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The 60s and preceding decades were a very difficult time for LGBTQ+ people, who suffered persecution and violence all too often at the state, societal, and familial levels. At the time, being gay was classified as a mental illness, and acts of same-sex affection were outlawed. Constant threats of violence and incarceration resulted in a shared need for secrecy in the LGBTQ+ community and the formation of battle-hardened "chosen families." Of course, while much has changed, far too much has remained the same, and the struggle for equality does and must continue.
The first pride parades in cities around the United States were held in 1970 in remembrance of an important riot that had occurred one year prior on the 28th of June, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. This riot is remembered nationwide as a collective voice saying "Enough!" to the abuse and oppression the LGBTQ+ community had been enduring since before the formation of the country. This poignant event triggered a ripple that turned into a global tidal wave that became known as the gay rights movement.
The Culture of Oppression in 1960s New York
Stonewall Inn and the surrounding clubs, bars, and LGBTQ+ hangouts in the Greenwich Village area were frequent targets of police brutality and arrests. In New York, it was illegal to solicit same-sex relations at the time (this remained the case until 1981). Despite the constant threat of police action, these were also places of mutually assured peace and recognition of a shared blight where persecuted individuals could find comfort in being with others who shared their criminalized identities.
Despite the many bars in the area, until 1966, it was illegal to serve alcohol to LGBTQ+ folks based on the idea that these individuals were disorderly simply by virtue of being gay. This resulted in some bars being shut down and others operating illegally. The alcohol-serving ban was overturned thanks to courageous activism, but any "homosexual behavior"—hand-holding, dancing with a person of the same sex, violating "gender-appropriate clothing norms," and kissing—was still arrestable.
The mafia had a large hand in the operating of some of these establishments, many of which served without licenses so as to not have the register with the state. Because these bars had no licenses, they were often unknown to police.
Blackmail, Tipoffs, and Profiteering
When LGBTQ-centric establishments were checked, police harassed patrons, made arrests, damaged property, manhandled people with extreme aggression, seized alcohol, and often shut premises down.
Only through a combination of the mafia paying the police to look the other way and establishments owners being tipped off about planned police activity was any temporary peace available. Profit was important, and nothing generated more profit than making cuts to safety while blackmailing wealthier patrons with threats of "outing."
The Raid of Stonewall Inn and Subsequent Riots
Early in the morning hours of the 28th of June, 1969, the many patrons of the Stonewall Inn (roughly 200) were enjoying the company of their peers with a sense of cautious ease. The police arrived with a warrant and began roughly investigating and handling patrons there. The Stonewall Inn had not been tipped off, and police made 13 arrests. Female officers took those who were presumed to be cross-dressing (whether drag queens or transgender) to the toilets to check their biological sexes.
Enough was enough. Those ejected and dispersed from the bar gathered outside and watched as their friends were brutally handled and shoved into police vans. One woman was hit on the head by an officer, causing bleeding, and roughly transported into a van, causing her to shout out for aid. At this point, a spark took hold, and patrons began throwing any objects they had at hand—coins, stones, and bottles, among others—at the police and their vehicles. The culmination of decades of violence and persecution suddenly resulted in a fierce backlash that would last for days.
The initial riot gathered more and more attention within minutes, resulting in the involvement of hundreds of additional protestors within the area. Protests continued for five more days, eventually gathering people in their thousands.
Marsha P. Johnson: A Key Figure of Hope
Marsha P Johnson, a 23-year-old black, queer drag performer, was part of the vanguard in this rebellion and has been described as having "thrown the first stone." However, Marsha actually arrived later and galvanized even more people to get involved, which was no less important. She was central to the subsequent movement that evolved during the days following the initial raid and riot. Her legacy as a beacon of support and love to the LGBTQ+ community is remembered fondly by many.
Stonewall's Legacy and the Gay Rights Movement
The riots at Stonewall and in the surrounding areas did not directly begin the gay liberation movement, but they amalgamated all of the pain of and support for a persecuted community speaking out for much-needed change and the right to be seen as equal.
The first Pride was a remembrance of a small community's unexpected revolution. In 1970, the year following the Stonewall riots, Pride was born as an anniversary celebration. Subsequently, it morphed into a month-long celebration of history and progress and a reminder of the continuing struggle of the LGBTQ+ community on national and international levels.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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