In the past two weeks, we’ve celebrated two important dates. First, we remembered the Stonewall Riots on June 28. The date — expanded over time to include all of June as LGBT Pride Month — marks the beginning of our modern movement for LGBT equality. The second, July 4, is Independence Day and honors the birth of an independent United States of America.
About this time last year, I explored in my “Editor’s Note” column the similarities between June 28 and July 4.
“The anniversary of Stonewall and the birthday of our nation go hand-in-hand, intertwined in a never-ending struggle to fulfill a dream first laid at our feet more than 230 years ago,” I wrote in our June 27, 2009, print edition. “Our shared American journey reminds us to never give up, to never falter or fail in the long and hard-fought battle for life, liberty and happiness. We deserve it, and it will be achieved. History will see to it.”
What I didn’t touch on then was how Independence Day and Stonewall are similar in other ways, especially considering that neither date was really “the beginning” of anything. The dates — as powerfully symbolic and historic as they might be — are much better described as culminations, not beginnings. As a student of history (I have a deep and abiding faith in our ability to learn from our past mistakes), I feel it is important to look back at the people whose prophetic work for progress came long before July 4, 1776, and June 28, 1969.
Our nation’s independence didn’t magically appear on a paper signed by representatives of Britain’s former 13 colonies. The signing of that document was made possible by years of blood, sweat and tears — years of lost lives and livelihoods — kick-started by a series of events including Boston tax protests and the “shot heard ‘round the world.”
Like the events leading up to the American Revolution and signing of the Declaration, years of organizing — often dangerous and never pretty — took place long before patrons of the Stonewall Inn rose up in rebellion against police harassment. Throughout the 1950s, groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis gave refuge to early activists. Those early efforts gave way to public protests, like the Cooper’s Donuts action in 1959, where Los Angeles LGBTs rose up against police who often targeted them there. Or, like the 1965-1966 actions at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, whose owners often denied service to transgender and gay clientelle.
Even in our nation’s capital, the public movement for equality was taking root before Stonewall. Throughout the 1960s, Frank Kameny led several protests over government-sanctioned, anti-LGBT employment discrimination. From San Francisco to New York to Philadelphia to Los Angeles: the march toward our own revolution was on. All of this movement made Stonewall possible — making it our community’s loudest, proudest moment and opening the doors to national action.
It’s funny, sometimes, how what is “most important” out of all the events in our history has a way of being chosen for wide recognition and observance. Both Independence Day and the commemoration of the Stonewall Riots serve merely as capstones to much deeper, unique and interesting histories. It is incumbent upon each of us to take the time to delve into these stories and remember the people who made our current realities a possibility. : :