Stonewall… The Pride Lives on
Posted by Agnivo Niyogi
People with same sex desire have always existed in the society. What changed is the way society looked at them and also how they regarded themselves through the pages of history. The Stonewall rebellion is definitely a landmark and defining incident in the history of gay rights activism. It awakened the gays and lesbians to rise as a collective against the atrocities carried out against them. The sense of community was instilled in this incident. But what exactly happened on that fateful night in June that led to a collective uprising against the administration?
The Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village on the outskirts of the New York City was run by the Mafia and was a favorite hangout place for the gays. On the night of June 28, 1969 there was a routine police raid on the inn. Instead of cowed obedience from the inmates of the inn, the police met tough resilience. The regular police raids and harassment had led to a sense of animosity among the community members and on June 28, 1969 they fought back with fortitude.
Following usual procedure, the police lined up the patrons to check their identification and females were taken to the toilets for inspection of their sex by female inspectors. If they were genuinely female they were set free and the cross dresser males were arrested. But the raid did not go according to the script. The people resisted. They were afraid of arrest. Exactly what transpired on that night is anybody’s guess now but most historians agree that it was either a ‘butch’ lesbian dressed in man’s clothes who resisted arrest, or a male drag queen who stopped in the doorway between the officers and posed defiantly.
Riot veteran and gay rights activist Craig Rodwell says: “A number of incidents were happening simultaneously. There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group, of mass anger.”
As police started detaining the protestors more people were incited. Resistance grew stronger. People fought to free the arrested inmates. Cheers from those who were detained lifted the spirits of those fighting. Detective Inspector Pine later recalled, “I had been in combat situations, but there was never any time that I felt more scared than then.”
The protesters tossed beer cans, hurled bricks and hit back in any way they could to save their dignity. The police hit back and arrested many of the protesters. This led to a flare up which continued for the days to come. The gay inmates of the Village also joined ranks and riot like conditions set in.
As word spread through Greenwich Village and across the city, hundreds of gay men and lesbians, black, white, Hispanic, and predominantly working class, converged on the Christopher Street area around the Stonewall Inn to join the fray. The police were now reinforced by the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF). The following evening, the demonstrators returned, their numbers now swelled to thousands. Leaflets were handed out, titled “Get the Mafia and cops out of gay bars!” Altogether, the protests and disturbances continued with varying intensity for five days.
In the wake of the riots the gay community in the Greenwich Village came together to form an organisation. After intense discussions a group called the Gay Liberation Front was formed that intended to link the gay rights activism to the banner of socialism. To this effect they organised protest marches against the Vietnam War, collected money for striking workers and so forth. During the next year or so, lesbians and gay men built a Gay Liberation Front (GLF) or comparable body in Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand.
Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with an assembly on Christopher Street and the first Gay Pride march in U.S. history, covering the 51 blocks to Central Park. Similar gay pride marches took place in Los Angeles and Chicago. The next year, Gay Pride marches took place in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm. By 1972 the participating cities included Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Washington D.C., Miami, and Philadelphia.
Since then the world witnessed a lot of upheavals. Times changed and so did people. Somewhere in their hearts the perception of same sex relationships also changed. And what would be a better document of it but U.S. president Barrack Obama’s declaration in his victory speech in 2008 that America was a nation of gays, lesbians, transgenders and bisexuals. He went to declare June 2009 as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, transgender pride Month.
It would be apt to close this discussion in the words of Craig Rodwell, a riot veteran. He writes “People often ask what was special about that night… There was no one thing special about it. It was just everything coming together, one of those moments in history that if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for”.
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(This Post Originally appeared in the Gaylaxy Magazine)