June 27, 1969– Purists and truth-tellers will point out that there were important protests and acts of civil disobedience before that summer night in 1969. But, I like that LGBTQ people can have a day that is our own Independence Day, and June 27th has fallen into place as that mark. We call it Stonewall.
I once had to explain Stonewall to a group of six young people that I supervised; two of them were gay. None of them had heard of Stonewall. I had to tell the story to them, and they got quite an earful.
It was just 50 years ago when queer people were classified as subversives by the US State Department; we were officially recognized as security risks to the country. The FBI kept lists of known homosexuals, as did the US 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 a valid reason to be fired from your job. Thousands of gay men and women were forced out of the government positions each year. If gay 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 gay people to have any sense of community was to gather in underground establishments, often run by the Mafia, or by bribing the police.
On June 27, 1969, the NYC 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 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, or now, simply Stonewall.
Before to that summer there was little public recognition of the lives and experiences of gay people. Stonewall marked a clear beginning for the Gay Rights Movement that transformed the oppression of gay people into calls for pride and action to gain equality. In the past 47 years, we have seen an astonishing rise of gay culture that has changed this country and the world forever, culminating in the events a year 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 our Rainbow flags high and share our stories.
On the night, June 27, 1969, and into the early morning hours of the next day, a group of Hispanics, hippies, drag queens, trans-people and the queers had enough of being harassed by the police. It may be difficult in 2016 to imagine police handcuffing, harassing, and arresting gay people for simply gathering together, but that’s what happened. 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 restricted or ruined simply by being a homo.
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 gay 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 of queers 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 46 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 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
On Friday, President Barack Obama announced that he was designating the Stonewall Inn as the USA’s first national monument to LGBTQ rights.
“This week 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.
How’s that for real progress?