June 27, 1969– Purists & truth tellers will point of that there were important protests & acts of civil disobedience before that summer night in 1969. But, I like that gay people can have a day that is our Independence Day, & June 27th has fallen into place as that mark. We call it Stonewall.
I once had to explain Stonewall to a group of 6 young people that I supervised, 2 of the group were gay. None of them had heard of Stonewall. I had to tell the story to them, & they got quite an earful.
It was just 50 years ago that gay 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 & lewd behavior: men holding hands, women wearing suits, were published regularly in the newspapers. Being queer was officially recognized as a psychopathic condition & was a valid reason to be fired from your job. Thousands of gay men & 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 pretty bleak; there were no substantial 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. Bar raids were not unusual in 1969. They were conducted routinely & without much resistance. But, that hot summer night, the queers had been pushed too far & the street erupted into violent protest as the crowds in the bar fought back. The backlash & 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 & experiences of gay people. Stonewall marked a clear beginning for the Gay Rights Movement that has transformed the oppression of gay people into calls for pride & action to gain equality. In the past 46 years, we have been witness to an astonishing rise of gay culture that has changed this country & the world forever, culminating in the events of yesterday. How lovely that Lawrence v. Texas & Marriage Equality will ever be celebrated as a sort of Stonewall Eve. This cluster of days can forever be Gay Kwanza, celebrating shared history & family values. We can play Disco music & raise our Rainbow flags high & share our stories.
On the night, June 27, 1969 & into the early morning hours of the next day a group of Hispanics, hippies, drag queens & queers got had enough with being harassed by the police because they were gay. It may be difficult in 2015 to imagine police handcuffing, harassing, & arresting gay people for simply gathering in public, but that’s what happened. For you kids, who have grown up in a world with increasing legal protections & acceptance for gays, bisexuals, lesbians & transgender people, it must be hard to imagine that 5 decades ago, people’s jobs, families, & homes were threatened & their lives restricted or ruined simply by being gay.
Stonewall was not pretty or organized. There were no floats or marching bands, no contingencies of Gay Fireman, Gay Presbyterians, or PFLAG. Stonewall was 6 nights of taking it to the streets by the most rejected & shunned citizens: the closeted, fearful, & disenfranchised, fighting the cop batons & pepper spray with fists, garbage cans, bottles, & shoes. For gay people may age, Stonewall is that defining moment that deserves to be celebrated as we look back at how far we have come & look forward to our more hopeful future. In 1969, that rag-tag group of queers at the Stonewall Inn had no idea they were going to change history. They just were fed up. From a scrappy street riot to full Marriage Equality in 46 years is rather remarkable. I think we owe it not only to ourselves & to the future generations, to honor those who stood up for us at Stonewall.