In the wee hours of June 28, 1969, four police officers stormed into the Stonewall Inn a small bar owned by the mafia and frequented by the most marginalized in the LGBT community: homeless youth, trans women, transvestites, drag queens, butch lesbians and effeminate men among others. As the officers began to perform a routine raid of the bar, neither the ‘queens’ nor the officers could have predicted what would happen later on that same evening.
There comes a time where those who are being oppressed have just had enough. There is a turning point in every crusade where those who are being silenced say in a collective chorus “Fuck this Shit!” as if Twisted Sister’s “We’re not gonna take it” were playing in the background. For civil rights that moment came when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus. For the LGBT movement it was when those “men” that were dressed in women’s clothing refused to go with the police officers and for the first time our community fought back as one eyewitness put it “when did you ever see a fag fight back?” Trans women’s role in the Stonewall Riots is often downplayed as if we had nothing to do with it. What we know is that police often targeted those that were visibly different: effeminate men, trans women, transvestites, drag queens, butch lesbians and anyone in the gender non-conforming spectrum. We also know that those that were most willing to fight back were those who had absolutely nothing else to loose.
Before Stonewall, those in the LGBT community were frequently arrested, beaten, instituted and sometimes even killed for being who they were by the very same men that were sworn to protect them. Homosexuals were considered a security threat by the State Department on the theory that they were more susceptible to blackmail “It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of ‘normal’ persons.” [Toward Stonewall by Nicholas C. Edsall]. In those days many acts related to sexuality and gender expression where both illegal and heavily policed. For example, sodomy was illegal as recently as 2005. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder (1973) by the American Psychiatric Association much in the same way transsexuality was until recently (2013). It was also illegal for “men” to dress as “women”, women had to wear at least three articles of feminine clothing, it was illegal for gays to congregate, and not to mention you could legally lose your job or be denied housing or public accommodations if you were so much as suspected of being LGBT—it’s worth noting that this is still the case in many states.
LGBT people lived in constant fear of being ousted, harassment was a daily occurrence, and our safety was always under threat, so we learned to keep our heads down and try to appear as ‘normal’ as possible in the hopes of disappearing amongst the crowd. Gay men married women and formed families finding release in the occasional secluded bathroom stalls or cruising in the twilight hours of urban parks. Lesbian women married men and sought refuge in prescription medications and secret infatuations with other housewives, sometimes even finding one woman harboring the same inclinations. Trans women settled for being who they were part time, only expressing their true gender identity in the solitude of their home or in the confines of a dimly lit discothèque and taking on jobs that were considered traditionally masculine to not draw any attention towards themselves. To say life was difficult prior to the Stonewall uprising would be a monumental understatement.
There is a long tradition within many oppressed populations to seek community in moments of adversity, to build our resolve and strength to lift each other up when we need it most. Like the African-Americans who often sought solace in their parishes or the migrant workers in their respected community centers; on that warm summer night our foremothers and forefathers went to the club in search for community. Mourning the death of Judy Garland, an icon of the LGBT community our people went to dance the night away and forget about the world beyond those walls. Those fog filled clubs have always been our home—our first home—because those clubs were often where we were born. It’s where we learned about ourselves, it’s where we came into our own and let down our guard—our armor. Those fog filled nightclubs witnessed our personal journeys; they birthed us and nourished us. It was in these spaces where we first met other people like us, other #girlslikeus. Those were the places where we would go to forget about the world, our problems, and our fears. In these spaces we found our voice individually and collectively.
And on that night our home, our family, were under attack. But that night we stood up and we fought back. We fought back a society that consistently told us that we don’t belong here. That night we said “I live here too!” We fought back those who said we were deviants and mentally ill by saying “I’m fabulously sickening”. We didn’t just stand up for ourselves but we stood up and marched, we marched from Christopher Street all the way to Central Park. We marched in the light of day for all the world to see that we are here and we are proud. Every year since we gather together and march down the street of our respected communities to say “this is our home too and we belong here, you can’t shame us no longer because we are proud of who we are”. And every year more and more cities add their voice to that collective chorus of people saying “this is who I am”.
Our pride parades are more than just an excuse to go all out with our hair and makeup. Our pride parades are a public protest and a call to arms. When we raise that rainbow flag with its all-encompassing colors we are calling upon every facet of our all-encompassing acronym and every shade in between to rise up and show the world who they are. When we raise that flag we give that unknown teenager in Uganda who lives in fear day in and day out hope. When we raise that flag we give Jane Doe of Connecticut strength by letting her know that she has a whole community behind her that loves and supports her.
The legacy of Stonewall lives with us today. Every time we see a gay couple walk down the street holding hands it’s because many years ago someone marched down Broadway. When we see Laverne Cox on the cover of TIME magazine it’s because decades ago Sylvia Rivera fought back a police officer. So, every year when we march we add our voices to that collective chorus because Stonewall was much more than a night of upheaval. It is our legacy, a torch passed down and entrusted to all of us, not just for those who came before us, but for the many who will come after us.