It takes a special sort of bravery to turn a fight for liberation into a celebration of identity.
Yet, the legacy of the Stonewall Riots lives on not just in its home of New York City, but in most major cities around the world. Every June, the LGBTQ+ community throughout the world ignites with a commemoration and celebration of exactly what the month is named for: pride. From the riots of the 1960s to the month-long celebration today, the movement for queer and transgender rights has not been easily won, but has blossomed with every passing year. To reflect on the resilience of a community for which the fight is not over (yet the party has just begun), let us return to its inception on one hot night in June, 1969.
The Stonewall Inn was a haven for queer and transgender folks throughout the 60s. At the time, acts of homosexuality were not just taboo, they were illegal in every U.S. state except Illinois. If authorities discovered an establishment served openly gay patrons, it would promptly be shut down. However, the queer community found a small, tenuous niche in the system: many New York bars and restaurants at this time were run by the Mafia. This meant that owners of establishments such as the Stonewall Inn would pay police officers to look the other way while keeping a tight grip on their gay patrons through blackmail, and threatening to out them. While the relationship was unstable, it carved a small space for members of the community to gather without fear of retaliation.
But, on June 28, 1969, everything changed. The previous Tuesday, members of the New York police force conducted a preliminary raid of Stonewall, citing the use of an improper liquor license. They returned on Friday with the hopes of shutting the place down for good. However, as they attempted to arrest transgender patrons on the grounds of "masquerading" (dressing as the opposite sex was considered a crime), a fight broke out. Though the details don't reveal who threw the first brick, the raid quickly turned into a riot. Bottles were thrown at the officers, their tires slashed. Tear gas was unloaded on the rioters, and the scene remained grisly until about 4 AM, when police retreated. When the dust settled, no injuries or deaths had occurred, but something in the air had changed. The fight for liberation, that had always been around but never walked freely in the light of day, had entered the streets.
Throughout the following weeks, more and more members of the queer and transgender community began to congregate at the Stonewall Inn. The movement began to organize and form more radical societies such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). The following year, on June 28, 1970, New York organizers set to commemorate the anniversary of the riots by staging the Christopher Street Liberation March. By the time it kicked off, the crowd ran 15 blocks strong, and represented thousands of individuals. Cities across the nation were watching, and inspired. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago all began organization of their own marches – taking their own stand against the commonplace oppression to say, frankly, they'd seen enough.
The activism set off by the Stonewall riots continued throughout the close of the 20th century and well into the 21st. Throughout the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, during which gay men were targeted and denied proper health care, the gay liberation movement was that which offered the most ardent activism and proactivity for the protection of queer lives.
Today, June is designated Pride Month in remembrance of these hard-won battles. While it has never been easy to fight against a system which has no interest in protecting its queer and transgender citizens, the Pride movement has more than picked up the slack (and celebrates its resilience in style). This month, celebrate the LGBTQ+ community by donating to one of the organizations which continue to fight for freedom for everyone. Happy Pride!