By Nikos Theologos,
Every year, on June 28th, people from all over the globe join their local Pride Parade to both commemorate the years of struggle in pursuit of civil rights and equal justice and celebrate milestone accomplishments of the LGBTQ+ community. Pride marches, nowadays, are colorful, bold festivities that offer a unique platform to the LGBTQ+ community to be on a full and unfiltered display. The march, as part of the Pride month, is an historic event that has massively contributed over the years to the multiple fights given by the community towards the establishment of equal rights. However, Pride marches were not always celebrations, music and dancing… on the contrary they were rough and sometimes violent demonstrations at times of immeasurable oppression.
What was it like to be queer in the ‘60s?
Saying that 1969 was a bad time to come out as queer is an understatement. Not only was homosexuality illegal, but any display of behavior that did not fit the gender norm of the time, such as wearing clothes of the opposite sex or slow dancing with a person of the same sex was punishable by law. At the time, members of the LGBTQ+ community were heavily targeted by the police and in any given chance they were beaten, arrested and charged with “sexual deviance”. This social and institutional discrimination forced the community to search for safe spaces where they would be able to gather and express themselves freely without the constant societal stigma and fear of arrest. This safe haven was found in the area of West Village in New York.
West Village became the most progressive area of the 20th century
West Village soon became a base of the LGBTQ+ community of the time, with more and more people gathering there every day. For the first time in a long time -possibly ever- queer people were not afraid; they felt at home, they felt at peace. Soon enough, some gay bars opened in the area, with one of the most famous being the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Inn was an ugly, dark and dysfunctional bar but its warm atmosphere made it very popular. The biggest problem that such bars faced was none other than the police trying to interfere and disrupt their functioning by conducting random “check-ups”. “Check-ups” usually involved bribing the police in exchange for them to look the other way, but in several cases they turned into violent raids and mass arrests, with the most common excuse being that bars operated without a proper liquor license.
On the 28th of June in 1969…
While getting arrested, harassed and then released by police forces had become a routine procedure for many queer people, no significant response was given by the LGBTQ+ community, at least on a public scale, thus far. That was until the 28th of June 1969, the day that the community reached its breaking point. It was a crowded Friday evening and the Stonewall Inn was paid a visit by the police. The police arrested the drag queens and started shoving people out of the bar and into a police van that was parked outside, charging them with sexual deviancy. But as Judy Bowen, trans pioneer and activist, said, “you can only take so much shit”.
Initiated by two transgender women of colour who -for the first time ever- resisted arrest, the community made their presence felt by responding to the hateful and unjustified police raids at a riot that lasted for two days. The idea of people of all races and sexualities uniting forces against the oppressor i.e. the police, created such a momentum for the community at the time that two weeks later the Gay Liberation Front was founded, and the rest is history. The Gay Liberation Front went on to organize marches that brought the sexual revolution in the ‘70s and became the main advocate for upholding equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. From the first year of their existence, they introduced the Pride Parade to commemorate the events of Stonewall and to demonstrate for their rights.
50 years have passed since that historic night in West Village and many milestones have been reached since, such as the legalization of gay marriage in several states. However, with various nations around the world still not recognizing homosexuality, labeling it as “abnormal” and “deviant” and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community being still quite prevalent, it is safe to say that the biggest fights, marches and celebrations are yet ahead of us.
As one of my favorite fictional characters has said, “Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place”. At Stonewall, nobody could even remotely imagine what would follow. So, le us be proud because who knows? The next Stonewall might be around the corner.
- History, What Happened at the Stonewall Riots? A Timeline of the 1969 Uprising. Available here.
- Youtube, Stonewall Forever – A Documentary about the Past, Present and Future of Pride. Available here.