This weekend is Pride Weekend in New York City, and in many places around the world. We’re looking forward to marching, to standing under a sweltering sun and watching the revelers pass by. We’re looking forward to the inevitably steeply discounted prices on booze in post-pride happy hours in bars both gay and straight. We’re looking forward to celebrating the victory that is probably the most monumental in our lifetime, marriage equality. All of that will undoubtedly happen. All of us will certainly eat, drink, and be merry. We’ll be decked out in our rainbows, pride flags, drag.
The Supreme Court of the United States has legalized same-gender marriage throughout the United States. There will be many who believe and express the view that the struggle for queer rights officially ended on that fateful Friday in June, two days before the 46th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. They are wrong. The two have nothing to do with one another.
The Stonewall Riots are often lauded as the birth of the gay liberation movement. The Stonewall Inn is a bar on Christopher Street in New York City. During the late 60s, it was one of the very few bars that allowed—let alone catered to—the LGBT community. During this period, there were several laws on the books that criminalized queer behavior (the most famous of these laws dictated that an individual must wear at least three pieces of clothing “befitting” their assigned sex); many urban police departments deployed moral squads to enforce them.
The owners of The Stonewall—there are rumors it was owned by the mob, but that’s disputed—were required to pay off the extremely corrupt New York City Police Department. As long as the owners paid up, the cops left the place alone. This particular fateful weekend, the owners of the bar did not pay the police.
NYPD stormed the bar, roughing up transwomen, drag queens, butch lesbians, and gay men. Usually, our community would take it and be carted off to jail with minimal fight. Not this time. The queer patrons of the Stonewall Inn had had enough. They fought back. They forced the police out of the bar, ripped up parking meters as weapons, used the liquor to make Molotov cocktails, and fought with all their might. The riots went on for three nights.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the riots at Stonewall were not the first of their kind. There had been several, smaller riots in California in the years leading up to Stonewall. Of these, the Compton Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966 and the Cooper’s Donuts Riot in Los Angeles in 1959 are the most famous.
At the time of Stonewall, same-gender marriage was only a secondary blip on the participants’ collective radar. The big push for same-gender marriage would come some fifteen to twenty years later, during the AIDS epidemic. What the rioters at Stonewall wanted, more than anything, was to be free. Homosexuality, transvestitism, and transgenderism were all considered mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association. The police routinely committed acts of brutality—often sexual brutality—against queer people. Queer people were ghettoized, refused decent housing, employment, and health care. Violence, homelessness, and true inequality were rampant.
Leading the charge at Stonewall were trans women, drag queens, butch lesbians, and gay men of all races and social classes. Unlike the LGBT movement of today, it wasn’t driven solely by white, cis, homonormative gay men. We can get back to that. You will have to educate those who say LGBTQ rights are over. You will be discouraged. We will eventually prevail.