The Stonewall Riots and the origins of American gay pride
Marginalized groups and their eternal fight for equal rights
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It’s pride month! The time of year when no one can escape the rainbow aesthetic and people from all across the LGBTQ+ spectrum (alongside allies, we love you and appreciate you too) flood the streets to celebrate their hard-earned place in society. At least, that’s what would normally happen, but several pride parades have been canceled since the rise and persistence of COVID-19, and the celebratory mood that usually accompanies pride feels remiss with the recent collective outrage over police brutality against our black siblings. Even though we can no longer gather in person, we can still take the time to learn about the work of those who came before as well as show pride in being ourselves. “What’s the big idea though?” you may ask. “I don’t understand all the hullabaloo about gay pride.”
Well, let’s go back a few decades then, to the summer of 1969. At the time, it was common practice for police to raid underground gay hangouts and arrest people for “solicitation of homosexuality” and “non-gender appropriate clothing” (How the Stonewall Riots Sparked a Movement | History). Queer people couldn’t even so much as step outside and be honest about their identities without being met with hate, violence, and prejudice. Queer spaces provided some respite from hostility, but these havens were few and far between.
Now, let’s set the scene: In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, police officers entered the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Inn was a bar that was frequented by members of what we now know as the LGBTQ+ community. The officers began making their routine arrests, targeting a drag queen to start off, but that night would mark the beginning of a new era. The bar goers had had enough, and a mob quickly formed outside. People on the streets began to riot, throwing objects at the police officers, protesting against the injustices they had been enduring for so long. Eventually, the police officers barricaded themselves in Stonewall to hide from the angry mob, but to no avail. The dozens turned into hundreds, all drawn together and bonded through a shared experience of being constantly kicked down by society. Enough was enough.
That early morning riot would be the tinder that fueled the fire of the Gay Liberation Front, a movement that would go on to organize one of the first gay pride marches in the country on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots a year later. But it’s also worth noting that the Gay Liberation Front was not the first of its kind to exist in the U.S. Other activist movements fought for gay rights all across the U.S. prior to Stonewall, but none had the radical traction of the Gay Liberation Front, which would lead to the modern gay rights movement we know of today. However, the community itself wasn’t (and still isn’t) perfect either.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were two trans women of color that were integral in pushing the gay rights movement forward. They were also important in securing a place for transgender people within the movement, particularly in their founding of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Ever wonder why the “T” is such a staple of the original LGBT acronym? It’s because of the work of people like Johnson and Rivera that trans and gender non-conforming people saw their place within the community. These beautiful and strong black and brown queer people were among the many who fought on the front lines in the early days of the pride movement to secure the rights we have today.
However, one thing that always strikes me is the fact that trans and gender non-conforming people still remained wholly invisible until the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox launched those identities into the American mainstream. I was disappointed in myself for only having learned about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera last summer, when people were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots along with pride. It makes me wonder why it took so long for this part of the community to be as equally visible as our cisgender peers when we have also been present all this time.
Maybe it was because even in the community, some members weren’t as welcoming as others to their trans and gender non-conforming neighbors. Maybe it was because economic and racial disparities put queer people of color at a disadvantage in advocating for themselves. Or maybe it was because when the likes of Rivera tried to find a platform to speak for equal rights for all, they were booed off and jeered at by their white, middle class, cisgender homosexual peers. Why not all of the above?
We may have come a long way from the early days of the gay rights movement, but we still have a long way to go. I still vividly remember the Orlando Pulse Shooting of 2016, mostly through images from the news. The constant red and blue of police sirens. The flower memorials. The pride flags. The memorial gatherings. The “Deadliest Mass Shooting in U.S. History” headlines. Trending messages of “Orlando Strong” and “Love Wins.” The crying faces of the victims’ family and friends. It was heartbreaking to see my hometown split into pieces by the tragedy, and to hear from close friends directly affected by the incident. It terrified me to know that Pulse was a mere 20 minute drive from my home. An act of hatred and terror happened right in my backyard.
Since 2015, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has been tracking the number of trans and gender non-conforming people who met their ends through violent means. 2019 so far has been the deadliest year with at least 26 reported deaths, and there have already been at least 12 deaths in 2020, the most recent death being Tony McDade in Tallahassee, FL, on May 27, right in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
All of this brings me to the idea of privilege. Most trans and gender non-conforming people who are the target of violent hate crimes tend to be trans women of color. I’m sure there’s a lot to unpack in that statement alone, but the most important thing is to realize that those of us who have privilege need to learn how to leverage it for those who are less privileged. Transgender people were disadvantaged during the early days of the gay rights movement because their cisgender, middle class peers tried to push them out. Today, there exist movements like the LGB Alliance who want to fight for equal rights for everyone except for trans people. There are straight pride movements who aim to stifle all the hard work the queer community has put into ensuring our rights are protected. There are men whose toxic masculinity brings them to murder trans women and there are cops whose racism brings them to murder black people.
As we enter June having lost George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and countless others, it’s important to remember that the gay pride movement started in response to police brutality against queer people, especially black queer people. Generations later, we still nurse the wounds our elders suffered at the hands of prejudiced individuals and institutions.
In our complicated world of labels and social structures, layers of privilege can seem endless and overwhelming. But it is our job to directly confront them with the goal of creating a society that can one day unconditionally respect people and their differences. We can’t stand idly by while hate persists. We must confront our biases and our privilege. We need to have uncomfortable conversations. We need to speak up for our less privileged peers, and allow room to be corrected if we speak out of turn or speak incorrectly. We need to be willing to put in the work to fix our broken world.
The news recently has left me with feelings of anger, sadness, and a sense of complete and utter helplessness. To my black siblings, I see you. I hear you. I’m trying my best to comprehend the hurt and pain this must be causing you and I will confront my discomfort so that I may listen and understand better. I want to learn how to be a better ally for you.
Some other food for thought and resources compiled to help fight in the chaos of the world today (of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, but will hopefully serve as a starting point on how you may challenge your own thinking and do some good):
Also important: if you have the means, please donate (again this list is not exhaustive): Black Visions Collective, Campaign Zero, North Star Health Collective, Reclaim the Block: fund our broader movement, Unicorn Riot