Blog Post Mark Segal Jun 24, 2024

I Was There in 1969: Why a Stonewall Visitor Center Matters

Mark Segal was 18 and had freshly arrived in New York City in 1969, just in time to participate in a watershed moment in LGBTQ history. Here, he recounts his role in the Stonewall uprising and explains why NPCA’s work to establish the national monument and open a visitor center continues the path for equality.  

Stonewall changed the path of my life, and a new visitor center has changed the way I look back at those 55 years now. For most people, stepping through the doors of the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center will be like stepping into history. For me, it’s stepping back to my youth. Thanks to Diana Rodriguez of Pride Live, the National Parks Conservation Association and others who led the charge to designate a national park at Stonewall and envisioned the visitor center, the LGBTQ community now has a place to visit and appreciate the site and the people who ignited a spark that started us on the road to equality.

Stonewall Inn sign 1969

Stonewall Inn, 1969.

camera icon Photo by Diana Jo Davies, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

When people first learn about my history, growing up in Philadelphia and moving to New York at age 18 in May 1969, their curiosity often leads them to ask about the Stonewall riots. Each person who was there has their own perspective, since the events unfolded over many hours and across many city blocks.

It’s bewildering to read various accounts of that night, especially when I’m often labeled as one of those who fought back. While I may have been present near the doors of the Stonewall when objects were hurled to resist the police, I believe my true contribution came shortly after that rebellion began: It wasn’t physical combat, but rather a written call to arms.

My instinct was to call the police, until I realized that these were the police… In that moment, it became clear: If the police could attack us, anyone could. 

Like all riots, Stonewall was a spontaneous eruption of chaos and overwhelming to fully comprehend in the hectic moments. As my mind raced to process what was happening and what my role should be, my friend Marty Robinson handed me a piece of chalk and said, “Write on the walls and streets up and down Christopher Street: ‘Tomorrow night, Stonewall.’”

It took me years to understand why that simple act of writing was so significant and personal to me that night, and how it would shape my life’s work.

Born in 1951, an era that may seem prehistoric by today’s standards — no internet, no cell phones, not even color TVs — I realized I was gay around my 13th birthday. But societal norms dictated that I couldn’t confide my revelation to my parents or friends. The subject was taboo on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines, and in books of the time. We were invisible. At the library, there were only a handful of books on the subject of homosexuality, all categorized under crime, religion or psychology. Society labeled me as immoral, illegal and psychologically ill. Such labels can lead to a precariously toxic environment to navigate for a 13-year-old. Yet, somehow, I resisted internalizing those messages. When I was trying to decide what to do after high school, I discovered that there were others like me in New York City. So right after graduation I moved there, on May 10, 1969.

National Park Service

Photos from the Stonewall Uprising

See 1960s photos of Stonewall and the early days of the gay rights movement through a virtual exhibit by the National Park Service.

See more ›

Discovering Christopher Street, the heart of the LGBT community, felt like finding paradise. I soon found friends who shared my experiences. A typical night for me involved strolling up and down Christopher Street, chatting with friends, maybe stopping for a snack at the Silver Dollar restaurant if I could afford it, and ultimately ending up at Stonewall.

Stonewall wasn’t known for its cleanliness or quality of drinks, but for us, it was a sanctuary. For an 18-year-old like me, it was a place to dance and let loose, and the only place where two men or two women could openly show affection. It might have been technically illegal, but it always felt safe. That is, until June 28, 1969.

As the police stormed in, wreaking havoc, I was terrified. It was my first experience witnessing such violence. Initially, my instinct was to call the police, until I realized that these were the police, and they weren’t here to help us, they were here to harm. In that moment, it became clear: If the police could attack us, anyone could.

Mark Segal disrupting political fundraiser 1972

Mark Segal disrupts a political fundraiser in 1972 to bring greater visibility to gay people.

camera icon Courtesy of Mark Segal

When Marty Robinson handed me that chalk outside the bar, I knew that fighting back against this injustice would become my cause. I had no idea what that would entail, no idea what it meant to be a gay activist. We were literally inventing it as we went along. But we kept up the fight that began June 28, 1969.

From the ashes of Stonewall came Gay Liberation Front, and we were on the streets every day fighting for our legal rights and medical needs, helping abandoned and bullied youth, creating the first trans organization, organizing dances and building community. We took our battle to the media, to universities and even demonstrated against the police. Then on the first anniversary of Stonewall, we created “Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day,” the world’s first gay Pride event.

Before Stonewall, there were only about 100 people in the nation who would be visible on LGBT rights. One year after Stonewall, at that first Pride, 15,000 people marched publicly. Today, Pride is celebrated or used as a protest by millions around the world.

I now can connect writing those words — up and down Christopher Street on June 28, 1969 — with the one word of what my life’s work has been about: visibility.

We’re here. And we are invisible no more.

Editor’s Note: NPCA is leading various improvements at Stonewall National Monument, including a walking tour of significant LGBTQ+ historical sites near Stonewall and initiatives to make the public space more inclusive. Read our 2023 blog post to learn more.

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About the author

  • Mark Segal

    Mark Segal is a pioneering figure in LGBTQ+ activism, known for his involvement in the Stonewall riots and founding membership in the Gay Liberation Front. He served as a marshal during the first Gay Pride March in 1970. In 1972, Segal initiated a campaign against LGBTQ+ invisibility on television, disrupting shows like the CBS Evening News. Learn more at www.marksegalstonewall.com

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