Remembering The Stonewall Riots

posted on 6/21/13

Every June, members and allies of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender* community stage marches and parades to celebrate the gay civil rights movement. The concept of “pride” is kind of a bittersweet notion for me. Don’t get me wrong–some seriously awesome (and fabulous) parties are thrown in the name of gay civil rights and equality. But therein lies the problem: it’s 2013 and we’re still debating whether or not to give rights to human beings. As Rachel Maddow said in response to California’s passing of Prop 8 which banned gay marriage in the state a few years back, “Here’s the thing about rights. They’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.”

We have come a long way. Twelve states (and three tribal jurisdictions) have legalized same-sex marriage. More politicians and entertainers than ever are in favor of same-sex marriage and are vocalizing their feelings. Over half of the country is in favor of the gay civil rights movement and same-sex marriage. I genuinely believe that it is only a matter of time before the naysayers realize that they are on the wrong side of history. We still have a ways to go and before we move forward, it’s important to look back. If you’re going to a pride parade, party, or event, you should be familiar with the movement’s history. Let’s begin.

After World War II, the United States government embraced the proverbial witch hunt mentality towards homosexuality. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police departments kept lists of homosexuals, their local watering holes, and friends. Similarly, the U.S. Post Office tracked addresses where “materials pertaining to homosexuality” were mailed. Gay bars were constantly shut down by random police raids. Customers would be arrested, photographed, and exposed in newspapers for their “perversion”. Schools and Universities fired any professors suspected of homosexuality. And this was all before The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” Being a member of the LGBT community during this time was an incredibly difficult and isolating experience.

In the early 1960s, any establishment that served alcohol to openly gay customers was considered “disorderly” by the State Liquor Authority. The Genovese family, a prominent New York City crime family, saw an opportunity to profit from discrimination. They bought the Stonewall Inn, renovated it, and reopened as a gay bar. The family bribed the Sixth Police Precinct to ignore the establishment. But despite the rampant bribery, the Stonewall was still subject to police raids.

Photo by Bettye Lane

Photo by Bettye Lane

On June 28, 1969, an average police raid of the Stonewall Inn became a huge turning point in the gay civil rights movement. Typically, police raids led to a few arrests and within hours bars would reopen. But on this particular night, Christopher Street became the scene of violent protests that lasted almost a week. National media outlets covered the riots across the nation, and sparked members of New York’s LGBT community to hold impassioned discussions that essentially started the gay civil rights movement. These discussions led to the formation of advocacy groups and the first pride parade on the anniversary of the riots which commemorated those who stood up to random riots and prejudice the year before.

On June 28th, 1969, in a tiny, dimly-lit and dingy dive bar, people fought back. They stopped allowing prejudice and discrimination to be part of their lives. They created the gay civil rights movement. Without it, we wouldn’t be eagerly awaiting a Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. We wouldn’t be watching the 113th Congress discuss the Employment Non-Discrimination Act–a bill that would offer simple protections against workplace discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation. We wouldn’t be able to celebrate the fact that our opinion, as a nation, is evolving. So, as we celebrate Pride month with parades and parties, we should remember those who fought discrimination in the middle of the night.

*It’s worth noting that the term “LGBT” is not entirely all inclusive. The term is commonly expanded to “LGBTQIA” which can stand for: lesbian, gay, genderqueer, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, questioning, queer, intersex, ally, and asexual.

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