While Pride Parades have been happening around the world all month, we’ve now reached the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots on June 28th 1969 which began the modern LGBTQIA+ movement. It’s a perfect day to remember the human rights violations that were once legal in the U.S.A., to remind ourselves of the changes that still need to be made and to celebrate the activists who fought for our rights.
Thanks to the archives and work of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association we can also musically look back to the most popular songs at the bar in June 1969.
In the 1960s, homosexuality, defined as a mental illness, was “treated” with involuntary aversion shock therapy, castration, sterilization and lobotomy. At the Atascadero State Hospital they even experimented with chemicals on patients. There were numerous laws specifically targeting LGBTQIA+ individuals, including sodomy and the “three-piece rule” which required you to wear at least three pieces of clothing traditionally assigned to the gender identity given at birth. After an arrest for homosexual activity, the police could publish your name, address, and criminal offense in the newspaper, resulting in likely public shame from one’s community, rejection from one’s family and the voiding of any professional licenses. Sadly this kind of public shaming which can destroy tear apart a person’s entire life is still a feature of anti-LGBTQIA+ punishments around the world today. In many countries legal punishments for same-sex intercourse include lifetime prison sentences and the death penalty.
Within this environment, Greenwich Village in New York City was a sort of oasis. I won’t say sanctuary because it still wasn’t safe. Police raids against gay bars were frequent. People frequently threatened and vandalized The Oscar Wilde bookshop, the first bookstore dedicated to LGBTQIA+ writers. Within the gay bars and LGBTQIA+ community, there was a lot of racism, discrimination and transphobia as well. Unfortunately this last part hasn’t changed all that much. Trans persons are still the most marginalized members of the community and legally denied rights cis people often take for granted.
The Stonewall Inn was one of the few bars where trans persons, persons of color, homeless youths and sex workers were welcomed. It was a gathering place and haven for those who did not fit the homonormative “mainstream” model.
In the early hours of June 28th, Marsha P. Johnson’s birthday celebration was derailed by a police raid which led to the sexual harassment and brutal treatment of numerous patrons. A group of supporters began to gather as people were violently loaded into vans. Within the bar, Marsha P. Johnson was one of the first within the bar to resist the police; outside in the crowd, Sylvia Rivera was one of the first to fight back and come to the patrons’ defense, throwing a bottle at the police. These courageous acts created a momentum that spread throughout New York City where riots would continue for several nights. Afterwards, Marsha and Sylvia founded the first trans-rights organization S.T.A.R. in 1970, in addition to becoming prominent members of the Gay Liberation Front and iconic LGBTQIA+ activists.
This is just a scant statement about the Stonewall Riots and these two trans women of color. There are books, articles and documentaries, which go into far more detail, well worth finding. Hopefully The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson will soon be available to stream on Netflix since they recently purchased the rights.
So let’s all come together to appreciate the rights and privileges we now have, to celebrate and remember the individuals who made it possible, to strive to become more aware and engaged individuals, and to fight for equal rights for everyone. Happy Pride!