At the time of writing, today is June the 28th. The entirety of June is known as ‘Pride Month’, where people who support and/or live on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum have the chance to make themselves heard. Their continued efforts to push back against the restricting and oppressive forces on a global scale are an empowering force. But why is June specifically chosen as Pride Month and all the pride marches that come with it? Because 52 years ago, the Stonewall riots happened.
The arrival of a police raid at the Stonewall Inn wasn’t anything new for the patrons of this establishment. It was only a week previous since the patrons had to endure the routine of the NYPD doing the semi-regular raids of the gay bars in the area. That night, however, the constant harassment by the police had reached a breaking point. When the white lights flashed inside the bar to alert the patrons of the incoming raid and the police entered, the patrons collectively decided to resist. With the layout of the building only having a single entrance/exit there were no avenues of escape for them and could only wait for the oncoming raid.
They refused to give their ID’s and as a result were arrested and others were thrown out. Outside the bar a crowd has begun to grow in protest of what was happening, the swelling anger was starting to reach a boiling point, when one arrested lesbian, who was assulted as she was placed into the police van. As she was being placed in she shouted out “Why don’t you do something.” This spurred the crowd into a full blown riot. Bottles and pennies were thrown at the police and chants of abuse followed. As the crowd grew more numerous the police barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall bar itself whilst they awaited reinforcement from the riot police unit.
The riots outside the venue continued late into the early hours of the mornings, with people from all walks of life coming together in solidarity. The constant clashes with the riot police started to settle down just after 4am, leaving the bar torn about and with a large amount of damage. Despite this, the Stonewall Inn was reopened to the public the following evening before dark, however no alcohol was for sale. More and more supporters arrived with banners and shouting slogans in support. Again the riot police attempted to shut it down using tear gas to disperse their grounds. This second night’s wave of protest also carried on into the early hours of the morning. Crowds returned to the bar for the next two nights, building on the momentum they had gained, the police started to be less violent and small scale skirmishes replaced the rioting of the nights before.
The calming of the immediate public anger after the event was reignited when the Village Voice’s coverage of the event included deeply homophobic slurs resulting in protesters swarming outside their offices. When the police engaged with the protesters, rioting once again began, this time only lasting till about midnight.
The resultant furious sparks of rioting ignited a powder keg of civil rights movements. The rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming people had been oppressed for too long with unjust actions. The following year after these riots, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera started an organisation called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), seeking to house the LGBTQ+ youth and sex workers who were homeless and in need of support.
“STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time… We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s control at the bars.” – Sylvia Rivera, 1998
Things didn’t change overnight. Since the initial Stonewall riots there were many more years of political and social activism for the freedom of LGBTQ+ people in America, an effort that was picked up and campaigned for around the world amidst much resistance. Their voices have not been silenced, and positive affirming actions have led to their freedom in parts of the world. Huge milestones include the Equality Act passed in 2010 for the UK and the Supreme Court ruling for same-sex marriage to be legalised in all 50 states of the USA. However, 71 countries still criminalise LGBTQ+ rights, and 11 of them carry the death penalty.
The first modern Pride marches were riots, with efforts to label activism as terrorism from inside America. 52 years on, however, and the change is notably different. Pride marches are peaceful protests made to commemorate our fallen siblings who’ve been imprisoned or even murdered as a result of their sexuality and gender identity. They are now safe enough events for parents to bring their children to. Progress is the best way we can commemorate the disaster surrounding Stonewall in a modern climate. We are using the rights they gave us to let Marsha, Sylvia and all those who fought against the oppressive establishment of their time know it was a force for good.
On this day, it’s important to remember that the rights we have today as LGBTQ+ people in larger society are largely possible because of these riots. Not only is there a charity named after the event to help the entire spectrum where needed, the legacy is remembered and celebrated in the support from allies and the community when under oppression. Things are better than they were, but so much still needs to be done to make the world a more inclusive, respectful and united place.
“How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?” – Marsha P. Johnson