Saturday, June 28, 2014

Raise a Glass: Stonewall at 45

On this date in 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York's West Village, a dive bar frequented by drag queens, street youth and other marginalized members of the LGBT community, was probably expected to be routine by the police and even the bar's Mafia-linked owners.

What unfolded instead, however, was that this time the people had had enough and fought back.  A riot ensued, attracting 500-600 people, and quickly spilled into the nearby streets.  The cops were outnumbered and tried barricading themselves inside, but were quickly flushed out of the only place that many of the bar's regulars could call home.
"Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course," wrote participant Michael Fader. "We felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it's like standing your ground for the first time."
The melee lasted a few hours, but riots happened again twice more that week, and emboldened the city's (and then the nation's) LGBT community to start organizing itself in earnest, setting into motion the progress that continues today.  The following year, the first pride marches took place, not only in New York, but Los Angeles and Chicago.  The closest Sunday to the anniversary of the riots has become the focus of New York's pride celebrations. This event has become such a turning point in the movement that numerous groups across the country have appropriated the name of the bar as part of their own; making it synonymous with the quest for safety, freedom, and equality.

In the years since, we've stepped much more into the center of the culture, and one of the prices of assimilation is that many neighborhood bars like the Stonewall have passed into memory.   We have earned the right to be fully ourselves in many mainstream places, including many of our churches, and the Internet has made whole other kinds of community possible.

Crowd outside the Stonewall Inn the night the Supreme
Court ruled against DOMA and declined to defend
California's Proposition 8
The Stonewall, however, lives on, after a fashion.  It was largely destroyed in the riots and shut down shortly thereafter.  However, it re-opened in 1990 in half the original space, and both in 2011 when New York's marriage law was enacted, and last year when the Supreme Court issued its landmark rulings on marriage equality, it was there that we gathered.

As a sign of how far we've come, the bar was made a national historic landmark in 2000. President Obama referred to it, along Selma and Seneca Falls, in his second inaugural address as turning points for people under oppression. Last month, the National Park Service used the Stonewall as the venue when announcing a panel to identify and mark more key people and places in the LGBT rights movement, dating back to at least 1924.

I wasn't born yet when the riots happened, but I appreciate what they mean for me and the people on whose shoulders I stand.  I ask you to join me in raising a glass to the men and women who stood their ground on that fateful night, 45 years ago.

Were you part of the Stonewall Riots or similar key moments in LGBT liberation?  Please share your experience in the comments.

Christian Paolino is the Chair of Integrity's Stakeholders' Council and the Diocesan Organizer for Newark.  A graduate of William Paterson University and New School University, he blogs at The Verge of Jordan.

No comments: