Stonewall Riots

Jun 25, 2020 | International | 0 comments

The Beginnings of Pride

Roland Baldwin

Written by Roland Baldwin

In International

In our first Pride article, Roland Baldwin discusses the origins of Pride Month from the time of Prohibition right up to the Stonewall Riots.

10min Read

Roland Baldwin

Written by Roland Baldwin

In International

10min Read

In our first Pride article, Roland Baldwin discusses the origins of Pride Month from the time of Prohibition right up to the Stonewall Riots.

The history of the LGBT+ community is long and complex. This is a story that’s not widely spoken about or documented in mainstream media. Every year in June the LGBT+ community celebrates Pride Month to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots which took place from 27th to 29th June 1969. Last year the global LGBT+ community had monumental celebrations to mark their 50th anniversary, but this year is a different situation entirely. Due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, all traditional Pride events have been cancelled. The LGBT+ community have faced greater adversity than the current global crisis and the show will go on.

I came out in 2000 to my sister and in 2001 to my parents. Many times throughout the years I’ve been asked ‘why do you need Pride? There’s no straight Pride’. You can’t answer this question without considering the years before the Stonewall Riots – which aren’t spoken about very often. There seems to be a misconception that there were no LGBT+ people pre-June 1969. Before looking forward to Pride 2020, let’s take a look at the events that led to Stonewall and why Pride will always be necessary.

The LGBT+ community – like any group who do not conform to prevailing ‘social norms’ – have always been oppressed. One of the earliest recorded instances of this was the jailing of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’ or homosexual acts for two years from May 1895 to May 1897.

As the 20th century came around the LGBT+ community was a subculture. It was the mafia who provided a solace for people to meet in America, such as during the time of Prohibition in the 1920s. ‘Alternative lifestyles’ weren’t in the mindset of the general public until the era of McCarthyism. The Burlesque scene and the Vaudevillians allowed for experimentation with gender and drag; Marlene Dietrich who was one of the most acclaimed stars of the golden age of Hollywood was a lesbian.

As the world entered World War II gay people were drafted. If a person was outed as gay in the military at the time they would be issued with a Blue Discharge, meaning that they would receive no benefits. It was neither an honourable or dishonourable discharge and was mostly used simply to eject gay people from the military. However, it is incorrect to suggest that gay people did not play a part in the war, and there is evidence that gay men formed drag troupes and chorus lines to entertain the troops.

Many lesbians took up traditionally male roles in the army and navy during the war. In the 1985 documentary ‘Before Stonewall’ one of the women who recounts her time in service said she was asked to compile a list of lesbians in the battalion. She told her superior he would need to start the list with her name and his secretary added she would also add her name. The idea of the list was immediately abandoned.

The horrors of the war cannot be forgotten, however. Not all gay people were so fortunate as to play an active role in the military. This is most true in Hitler’s Germany, where gay men kept in concentration camps were forced to wear the pink triangle, many of whom were tragically murdered.

As the war ended the women who had worked the traditionally male roles were expected to return to a domestic life as the jobs were again taken by men. They were told that the world of tomorrow and the nuclear family didn’t have a place for gay people. The only image presented was of a mother and father, two kids and a dog named Rover. Popular culture began to reflect this. On television shows like ‘Leave It to Beaver’, ‘I Dream of Genie’ and ‘Bewitched’ all highlighted a very normal family with traditional values.  Even cartoon shows like The Jetsons and The Flintstones reaffirmed this despite being set at opposing time periods. At the same time high profile studies by Alfred Kinsey brought sexuality and homosexuality into the public zeitgeist.

There was no place for the gay community in this world. They were often vilified and the subject of ridicule or derision

It was especially evident in the 1961 cautionary short film ‘Boys Beware’ which painted gay men as sexual predators who drove around picking up young boys and taking advantage of them. It was also common for gay people to be put in institutions for mental illness and recovery programmes to ‘help’ them see the errors of their way.

In 1967 CBS Reports, a high-profile news program, ran an episode called ‘The Homosexuals’. The man interviewed was portrayed as an otherworldly being to be investigated and studied, but it was one of the first times media had humanised gay people. Lesbians and transgender people were still relatively invisible with the exception of ‘Behind Every Good Man’ which is a short film about an unnamed transgender woman. ‘The Queen’ followed in 1968 and followed a group of drag queens and trans women in the Harlem Ballroom scene.  This would later be revisited in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film ‘Paris is Burning’.  The ballroom scene is where voguing, made popular by Madonna in her 1990 track Vogue, originated.

Prime time television didn’t acknowledge the queerness of its gay characters. A notable example was Uncle Arthur on ‘Bewitched’ played by the late Paul Lynde. He was that camp character who was in on the joke and hurt by being the subject of it at the same time.

Actors generally couldn’t be out at the time as it was often tantamount to career suicide to do so. But there were notable gay actors such as Dick Sargent, Tab Hunter and the iconic George Takei.

Outside the sphere of film and television, one person who was having none of being marginalised was renowned writer James Baldwin; a black writer, poet and playwright who rose to prominence in the 1960’s, appearing on many television programs discussing systemic racism in America.

As the 60’s came to an end it was the mob-owned Stonewall Inn that was a refuge for the LGBT+ community in New York.  It was required to have an equal number of women to pair up with the opposite sex should the NYPD raid the bar.  On the night of 27th June 1969, the rioting began; originally being falsely attributed to Judy Garland’s funeral, which took place earlier that day. She is someone who was and still is a gay icon, so much so that the coded term for checking if someone was gay was to ask if they were ‘a friend of Dorothy’, alluding to Garland’s seminal role in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as Dorothy Gale.

On this night when the NYPD came to raid the bar the LGBT+ community had had enough. A riot broke out as the patrons refused to be victimised any further. This was not the first time there had been a protest. Previous protests involved ‘sip ins’ in bars that would ban gay people where there would be groups of gay men drinking and refusing to leave.

These past unconventional protests were mostly comprised of white men. The Mattachine Society was civilised about protesting. Their passive nature did little to shake up the status quo.  Stonewall was different. The people at the Stonewall Inn were diverse. There were drag queens, transgender people, people of all ethnicities and they had already spent the 60’s protesting for equality and basic human rights.

Key figures at Stonewall were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. They were two transgender women.  For many years it was believed Marsha had thrown the first brick at Stonewall but years later she said she didn’t arrive until later in the night. Whoever the instigator of the riots that night was they changed the course of history for LGBT+ people. The rioting continued for several nights and were a seminal moment in the history of the gay rights movement.

The following year in June 1970 a march was held to commemorate Stonewall. This was not so much a Pride march but rather a peaceful protest, but it set the scene for the Pride we know today.  The work was not done and some of the biggest challenges for the LGBTQ+ community were ahead of them including the rise of more conservative values with Republican president Ronald Regan and his inaction on the AIDS crisis.

In the next part we’ll look at what happened after Stonewall. We’ll examine how the UK and Ireland fought for equality and where the community stands today and why there is always a need for Pride Month.

Thanks for Reading

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