Take a walk through the history of the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement and discover the powerful editorial imagery that documented these moments in history.

This article has been approved by Prism, a Shutterstock ERG (Employee Resource Group) committed to creating a supportive, diverse, and inclusive company culture for LGBTQ+ people globally.

June is Pride Month in many countries around the world, a time to reflect on the feelings of joy and liberation that run concurrently with the feelings of unstoppable determination within the LGBTQ community.

Pride parades are a staple of the celebratory month in cities across the globe ever since the first gathering in New York in 1970. Attendees and participants revel in the joy of being unapologetically queer in a public space while also remembering the fight to do in decades past.

The 21st century, however, hasn’t ushered away the feelings of inequality still commonly felt by the LGBTQ community. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act” wasn’t passed until 2010. The United Nations Human Rights Council only recognized rights for the LGBTQ community in 2011, and same-sex marriage wasn’t legal until 2015. Only just this month (yes, in 2020) were LGBTQ employees granted rights of protection against discrimination in the workplace. Society is just starting to catch up.

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — Stonewall Lesbian and Gay Rights Are Human Rights
Lesbian and gay rights are human rights. Editorial image by Photofusion/ Shutterstock. London 1995.

Men, women, transgender, and nonbinary persons have fought for the last sixty years to be seen and treated just as straight, cisgender men and women. Realizing this boggles the mind when one also realizes equality for the community has only just started to fall in place on a governmental level in the 2010s. In a time when protesting and demonstrating for beloved causes and awareness is common, let’s take a look back at some of the numerous public displays of activism held in the name of LGBTQ equality over the last six decades.

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — Gay Liberation Front
Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation in London, 1971. Editorial Image by Photofusion / Shutterstock.

How the Fight for LGBTQ Rights Movement Began

While the 1969 Stonewall riots were a major turning point in the fight for LGBTQ rights, organizations dedicated to promoting rights within the community began as far back as the 1920s. The Society for Human Rights, formed in 1924, and the Mattachine Society, formed in 1950, were among the earliest societies created to promote gay rights and decry discrimination brought on by mainstream society. These organizations also existed during when various scientific fields and the United States government considered homosexuality a disease.

Toward the latter end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, demonstrations became the norm for protesters against the Vietnam War and for civil rights in the Black community. The LGBTQ community, battling police harassment on a daily basis, also began to take a stand in the name of their rights. The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, was established in 1955 by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot of 1959 in Los Angeles was one of the first queer demonstrations in modern history. Trans women and drag queens resisted an attempted arrest, as cross-dressing was illegal at the time, and patrons pelted the authorities with donuts and coffee to give the detainees a chance to escape.

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — How the Fight for LGBTQ Rights Movement Began
Gay rights demonstration at the Democratic National Convention New York City on July 11 1976. Editorial Image by Everett Collection / Shutterstock.

Documenting the LGBTQ Rights Movement

The historical importance of documenting LGBTQ+ rights is vital. Photojournalist Kay Tobin Lahusen captured queer history at an unbelievable magnitude, and her contributions can’t be understated. Considered the first out photojournalist, Kay worked with her life partner Barbara Gittings, who is considered the mother of the gay rights movement in the USA. Together their fight for LGBTQ+ equality etched a permanent mark on LGBTQ storytelling in the world. Check out this article to learn more about Kay and Barbara, and their long fight for LGBTQ+ rights.


Famous LGBTQ+ Protests and Demonstrations Throughout the Years

Marginalized groups have long carried out protests in the face of frustration and anger. Standing up to the authorities, marching, chanting, using different mediums of art to voice displeasure, and riots make an impact. The LGBTQ+ community has consistently and courageously demanded equality over the last six decades using these tactics.

Annual Reminder Day Pickets

Established in 1965 by Craig Rodwell, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin Lahusen, and NYC & DC Mattachine Societies, the Annual Reminders were a series of early pickets organized by LGBTQ organizations. The Reminder took place each July 4 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia beginning in 1965 and was among the earliest LGBT demonstrations in the United States.

The Julius “sip-in” (1966)

Three members of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, including organizer Dick Leitsch, visited the bar Julius’ in New York City’s West Village on April 21, 1969 in an effort to shed a light on the city’s LGBTQ discrimination policy in bars and restaurants. Because groups of gay men were considered disorderly, they were often refused service.

Leitsch and the other two men entered the establishment and stated to the bartender that “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” The group was still refused service. Two lawsuits against the city followed the sip-in, ending the discriminatory practice of refusing gay men service in these spaces.

Compton’s Cafeteria riot (1966)

Drag queens and trans women went head-to-head with members of the San Francisco Police Department during a night at Compton’s Cafeteria in the city’s Tenderloin District in August of 1966.

Cops attempted to arrest the patrons of Compton’s Cafeteria, since “cross-dressing” was illegal at the time. The latter fought back, not giving up their right to frequent the business and fighting with authorities inside and outside of the eatery. An officer was even scalded with a hot cup of coffee during the confrontation.

Gene Compton, who owned Compton’s Cafeteria, banned LGBTQ+ patrons from his restaurant following the clash. The community made sure to let him know how they felt about that by destroying his windows in the nights following the riot.

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — Compton's Cafeteria Riot
A 1972 Gay Pride gathering in San Francisco, California. Editorial Image by Underwood Archives/ UIG/ Shutterstock.

The Stonewall riots (1969)

The most famous LGBTQ demonstration and widely considered the birth of the fight for gay rights, the Stonewall riots took place in New York City’s West Village on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a neighborhood gay bar. Police raids in gay bars were common at the time. Following a raid at Stonewall that night, multiple fights broke out between police officers and patrons, among whom were gay men, trans women, lesbians, and drag queens. Patrons soon began to throw rocks, bottles, and bricks and the fights continued to escalate, resulting in riots and protests through July 3, 1969.

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — The Stonewall Riots (1969)
People read a plaque on the wall of the Stonewall Inn, a bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York, New York, USA. Editorial Image by Photo by JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

ACT UP’s Stop the Church demonstration (1989)

In response to the Catholic church’s policies and perspective on homosexuality and the HIV/ AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the 1990s, over 4,500 members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, stormed a service at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and interrupted the gathering to make their voices heard.

The church admonished homosexuality as a sin prior to the demonstration and taught abstinence instead of safe sex. Protesters laid in the aisles and handcuffed themselves to the cathedral’s pews. Police arrested 111 people during the act.

A special note on this note, as the founder of ACT UP and prominent LGBTQ+ activist Larry Kramer passed away this year. We remember him for his incredible accomplishments for LGBTQ+ rights activism

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — Act Up's Stop the Church Demonstration
Protestors in the streets of New York City. Editorial Image by Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock.

The Ashes Action (1992 and 1996)

The U.S. government’s non-urgent response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s is well-documented in LGBTQ+ history. Over 400,000 people lost their lives due in part to the Reagan administration treating the disease as unimportant — refusing to say the word “AIDS” and laughing over questions about their inquiry into the health crisis. The issue was later compounded by the Clinton administration refusing to fund needle exchange programs.

In 1992, ACT UP took their long-held anger over the government’s treatment of the disease to the front steps of the White House. The Ashes Action Protesters scattered the ashes of friends, lovers, and acquaintances on the White House lawn. The demonstration took place again in 1996.

Queer Liberation March (2019)

The Queer Liberation March took place in New York City during the 2019 WorldPride NYC celebration. This march was an attempt to get back to the roots of the fight for LGBTQ equality. Organizers and participants felt that the city’s Pride Parade had become too much about corporate sponsors, partying, and increased police presence, the latter of which was always something the queer community has long resisted.

Forty-five thousand participants marched from Christopher Street to the Great Lawn in Central Park, retracing the steps of the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day March.

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — Queer Liberation March
Amor is amor. June 2019. Editorial image by Tim Clary/AP/Shutterstock.

Iconic Pride Imagery and Its Importance in Both History and Today

Some of the most widely-recognized queer imagery came out of the protests and demonstrations held by the LGBTQ+ community. Art speaks volumes as visual tributes to important moments over time, and protest imagery is no different.

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: Take a Walk Through History — Iconic Pride Imagery and It's Importance in Both History and Today
And love is love. Illustration by Sundry Studio.

Famed images like the Silence=Death poster, created by the project of the same name, served as the message board for what the queer community wanted others to know.

Artist Avram Finkelstein, who co-founded the Silence=Death Project in 1986, recalled activism for the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s in conjunction with the poster’s creation. He stated in a 2017 essay that “The poster perfectly suits the American ear. It has a power. […] posters, demonstration flyers, and meeting announcements papered Eighth Street between the East and West Villages. It was how we found out what we needed to know, the things no media outlets would cover.”

Keith Haring also produced his own version of the instantly-recognizable pink triangle against a black backdrop in 1989. The original has been used time and time again during LGBTQ+ demonstrations.

The 1988 image of late artist David Wojnarowicz donning a denim jacket that reads “If I die of AIDS – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A” packs the same punch. It’s an image that’s stood the test of time, long after Wojnarowicz himself died of AIDS in 1992. The blunt impact of the statement during a time of fear resonates with the strength that existed alongside that fear.


In quoting Shutterstock writer and LGBTQ storyteller Grete Miller, “Images, film, video, and audio capture who we are. They are living and breathing moments. They communicate a society’s struggles, battles, losses, and victories. What’s more, they share our stories and continue to reveal themselves to future generations. Each visual or sound byte isn’t just a memory to appreciate. It is also a human being to treasure and a lesson to learn.” This article features a small snippet of the monumental work of the LGBTQ rights movement, and there’s more work to follow. It’s up to us to document, share, and support this powerful movement and the achievements of the past, present, and future if we want to continue to strive for equal rights and opportunities.


Top Editorial Image by Photofusion/ Shutterstock.

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