Stonewall 50: Activist Recalls Change In Feelings Among Gays, Lesbians

June 25, 2019 - 1:11 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Friday marks the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village.

The uprising was sparked when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay nightclub in New York City and is often pointed to as a turning point in the gay rights movement.

At the time of the raid, homosexual acts were illegal in almost every state and bars and restaurants could be shut down for hiring gay individuals or serving known homosexual patrons.

On June 28, 1969, police conducted a surprise raid of the bar and began arresting patrons and employees – but those fed up with the harassment stayed at the bar instead of dispersing.

Tensions quickly rose and within minutes, a full-blown riot involving hundreds of people began.

“That summer, I felt so free, freer than I had ever felt in my life before that,” said Martha Shelley.

She tells WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell that she walked by the bar on the night of the riot but didn’t understand what was happening.

“Monday morning, I read in the newspaper that I was a gay right and I was on fire,” she notes. “I thought, ‘this is our moment, this is our opportunity.’”

Martha  Shelley
Steven Dansky

The then-25-year-old Shelley was inspired by the uprising and helped founded the Gay Liberation Front, which formed alliances with civil rights and anti-war groups.

“We weren’t just another gay single-issue group pleading for acceptance from mainstream America. We were demanding our rights,” Shelley said.

She says the summer of 1969 created the entire trajectory of her life.

The 75-year-old continues to advocate for gay rights and remains active in the LGBTQ community.

“There is something I learned at Passover: in every generation a new pharaoh arises to oppress us and and in every generation we need to fight back,” she says of the fight today.