Right now, most of us concur we are living through times of uncertainty and civil unrest. A global pandemic with a rising death toll, riots, demonstrations, police brutality, the sinking economy, and the list goes on.
But it’s not the first time our society has felt this type of shakedown.
A similar situation brewed throughout the 1960s with one sector boiling over during the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. This boiling point became known as the Stonewall Riots, and it was here the inception of the gay rights movement began.
In 1969, I turned one year old. My family lived on the West Coast, far from Greenwich Village, Manhattan, or New York and an uprising later to be termed The Stonewall Riots. For obvious reasons, I was unaware of the growing unrest in our country during the late ’60s and early '70s.
My parents did not openly protest to my knowledge. Preferring to use their voices at the ballot boxes or campaign on initiatives for reform. They saw their voices being heard through the political process and that is okay. It was also a different time.
There was always a news broadcast playing in my home, either on the radio or the evening news on the television. I do not recall my parents speaking on issues of the day such as racism, riots, or drag queens. Perhaps they spoke amongst themselves. Perhaps they felt a child’s childhood should be left to play kick-the-can and savor their wishes to Santa Claus. Perhaps they felt I was too young to be touched by the burdens of the world.
Whatever their reasons, it was those burdening events; the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Stonewall Riots which would ultimately shape the world I grew up in.
In 1969 the Stonewall Riots became a tipping point for the LGBTQ movement. A banner for equality I would pick up a few decades later when my son came out to me as transgender.
Of course, I knew the word but up until that moment that is all it was for me, a word. At that moment, with my son, it became personal. I had no context for the breadth of its meaning. Contrary to my son’s belief that his liberal-minded, progressive mom knew everything, when in fact I did not.
Where did I begin? I began at what I knew to be the beginning.
The Stonewall Riots
In the early morning of June 28, 1969, New York police raided a gay bar in a small Greenwich Village neighborhood known as the Stonewall Inn.
The late 1960s were seeing growing social movements and civil unrest similar to what we are experiencing currently. A combination of factors culminated in the Stonewall Riots including the increasing counterculture of the time to the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement.
For the gay culture, the fight had just begun and Stonewall was where the line was being drawn.
Resisting Unjust Laws
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the gay and lesbian community faced anti-gay laws and a legal system that seemed to support homophobia.
It was common practice for gay bars to frequently be raided by the police in order to “rid” the area of any suggested seediness. Mandates, such as women being required to wear at least three pieces of female clothing and men dressed in “drag” ended in a ride to the police station, became commonplace.
In the wee hours on that June morning, a few patrons, along with neighborhood residents on Christopher Street in the Village, had had enough of the police harassment. Years of oppression and pent-up frustrations finally ignited.
They fought back. For six days. And they won, at least that battle.
Those who were otherwise deemed outcast and marginalized; the “fairies”, the butch lesbians, and the homeless youth pushed back the police and re-took their neighborhood.
What they also started was a revolution.
Within the next year, three newspapers devoted to gay rights and two gay activist organizations were formed in New York, including the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). This gave a stronger and growing voice to the chorus started at Stonewall.
In commemoration of the struggle, on the following date of June 28, 1970, a march up Christopher Street was organized. It proceeded down the heart of Greenwich Village and past the Stonewall Inn. Joining this anniversary celebration were simultaneous demonstrations in Los Angeles and Chicago, creating the formation of the first Gay Pride marches. These celebrations are a legacy to Stonewall that has continued on for 50 years.
The Iconic and the Infamous
Several individuals stand out from the Stonewall Riots.
No one really knows who threw the first proverbial punches but one “butch” lesbian in the throws of the commotion that night was Stormé DeLarverie. She resisted and persisted action be taken as she was hauled off into a police van.
This could have been the incendiary moment that sparked the riots. It is unclear. But what is clear is the change that occurred out of this uprising. A manifestation for equal rights rising like a phoenix from the flames.
A leading voice from this confrontational stand-off was Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American self-identified drag queen. She was on hand later that morning at Stonewall and the subsequent days following. Her activism placed her as a prominent figure in the Gay Liberation Front, continuing to fight for justice.
It is rumored, she threw a shot glass at the mirror above the Stonewall bar demanding, I have my civil rights. This became known as the shot glass heard around the world. True or not, the story demonstrates the grit making up Marsha P. Johnson.
These women, along with their allies and neighbors, paved the way for LGBTQ equality. Because of their courage to stand on the right side of history, my son has the courage and freedom to live his life as his true and best self. My daughter and her friends know love is love.
It is Not All Rainbows
Discrimination and prejudice still exist in some people's hearts.
The persistence in justice for all continues as we saw recently when a woman named Aimee Stephens came forward to expose inequality in the workplace, for what it is.
She was a transgender woman who found herself fired from her position at a funeral home after coming out as her true self. It proved several years and a long road battling the legal system on top of the prejudice, but Aimee and her wife took their convictions all the way to the Supreme Court.
This past June, the month dedicated to celebrating gay equality, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Aimee Stephens’s case, stating that the law prevents discrimination not only based on sex but that it extends this provision to gender identity as well.
Unfortunately, Aimee did not live to see this victory but her role in this landmark decision will go down in history. She stood in her truth, modeling for all transgender people that there is hope. Aimee’s win comes with this most recent Supreme Court ruling. The LGBTQ+ community wins because of her staunch activism to pursue justice.
Why the Latest Supreme Court Ruling is a Landmark Victory for LGBTQ
And why this mom is breathing a little easier
The fight continues for equality in all sectors of life, as you can read more here from the Human Rights Campaign. It might be our current protests are only a six-degree separation from the riots of 50 years ago.
But perhaps, just as in 1969, when Stonewall became the unlikely catalyst launching the gay rights movement, the voices speaking up now will push forward the next 50 years. ii
One day we will not discuss complete equality as a wish but as a reality. For discrimination based on color, creed, sex, or gender will only be known from the pages of the history books.
To read more history from the Stonewall Riots check out Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the Lgbtq Rights Uprising That Changed America by Martin Duberman.
MaryRose lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest between mountains and water. She is a traveler, massage therapist, a vegetarian foodie, and most importantly a mother of two amazing grown kids. When not working she is active in a local PFlag chapter and works for social justice with the LGBTQ community.