Mark Segal on the 1969 Stonewall Riots and Why We Have to Fight Every Day (Exclusive)

The activist and author recounts the rage against the police that led to the protests and sparked the LGBTQ movement.

On June 28, 1969, an 18-year-old Mark Segal was one of the many LGBTQ people outside Stonewall Inn, where a stand was being taken against the latest police raid of one of the community’s few safe spaces to gather in New York City, where Marsha P. Johnson picked up the first brick thrown in rage, where the LGBTQ rights movement started 51 years ago. “That night in June of 1969, we felt rage at the police,” he tells ET’s Denny Directo now, as Pride is being recognized amid the protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has become a stark reminder that these modern-day celebrations once started as a protest. 

“We were enraged because, in a sense, 2,000 years of repression built up in us. And the New York City Police Department that night, when they violently came into Stonewall and beat people up against the wall and extorted money from people, got us angry,” continues the now-69-year-old activist and journalist, who has since written the memoir And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality. Putting things into context, he explains that there was a growing sense of urgency and a need to stand up for the LGBTQ community amid Black people and women fighting for civil rights and equality.  

“And it was that night that we said to the police, ‘We are taking our street back. This is our neighborhood. You are no longer going to control us. You’re no longer going to dominate us. We’re going to create our identity. We’re going to create a community where you wouldn’t allow us to have community,’” Segal says, explaining that a gay person could easily be arrested for any number of violations, including congregating in groups of three or more, showing physical affection or wearing what was deemed inappropriate clothing. 

And Segal sees what is happening today as no different -- well, aside from the fact that the fight in the streets has expanded from hundreds of people rioting in a three-block radius to protests all around the nation with thousands of marchers. “I think now everybody is feeling that rage at the police,” he says of the pushback against systemic racism and police brutality. “They are trying to change a system that needs upgrading.”

While it has taken decades to change laws, enacting permanent change like marriage equality and establishing protections from discrimination, Segal notes there was a noticeable difference immediately following the Stonewall riots. The next day, the LGBTQ community had truly started to take shape, which led to organizations like the Gay Liberation Front, which he helped create, and the first Liberation March one year later, in 1970. “So, within one year we created a community,” he says, adding he got chills when he saw just how many people gathered to march. 

“We made ourselves known,” Segal says of speaking out, taking action, diversifying the community and working with other civil rights organizations that represented women and the Black and Latin communities -- something he thinks the LGBTQ community should return to doing more of now. “Those founding principles created what you have today, and are responsible for most of what you have today.”

And now, 51 years after the riots and 50 years after the first march, Pride feels more crucial than ever. And as someone who grew up believing that people have to stand up and fight for mankind, Segal has been doing it ever since. He notes, “When you’re fighting for your rights, you might be angry. But there’s an inner joy because what you’re doing, you know is right.”  

When asked what advice he has for people out there fighting injustices today, Segal says to never waiver. “No matter who tries to stop you, don’t stop. Keep moving.”