June 28, 1969– The Stonewall Riots:
There was no out, there was just in.
Purists and truth-tellers will point out that there were important protests and acts of civil disobedience before that summer night in 1969. There was The Black Cat Tavern protests in Los Angeles which happened two years before the Stonewall Riots. But, I like that LGBTQ people can have a day that is our own Independence Day, and June 28th has fallen into place as that mark. Today, we call it simply, Stonewall.
I once had to explain Stonewall to a group of six young people; two of them were gay. None of them had heard of the Stonewall Riots. I had to tell them the story, and they got quite an earful.
50 years ago, queer people were classified as subversives by the U.S. State Department; we were officially recognized as security risks to the country. The FBI kept lists of known homosexuals; so did the U.S. Postal Service. The names of people arrested for public indecency and lewd behavior: men holding hands, women wearing suits, were published regularly in the newspapers. Being queer was officially recognized as a psychopathic condition and it was considered a valid reason to be fired from your job. Thousands of LGBTQ people were forced out of government positions each year. Lives were ruined. If LGBTQ people regularly congregated together, the police department’s Public Morals Squad would intervene. Police brutality was the norm. Hope for the future was rather bleak. There were only a few Gay Rights organizations. The only way for queer people to have any sense of community was to gather in underground establishments, often run by the Mafia, or by bribing the police.
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided a popular Greenwich Village gay bar, The Stonewall Inn. Raids on gay bars were not unusual in 1969. They were conducted routinely and without much resistance. But, on that hot summer night, the queers, the punks, the hippies, lesbians, the queens and transgenders had been pushed too far and the street erupted into violent protest as the crowds in that bar fought back. The backlash and the several nights of unrest that followed have come to be known as The Stonewall Riots.
Before the summer of 1969, there was little public recognition of the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people. Stonewall marked a clear beginning for the LGBTQ Rights Movement that transformed the oppression of gay people into calls for pride and action to gain equality. In the past 50 years, we have seen an astonishing rise of gay culture that has changed this country and the world forever, beginning with United States v. Windsor in 2013, and culminating in the decision three years ago with Obergefell v. Hodges. How lovely that Lawrence v. Texas and Marriage Equality will forever be celebrated as a sort of Stonewall Eve. This cluster of gay days can forever be our Gay Kwanza, celebrating shared history and family values. We can play Disco music, raise high our Rainbow flags, in any version, and share our stories.
It might be difficult in 2018 to imagine police handcuffing, harassing, and arresting LGBTQ people for simply gathering together, but that’s what used to happen. For you kids, who have grown up in a world with increasing legal protections and acceptance of LGBTQ folks, it must be hard to imagine that five decades ago, people’s jobs, families, and homes were threatened and their lives ruined simply by being queer.
Stonewall was not pretty or organized. There were no floats or marching bands, no contingencies of Gay Fireman, Gay Presbyterians, or PFLAG. Stonewall was six nights of taking it to the streets by the most rejected and shunned citizens: the closeted, fearful, and disenfranchised, fighting the cops with fists, garbage cans, bottles, and high-heels. For LGBTQ people my age, Stonewall is that defining moment that deserves to be celebrated as we look back at how far we have come and look forward to our more hopeful future.
In 1969, that ragged group at the Stonewall Inn had no idea they were going to change history. They just were fed up with being harassed. From a scrappy street riot to full Marriage Equality in less than 50 years is rather remarkable. I think we owe it not only to ourselves, but to future generations, to honor those who stood up for us at Stonewall. Some have tried and others have succeeded.
Stonewall (2015), the film, is a cataclysmic disaster. Someone should have called FEMA to clean up all the damage done by this dreadful movie. Apparently, this film wasn’t made for anybody that is part of, or supports, LGBTQ people. The film’s placement of a hunky white boy at the center of the events that were driven by trans-women of color, drag queens, butch lesbians, and others misfits is pure fiction. It is white-washed (literally) offensive rubbish.
Director Roland Emmerich is probably the most financially successful openly gay filmmaker in history. I suppose we should celebrate this, but he makes it very difficult. His specialty as a filmmaker is blowing shit up, so I suppose his take on Stonewall makes sense in that context; it’s a big bomb.
Instead, look at Before Stonewall (1984) and After Stonewall (1999), two excellent documentaries that got it right. Also good is Stonewall Uprising (2010) produced and presented by PBS. Or best of all, you must check out World of Wonder’s fabulous new documentary Stonewall Outloud which premiered this week. See Wow writer Trey Speegle‘s piece here. Plus, James St. James‘ colorful coverage of the premier here.
In 2016, President Barack Obama announced that he was designating the Stonewall Inn as the USA’s very first national monument to LGBTQ Rights.
I’m designating the Stonewall National Monument as the newest addition to America’s national park system. I believe our National Parks should reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us, that we are stronger together. That out of many, we are one.
The monument includes Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn itself and the surrounding streets and sidewalks that were sites of the Stonewall Uprising.
Stonewall is the single most important catalyst for the dramatic expansion of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. The riots inspired queer people throughout the country to organize and within two years of Stonewall, Gay Rights groups had been started in nearly every major city in America. Stonewall was, as historian Lillian Faderman wrote:
…the shot heard round the world, crucial because it sounded the rally for the movement.