Each June, the LGBT community commemorates one of its most defining historical moments. National LGBT Pride Month gives us the opportunity to celebrate our history and what we’ve accomplished. It is an opportunity to thank those who have come before and support those who are working to move us forward.
On June 28, 1969, the modern-day LGBT civil rights movement was born. Or, at least, that’s what we’ve been told. There’s no doubt that the Stonewall Riots were the pivotal moment in our collective, national movement. Before Stonewall, LGBT community groups were scattered across the country. After Stonewall, LGBT community organizing picked up steam like never before.
Yet, like all things, the events surrounding Stonewall were a product of their own time and their own history.
Starting in 1950, clean-cut gay men seeking acceptance and inclusion had founded the Mattachine Society. In 1955, a women’s group, the Daughters of Bilitis, had formed. The two groups laid the foundation for the movement, building the initial philosophical framework later activists and community members would use to press for their liberties and freedoms. The two groups, however, were assimilationist and non-confrontational in their style. That excluded a good portion of people within our own community. As such, they were underrepresented, if represented at all. Those folks — transgender community members, homeless gay youth, hustlers, drag queens and people of color — would make their own movement their own way. Their action came in the form of revolt — from under the heavy thumb of police oppression and from out of the shadows of assimilationist gay advocacy culture. Stonewall wasn’t the first. A decade before, gay men and transgender community members rebelled after police harassment at a Cooper’s Donut shop in Los Angeles. In 1966, transgender community members, hustlers and gay men sparked riots and picketing after similar police abuse at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco.
Similar communities had called the Stonewall Inn their home. Drag queens and trans people, people of color, homeless street youth and gay hustlers had found a place free from fear and where they could live honestly. Until, that is, New York City’s finest came around for routine busts and harassment. On June 28, this oppressed community had had enough. Despite the good efforts of groups like the Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis, no one else was speaking for them. They were forced to speak for themselves.
One year after the Riots, community members gathered in New York City to mark the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march. Simultaneous events were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Thus was born our Pride tradition.
Over the next few decades, that tradition would morph and change. Some say for the better; others for the worse. The once raucous, in-your-face liberation-and-freedom-themed events were eventually replaced by less politicized, less outrageous ones. Today’s events are barely shadows of the first Christopher Street Day marches, despite some critics, even within the LGBT community, who complain that today’s events remain too decadent.
But, here we are, nearing 50 years after Stonewall, and our Pride events are still going strong. Our LGBT community — emboldened and empowered by the growing support of our straight parents, friends and families — is gaining ground like never before. From the halls of Congress to local town councils, LGBT people are earning places of respect in elected office. A dozen states recognize marriage equality. Even more states prohibit discrimination in employment.
We still have a long way to go. Our full equality — in the law, in civic spaces, in religious institutions, in our neighborhoods and communities — is not yet a reality. And, until that day, our Prides — our annual reminders of the struggle that has brought us this far — will remain. It’s up to each of us and the people who have the privilege of organizing these events to put them in the right context, to cherish the history, to remember and memorialize those who came before us. We can never lose sight of our history; it’s what sustains us and empowers us. It’s what gives us hope — our enduring dream still unfulfilled, but coming closer and closer to fruition with each and every passing day.
Several years ago, I wrote of this history and of Stonewall’s essential place in our continued American experiment in equality and justice. I was tempted to quote those words again, but they have already become antiquated. There are much better words for us now — a shining testament to our history and where progress has finally brought us. So, I’ll end with words from President Barack Obama and his second inaugural address from this January:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.” : :