Most elementary school students spend a day – or in some cases a week, perhaps – studying the African American civil rights movement. But it’s unlikely that they can tell you what Stonewall was.

June 28th was the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969. The riots marked the beginning of the gay rights movement and gays and lesbians all over the United States had a public voice for the first time. Gays and lesbians had few political organizations prior to Stonewall, though a couple of notable ones had formed, such as the Mattachine Society, which was formed in 1951, or the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955.

Post-WWII America was paranoid and fearful of social deviants, and homosexuality was considered dangerous enough not only to be lumped in a category with the Communists, anarchists and other far left groups, but was also listed as a disease in the American Psychiatric Association manual for mental disorders, which is fortunately no longer the case.

The Stonewall Inn was one of the few gay bars in New York City where gays and lesbians could go to and feel safe from discrimination, but routine police raids made local bar owners as well as gays and lesbians feel uneasy. Feelings escalated until one night during a raid, when Stonewall patrons decided that enough was enough and began to block the paddy wagon where police were loading prisoners. The night exploded into rebellion and although no one had an agenda, a slogan or even a real plan, everyone was united in one goal: putting a stop to the persecution and rioting for the freedom to live in peace.

The Stonewall riots ignited a string of gay rights activism that inspired dozens of others across the States to come out of the closet and take to the streets and courts in protest, working for change. The gay rights movement has come a long way since that June night in 1969 and there are now few police raids on gay bars.

The focus of the movement has changed slightly since that night, and the LGBTQ community is divided between those who fight for social inclusion and those who fight to tear down normalizing social institutions. They may do well to remember that when the gay rights movement was born, it was a moment when gays and lesbians were united not by a desire for equality per se, but by a desire for liberation. Issues of social recognition were less important than simply being free to express individuality. It is only when queers all across the States begin to form a true community with one another in the same spirit that unified them during the Stonewall riots that the gay rights movement will progress toward change like never before.