Straight people come in all shapes and sizes, from all professions and ideologies, politically active and apolitical.

Gays and lesbians come in all shapes and sizes, too, from all professions and ideologies. But up until the NYPD invaded the Stonewall Inn 37 years ago, being gay meant being politically powerless. It meant regular police raids on your favorite haunts, being marginalized and ridiculed in the media, and public accusations that you were undermining the very fabric of American society simply by who you loved, how you dressed, where you drank.

During the wee hours one night in late June 1969, a group of patrons stood up to nightsticks in Greenwich Village and sparked the Stonewall Riots, whose anniversary we celebrate this week in our pages.

“The sudden specter of ‘gay power’ erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen,” wrote one Village Voice columnist on July 3, 1969. “The forces of faggotry, spurred by a Friday night raid on one of the city’s largest, most popular and longest lived gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, rallied Saturday night in an unprecedented protest against the raid and continued Sunday night to assert presence, possibility, and pride until the early hours of Monday morning…. The result was a kind of liberation, as the gay brigade emerged from the bars, back rooms, and bedrooms of the village and became street people.”

The brave souls who stood their ground that week changed the lives of homosexual Americans forever. They gave birth to the gay rights movement, with the founding of the Gay Liberation Front that summer. Shifts in culture have followed; legal reforms are slowly catching up.

There’s still a long way to go. Discrimination, institutionalized and informal, exists in workplaces and society. Sodomy laws remain on the books in many states. Equality NC, a statewide PAC, is currently leading the fight against a “defense of marriage” bill in the N.C. legislature.

But how far we’ve come.

Late one night last spring, sitting around a chic Miami apartment with my best friend from college, his lover and their friends, talk turned to the generally dismal direction our federal government was heading. Jeffrey–who taught me to dance and convinced me all my shoes were ugly, among other important lessons half our lives ago–faked a big bored yawn and snarkily offered to make some coffee. He took some grief from us, but shrugged it off with one of his queenly airs and said, “You know, I just don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

Thanks to the Stonewall heroes and those who came after them, he doesn’t–political activism is a choice, not a necessity, to live his life as a gay man.