For many people, Pride month is coming to an end but there’s one important anniversary to celebrate and remember today: the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots. So often, many people forget the history of Pride and the long history of LGBTQ activism and existence. We’ve been around for centuries but homophobia, transphobia, and queerphobia have made it difficult for LGBTQ folks throughout history to exist happily and openly.
While the Stonewall Inn Riots are one of the most famous LGBTQ events in US history, police raids on gay bars were common during the 1950s and 1960s throughout the United States. And they didn’t stop after the Stonewall Riots. People were frequently arrested for different reasons, including for not wearing three articles of gender appropriate clothing. Those who frequented the Stonewall during this time also dealt with police harassment outside the bar and many were ostracized from their families and communities if or when they came out.
In the 1950s, gay people were also barred from government jobs with the notion that they could be blackmailed about their sexuality into sharing secrets. This is often called the ‘Lavender Scare’ and in addition to hundreds of people being harassed about their personal lives and sexuality, many lost their jobs because of it.
Additionally, many people during this time also thought that being gay or bisexual was an illness and something that could be cured. Gay, bisexual, and trans folks were regularly (and wrongly) seen as ‘perverted’ and wrong. There were many people during the 20th century who would live in the closet in their professional lives and places like the Stonewall provided a safe space. And like today, there were also many LGBTQ folks who dealt with poverty and homelessness during that time. For many, the Stonewall was a community center as much as a bar, as it was a warm place for LGBTQ folks to openly congregate and be with friends.
All of this is to put things into context, as people had some very good reasons to protest and riot. To deal with losing your job, family, and friends because of your gender identity or sexual orientation and to constantly hear that these things are also an ‘illness’ that needs to be cured is tough. It’s frustrating, degrading, and angering to be incorrectly labeled as a risk and wrong because of how you express yourself and who you love.
So on June 28th, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn again, people fought back for days instead of dispersing like they had done before. People at the Stonewall were fed up with how the police and rest of society were treating them. This event is often credited as the beginning of the gay rights movement and like Miss Major Griffin Gracy said, it was an empowering moment for many folks. It wasn’t the first moment that LGBTQ folks stood up and fought back but it was a moment that helped push the US towards justice and equality for the LGBTQ community.
One year after the riots, the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day took place. This event was a remembrance for what had happened that June in 1969 and was also a continued fight for legal rights and social acceptance. It began with a march with a few hundred people gathering at the outside of the Stonewall Inn and by the time that it ended in Central Park in 1970, there were a few thousand people! By 1973, the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day was an expected event in New York City and there were other cities holding similar events.
In the decades since the Stonewall Inn Riots and first Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day, Pride has grown and evolved. There are numerous events all over the country and all over the world during June and the first couple weeks of July. Many corporations, police departments, and governments now slap a rainbow on products, vans, and more each June. Parties of all kinds happen throughout the month and people of different identities often join the celebrations.
While we’ve come a long way over the last 49 years, we also have a long way to go for a more just and equitable society. Pride shouldn’t just a celebration nowadays; it should also be a protest. These two things can, and should, go hand in hand. Celebrating our community and feeling joy in our existence is often an act of resistance and we should keep celebrating. But using this time and space to also work towards a better world is in the spirit of Pride and honors those who came before us.