In every state except Illinois, simply being gay was a crime. At the time, New York City was seen as a relatively safe haven for LGBTQ+ folks across the nation. But law enforcement routinely seized on state laws authorizing the arrest of anyone for “crimes against nature” or not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing.
The city even made it illegal for licensed bars to serve gay or gender-nonconforming people. The Mafia, seeing a profit in accommodating a shunned clientele, ran several bars that catered specifically to this guarded community. Such was Stonewall Inn.
Despite Stonewall’s reputation as a “nicer” establishment on Christopher Street, the mob-run bar exploited its customers. The drinks were watered down. There was no toilet or even running water – and no fire exit. But what patrons accepted in exchange was a space for LGBTQ+ people to gather during a time when gathering in public was a dangerous proposition.
Stonewall offered dancing and had a bare light bulb that hung from the ceiling and would flash a signal to alert patrons of a police raid, so they could physically separate on the dance floor in hopes of avoiding arrest.
Usually, corrupt cops would tip off Mafia-run bars before a raid occurred – allowing time to stash alcohol in these unlicensed, private “bottle bars”and hide other illegal activity.
But the raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, was different. There was no tipoff. The arrests were not orderly. People refused to produce IDs. And, the reaction from patrons was not acquiescence.
Invigorated and empowered by the Black Power, anti-war and women’s liberation movements, the Greenwich Village community had had enough. Instead of running, attempting to escape arrest, a joyous crowd gathered in the street and fought back. Police were forced to seek shelter inside the Inn until backup arrived. What followed were six nights of rioting that would spark a civil rights movement to replace public shame with individual pride.
On the first anniversary of the riots, folks gathered for the first annual Pride to celebrate their identities openly and to formally launch the gay liberation movement.
As the movement grew in the following decades, opposition emerged from the Christian right, giving rise to anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups like theAmerican Family Association and the Family Research Council, whose president, Tony Perkins, was recently named as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Despite the efforts of those groups to vilify LGBTQ+ people, public attitudes toward the community have changed dramatically since Stonewall. And with that change has come steady progress toward equality.
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental health disorders in 1973. Lambda Legal won the first HIV/AIDS discrimination lawsuit in 1983. The Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act went into effect in 1995. The Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality in 2015. Due to the advocacy of the SPLC and others, laws banning conversion therapy are sweeping the nation.
New York Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill has even recently apologized for the “discriminatory and oppressive” laws and enforcement actions of the NYPD.
Though the fight for LGBTQ+ equal rights began long before Stonewall, we owe a great deal of this progress to the courage and determination of these activists.
As we near the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, we want to specifically name and honor some of the transgender women of color whose contributions to the movement were undervalued for so long: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.
This is especially important considering that, if they were alive today, they would be very likely denied the equal rights they fought hard to secure for the entire LGBTQ+ community.
There remains rampant discrimination against cisgender people of all non-hetero sexual orientations and people of gender identities and expressions that veer from expectations based on the gender assigned at birth. Many states still do not prohibit housing or employment discrimination, which is particularly pervasive in the South. Moreover, “license to discriminate” bills and policies have been given new momentum by the Trump administration’s glaring attacks on LGBTQ+ rights and legal protections.
However, transgender women of color still face some of the highest levels of discrimination and physical violence in the nation. Among the transgender population, trans women of color experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, homelessness and housing and employment discrimination. Many face abysmal health outcomes.
Between 2014 and 2018, at least 128 transgender people were murdered in the United States. Of those, 110 were people of color. So far this year, 10 transgender people have been killed – all of them black women.
It is also likely that violence against trans women of color is underreported, as a full one-third of black trans people have reported abuse when interacting with police, including purposefully misgendering them.
And, the LGBTQ+ movement itself has struggled with intersectionality, failing sometimes to recognize that many who identify as LGBTQ+ are also marginalized by multiple other systems of oppression – such as white supremacy, wealth inequality and ableism. Some within the community have also been exclusionary of transgender people, themselves perpetuating harmful myths and fueling transphobia.
This Pride Month, we celebrate the progress made while also acknowledging that there is still much work to do in the fight for equal rights. Let us make visible the important contributions of women like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera as well as the unchecked violence that still plagues women like them.
P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:
- At historic hearing, House panel explores reparations from The New York Times
- To protect and slur: inside hate groups on Facebook, police officers trade racist memes, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia from Reveal News
- Last American slave ship is discovered in Alabama from National Geographic
- Immigration agency says it plans deportation operation aimed at undocumented families from The New York Times
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Photo by Diana Davies, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library