sign with white letters telling people to keep the peace, to cooperate with the police, and to go home and to be peaceful. And I was shocked, because it seemed to me this wasn't the time to be peaceful.

    There was a lot of anger. And people were just talking and shouting and saying, what do we do, what do we do? This is enough. We have to stop it. Enough already.

  • John Yang:

    When you think about what was launched here that night in the past 50 years, what do you think?

  • Karla Jay:

    I think it's really amazing, what has happened.

    It's just — it's just incredible. That was a sea change in how we thought about ourselves and how we were going to take our rights. If they gave them to us or not, we were here to take them.

  • John Yang:

    Karla, how old were you in 1969?

  • Karla Jay:

    I was 22 years old.

  • John Yang:

    Mya, how old are you?

  • Mya Padilla:

    I'm 22.

  • John Yang:

    What's your hope or what's your vision for the next 50 years?

  • Mya Padilla:

    I hope that we're sustaining what we have, right, first and foremost, but we're expanding into other movements, and making our voices heard on those boards, in those marches, on those committees, because if our voice isn't there with other social movements, then we're not going to create a society that's truly integrated.

  • Karla Jay:

    When we lit our torches in the embers of the Stonewall uprising, we had no idea where we would go.

    To see someone like Mya, who's got a torch burning brightly, I still have my torch. I'm limping along. But to see young people like her, my hope is so bright and wonderful now.

  • John Yang:

    Do you see a little bit of yourself?

  • Karla Jay:

    Yes. It's great. And she will define her own issues, and she's going to see that, in 50 years, people will think that discrimination against LGBT people was a science fiction movie.

  • John Yang:

    Two women born 50 years apart marking a movement's milestone anniversary and heading into the next 50 years.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in New York.

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