We are right in the middle of June, Pride Month, which means rainbow flags and the nation-wide Pride Parade at the end of the month. At this time each year, millions of people march across the United States to express their identities, celebrate how far we’ve come, and remind the nation that there’s still so much work to be done in securing civil rights and dignity for all people—regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
The first Pride Parade occurred in June 1970, one year after the New York City riots of 1969. As we approach the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots—a major catalyst for LGBTQ rights across the nation and the world—it is important to reflect back on what these riots meant, what the climate was 50 years ago, and where we are today.
Before delving into the facts, I have a disclaimer: this article will be about that precisely… the facts. I am a white, cisgender, heterosexual female. I have never been ostracized for my gender identity and I have never had to explain or justify my sexuality to people who “just don’t get it.” In this context, I can only comment on the history and the facts I have gathered. I can be an ally and a major supporter of rights for all humans, but I cannot and will not pretend to understand what it is like to live as someone who is marginalized or mistreated because of whom I love or how I identify.
A little after 1 a.m. on June 28, 1969, New York City Police raided the Stonewall Inn and arrested 13 people. The Stonewall Inn was a gay night club illegally run and owned by the Mafia in Greenwich New York. Prior to 1966, it was illegal for establishments to serve alcohol to known or suspected LGBTQ individuals— the reasoning being that such individuals were “disorderly.” After this ruling, many gay nightclubs still operated illegally (without liquor licenses) and bribed police officers in order to keep their doors open. When the riots occurred in 1969, both publicly engaging in “gay behavior” and wearing less than three gender- appropriate articles of clothing were illegal in the United States.
As the police raided Stonewall, they forced patrons up against the walls, scrutinizing their outfits and checking the genders displayed on respective state-issued IDs. Police officers then took many “in question” individuals to the back of the night club to visually inspect their genitalia to see if individuals were cross-dressing and, therefore, subject to arrest.
Such outwardly malignant discrimination was not uncommon at this time. Members of the LGBTQ community faced harassment and malice in all facets of life. Many other gay night clubs had been violently shut down in the preceding years. Why then was Stonewall different and why did it cause such a vehement reaction?
For starters, the Stonewall Inn was a safe spot for the marginalized of the marginalized. Within the LGBTQ community, transgender individuals were (and arguably still are) often cast to the side and shunned. During this era, many gay bars and night clubs did not permit transgender individuals to enter. Conversely, Stonewall was a mecca for “drags” and “queens” and individuals of all sexual identities and expressions.
Underage individuals found a home at Stonewall too. On the streets of New York City, there was a population of gay boys and girls who had been kicked out of their homes and had nowhere to turn. With only a three dollar cover charge and a commission of never turning anyone away, these adolescents were able to escape the cold, brusque streets of New York City and find a community.
On June 28t, those inside the Stonewall Inn decided to fight back. When the single place you can dance freely, love candidly, and dress unabashedly is being taken away from you, you do everything you can to stop it. As legend has it, as soon as the raids began someone threw a shot glass at the wall and implored, “Well, why don’t we do something?”
By 4 a.m., the Stonewall Inn had seen fire and shattered glass. Several patrons had been dragged to jail, the protestors had dispersed, and the streets were quiet. However, the battle was far from over; the armies just needed to regroup and recharge. The riots picked back up the next day and protesters demonstrated for six days in the streets in front of the Inn.
The protesters' efforts gained international attention and are now often considered one of the catalysts for the modern LGBTQ rights movement. While people had been fighting for civil liberties for decades—and it would be careless to view the Stonewall Riots as an insulated event—these specific riots gained immense attention and are considered a turning point in the movement by many.
Following this event, gay rights were given more of a platform and many groups capitalized on this opportunity. Today, organizations including the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and PFLAG continue the work of the Stonewall Inn protesters, protecting and voicing the concerns of members of the LGBTQ community.
While these are all amazing strides, there was still a ton of progress to be made. In 1970 (months after the riots), President Richard Nixon spoke on the issue of same-sex marriage saying, “I can't go that far; that's the year 2000! Negroes [and whites], okay. But that's too far!"
It is never untimely to give humans basic rights and dignity. Additionally, when the year 2000 rolled around and George Bush was entering office, same-sex marriage was still far from legal. Since the year 2000, more impressive strides have been made: gay marriage has been legalized, federal hate crime laws have been expanded to protect members of the LGBTQ community, and Stonewall has been designated a national monument.
These victories are not to be glossed over, but they are also not to be used as an excuse to be stagnant. This pride month—regardless of your sexual orientation or your gender identity—try to march or donate or at least read up on the history of the LGBTQ rights movement. Celebrate, but also commemorate. We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. Let us band together, fight for the marginalized, and wear our rainbow flags with pride, while also keeping in mind the space we and our own identities take up.