Remembering the Reason for The Riots: Looking back at Queer History in the US
A Rallying Call to the LGBTQ+ Community During Pride Month
As June begins to wind down, so does a month dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community. Pride Month has been confirmed by two Democratic Presidents; first President Bill Clinton in 1999 and 2000 and later President Barack Obama during his 2009 to 2016 presidency. At its core Pride Month has been a celebration of the diversity and inclusiveness of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as a time of remembrance for the history of pain endured.
In the US, Pride Month finds its origins in the Stonewall Riots of Christopher Street. In the early morning of Saturday, June 28th, 1969, Stonewall Inn—a well known gay bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan—was raided by the New York police. Violence, cruelty, and an air of repressiveness finally culminated in the physical retaliation and rioting of the occupants of Stonewall Inn. This momentous point in history is often hailed as foundational to the modern LGBTQ+ rights movements, as well as early decriminalization and acceptance of gays and lesbians.
When the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s decimated nearly an entire generation of gay men, community became more important than ever. In celebration and remembrance of those who’d lost their lives, Gay Pride became a symbol of unity and empowerment. During this time, Pride celebrations also served as a public form of presence; an attempt to gain the attention of an administration unwilling to provide assistance to a group of its citizens for fear of being gay by association.
Since our last Pride Month in 2018, there have been progressively hostile political attacks against the LGBTQ+ community. Ranging from conservative pushes for “Religious Freedom” bills that would make discrimination against an LGBTQ+ individual legal on the basis of religious conviction, to Trump’s tweet-issued ban on transgender service members. After years of progressive movements and victories for our community, it now seems as if our government is caught in a mire of determining the morality of the human body rather than democratic governance. It has never been more important for our community to rally together beneath a flag of inclusion and acceptance. And under that rainbow flag, we need to remember the strong roots that anchor us in the harshest of times.
Our strengths—generosity, acceptance, adaptability, endurance, and challenging stigma—are often viewed as weaknesses by our more conservative and/or fundamental neighbors. We are called snowflakes for caring about the individual, naive for believing in working towards an inclusive future, and our sexual and gender identities are ridiculed or outright condemned as evil. Yet, in this month, it’s important to celebrate our power and to remember the roots of that pride.
Some Christians speak of a “righteous anger” as justification for discrimination and even violence. While we as a community have worked actively to overcome injustice through intellectual and conscious discussion, working as much within a system of democracy and peace as possible, we can never forget without the righteous anger of those of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, we might not have the privileges of today.
I recently read an article that called the events of June the 28th a protest: the Stonewall “Protests” I recognized immediately the intention; to reinforce the idea that the LGBTQ+ community is a not one of violence. But rewriting history to serve the purposes of today buries the truth of who we are. Our history is one riddled with violence against the LGBTQ body. The HRC reports that in 2018 twenty-six transgender lives were taken in acts of violence. By the time you’ll read this line, at least seven trans sisters and brothers will have died in 2019. The Southern Poverty Law Center has continually tracked crimes against LGBTQ persons and consistently reported an increase in hate-driven violence. As long as there are religious groups which continually see LGBTQ+ identity as “sinful” or evil, there will be justifications for violence against anyone who isn’t strictly heterosexual.
Those who rebelled against violence and prejudice in the early hours of June 28th, 1969 did so with righteous anger and violence. The Stonewall Riots were the tipping point for the LGBTQ+ community that sent ripples of change throughout the world. It’s a ripple that has traveled fifty years in time to see the current police commissioner of NYC apologize for the behavior of the police force that led to these riots. It’s a ripple that has endured the homophobia of Presidents willing to let their citizens die rather than acknowledge their suffering. It’s a wave that has washed over military and marriage alike, redefining the legality of love in our country, and making clear the way for others to follow in the wake.
As the power of June builds within our community; as we celebrate and remember, I also call on us to find our righteous anger and our unwavering resolve once more. The community today has been given a gift paid in blood by those who have come before us. We must fight in whatever way we can to ensure a future for our LGBTQ+ descendants free from the pain hatred, violence, and prejudice many of us still experience.
So, between parades, marches, and festivals, take time to reclaim that righteous anger and celebrate your strength. Take self-defense courses or join that kickboxing gym you’ve been eyeing, sign up for community outreach programs (particularly those that support those in poverty living with HIV/AIDS and those targeted at homeless LGBTQ+ youth), frequent your gay establishments, and be unwavering in educating our straight allies. Most importantly, look to those among us with the greatest strength of all: the femmes, queens, butch lesbians, trans black women, and gender-benders who move through each day understanding that at any moment, around any corner, their bodies could be targets of violence. As they were during the Stonewall Riots, these are those at the forefront of our charge, the tide breaking against the rock of ignorance. It is only with their strength at our front that we can ever hope to erode hatred and do righteous battle against ignorance. Claim your strength, LGBTQ+ family. And never fear your power.
Written by Necko L. Fanning
Necko is a veteran, LGBT activist, and writer. In addition to his work as a freelancer Necko writes fiction with the purposes of providing strong LGBT and female protagonists to the world. More of his work can be found at neckofanning.com.