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In Memory of Stonewall: A History

By Avery Benbow and Rose Cunningham

In Greenwich Village, New York City, it’s the early hours of Friday, June 28th, 1969. The Mafia-run ‘Stonewall Inn’ is packed, as up to 200 people socialise and party, free of public harassment. Why here? The Stonewall Inn was a bar renowned for its dancefloor, large size, low price of entry, and the fact that it served gay men, lesbians, transgender men and women, drag queens, and homeless, runaway teenagers, for many of whom it was a home.

At the time, same-sex relations were illegal in every US state, except Illinois. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community were labelled as dangerous, predatory, insane, unemployable, criminal, and every other possible term to isolate them from society. People could be fired for being gay and establishments could be shut down for employing or serving gay people. The New York State Liquor Authority had even deemed it illegal to serve alcohol to known engagers in ‘homosexual activity,’ as it apparently caused “disorder”. Due to this and social beliefs, police harassment and raids of queer establishments were common, though the Mafia-run ones were often warned of these raids by bribed officers.

The Stonewall Inn had already been raided previously that week, but when 9 NYPD officers launched a surprise raid, with a warrant stating it was for the illegal selling of alcohol, something changed. As per usual, the employees and patrons were escorted, some roughly, out of the bar, with many being arrested, and the others gathering on the street. Their charges for arrest ranged from bootlegging alcohol, disorderly conduct, and criminal mischief, to not wearing “at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing” (Britannica) (yes that was a crime - no more jeans and shirts for us).

This was standard of raids at the time, but tension grew with the brutality of the police, who were being especially rough, and eventually, a riot of 400 people began to fight back against the police, who had to call for reinforcements. Riots and protests outside and near the bar continued for the next 5 days, with people gathering to celebrate in solidarity with each other.

When the riots eventually did end, the peculiar thing about it was the fact that its impact continued for decades to come, as many other “spontaneous protest[s] against the perpetual police harassment and social discrimination” (Britannica) failed to do. In its occurrence, it unified the fight for equal rights of all queer minorities, and in doing so “electrified the push for gay equality” (BBC).

As a direct aftermath, the Stonewall Uprising resulted in the first march in New York to openly call for gay equality, with the chanting of “Gay Power!”, taking place a month after the riots and ending at the Stonewall Inn itself. This later gave way to the first ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’ in 1970, a march of 3,000-15,000 people from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park as a marking of the first anniversary of the riots. This served as America’s first Pride parade, with the slogan, “Say it loud, gay is proud,” though this didn’t become ‘Pride’ until years later. Pride Month still takes place in June in memory of this history and its impact.

Additionally, many of the members of the riot became critical individuals for the development of Pride and the LGBTQ+ rights movement, for example, Marsha P. Johnson and Slyvia Rivera, two transgender women of colour. They both resisted arrest and joined in the riot at Stonewall and later became key LGBTQ+ rights activists, including, among many things, starting the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. This organisation provided safe shelter and food for homeless transgender youth who had been kicked out of their homes, something both Johnson and Rivera had experienced.

As observed, the Stonewall riots kickstarted a new wave of queer pride, with Brittanica referring to it as a “catalyst for a new generation of [queer] political activism”. The riots became a symbol of resistance to discrimination on both a social and political level. The activism inspired by the march founded the modern platforms that are used by the LGBTQIA+ community to this day, including marches and protests. And while the well-known rainbow flag wasn’t created until a decade later in San Francisco, Stonewall sparked the events that shaped Pride as it is known today. This led to a broader education of society, within the USA and international politics, as “polite requests for change turned into angry demands” (BBC), with the queer community beginning to openly fight for equality.

David Carter, an author on the history of Stonewall, remarked, “It's very unexpected and very rare in human history that something that's a totally spontaneous act changed the course of human history for the better,” but indeed Stonewall did. Despite the initial violence, Stonewall made the queer rights movement louder and more unified, paving the way for the existence of Pride today. While it hasn’t been without its challenges, including the Pride movement’s initial ignorance of the struggle of those who weren’t white, cis-gender and gay, the Stonewall movement created a foundation of solidarity for the LGBTQIA+ community to fall back on.

“Today, the political message is still there but Pride is more a celebration of gay culture, with music and corporate sponsors.

Broidy thinks something has been lost in the process. "I think it's much more powerful without the floats and without Citibank and American Airlines. Yes, it's a sign of progress but in a distinctly capitalist market."”

  • BBC

Stonewall was a riot. It was a fight for freedom and most importantly, it was an act of defiance. An act of defying those who sought to oppress others so everyone could live freely. This is because throughout history, as soon as anything is different, it is immediately attacked, and pride parades are as safe as they are today because of the people who put themselves on the line. However, Pride parades themselves have, in recent years, strayed from the ideas of this fight for freedom, but while it is still a celebration, the streets are starting to look like “rainbow-coloured corporate events'' (Fair Planet).

Business-sponsored floats, which take months and thousands of dollars to create, run-down streets, with logos changing as soon as June arrives (look at Instagram or Facebook). Businesses turn the month for celebrating queerness with pride, joy and love, into a month where they take a few small steps to “promote inclusivity”.

While this isn’t inherently bad, it’s contradictory of businesses to do nothing to create a truly inclusive world, yet exploit pride marketing through the symbolism of the rainbow and turn it into a marketing opportunity. For example, Toyota, AT&T, Amazon and Comcast, have donated over $1.1 million to politicians with anti-LGBTQ+ agendas, yet all of these brands have pride marketing. There is still so much pride in Pride month and marches, with love and joy in the air, but we need to remember that Pride is a celebration, not a marketing blitz. A celebration of what those 400 people were fighting for over 50 years ago: rights, lives, and a society that truly is proud.

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