Stonewall 1969 – Marking 50 years of LGBTIQ+ pride

In the early morning hours of this day in 1969 a voice rang out outside an innocuous bar in New York City that would ultimately give millions of lives dignity and equality, including mine.

Just 20 years earlier, in Victoria, I could have faced the death penalty for just being me.

It would be another 20 years until Western Australia would not send me to prison for 14 years of hard labour, and a further 30 years before I could marry the person I loved.

Even today, I could be murdered in South Australia and my murderer declared innocent if they say they were panicked by me just talking to them.

You see, I am gay, and that voice became symbolic as paving the way for the fight for equality and freedom from discrimination.

The day was 28 June 1969, the time 1:20am, the place was the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, and that lone voiced sparked the Stonewall Riots.

The Stonewall Inn was then a seedy mafia-owned gay bar paying off the police with protection money yet was constantly being raided resulting in LGBTQ people being victimised and subjected to public humiliation. That morning the police did not give the customary tip-off. They raided the bar, locking the doors thereby preventing any of the over 200 patrons escaping.

However, things did not proceed as planned. Usually people would be lined up against the wall and ID demanded. Any women, and anyone appearing as a woman (including drag queens) would be taken to the women’s toilets for “personal identification” by female police officers. This night the women refused to go and everyone refused to produce their IDs. The police decided to arrest practically everyone present and transport them to the police station.

Some patrons were allowed to leave but they decided to congregate outside the entrance rather than head home. The patrol wagons were unusually late and soon the outside crowd was hundreds strong, then thousands. Those released performed for the crowd, including giving the police exaggerated salutes. Some formed a chorus line doing high kicks. Applause encouraged them.

The general mood of good humour and amusement began to change when the police began pushing those arrested into the arriving patrol wagons.

One woman in handcuffs escaped repeatedly and scuffled with four police officers. She had been hit on the head with a baton for complaining her handcuffs were too tight.

As an officer picked her up and was heaving her into the back of the wagon, the woman (whose identity is unknown but believed to be Stormé DeLarverie) shouted out to bystanders “Why don’t you guys do something?”.

It was at that moment that the scene became explosive. The crowd erupted and fought back against the police. The years of frustration sparked riots that lasted for six days and involving thousands of protesters. Most importantly, the riots were widely reported by the media.

In keeping with the time, and the many counter-culture movements, campaigning for civil and equal rights, LGBTQ communities became emboldened and more confrontational. Gay rights organisations sprung up everywhere. In Australia C.A.M.P. (the Campaign Against Moral Persecution) was formed in Sydney in 1970.

One year after the riots, on the anniversary, the first gay pride marches were held in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago spreading internationally the following year.

As a 15 year old I was oblivious to those events in New York but nonetheless I was in turmoil as a teenager: dealing with my sexuality and totally confused by it. I had no resources available. There simply were none available and I felt totally isolated.

I recall asking those why me questions, why am I different, what or who am I? At that time all gay imagery was in the form of flamboyant stereotypes with whom I certainly did not identify. I so wanted to be just like my peers and would have done anything to achieve it.

When I realised what I was, and how friends and family would respond, that realisation lead me to self-harm. A scenario common to many in the gay community. Only with time did the road to self-acceptance begin.

Times have fortunately changed but the recent past is a dark one.

In 1972 South Australian police murdered a gay academic by throwing him in the Torrens River. At least 27 gay men were murdered in Sydney in the 1980s and 90s during a hate wave and gay bashing was seemingly a national pastime.

Yes, Victoria did not repeal the death penalty for acts of homosexuality until 1949 and Western Australia still was able to sentence gay men to 14 years hard labour until 1989.

Being gay was considered, legally, a lifestyle choice even in the legislation decriminalising homosexuality in Western Australia; and yes, the gay panic excuse for murdering a gay man is still legal in South Australia.

Today, 50 years on, many in the gay community question the need for Pride particularly millennials who mainstream their socialising rather than being restricted to the gay venues that were our sanctuaries 20 years ago.

The general equality the gay community now enjoys in Australia is still largely denied the trans community; and one does not have to look far to see how much of the world still lives in fear. Brunei is just one recent example. 71 countries consider being gay illegal and of these 8 proscribe the death penalty.

There has not been a civilisation, culture, society, religion, race or community in history that has not had gay people within it. Sexuality is a diverse rainbow not simply defined by heterosexual male and heterosexual female.

If you’re growing up in Australia today, navigating your identity, your sexuality and connecting with society in general, it is important to understand how LGBTQ identity has evolved over time. How history, the actions of individuals and events such as the Stonewall Riots have contributed to that.

If you believe there is little of relevance for you about connecting with those who were involved in those events of 1969 then you need to remember that it is because of what those people began, what those lifetimes of harassment and discrimination ignited, that enables us to proudly identify as ourselves. It’s due to those people that we can live openly as ourselves, get married if we want, have families if we want, the freedom to pursue the lives that we want.

We honour those people, and it is because of them and the many millions of others persecuted and murdered throughout history, that we continue to march Proudly.

If it was not for those people of Greenwich Village in 1969 who had finally had enough of harassment and discrimination, who felt that they had nothing left to lose, and fought back against the tyranny of oppression: where would we be today?

But let us not forget those who do not enjoy what we enjoy. This year we celebrate the equality recognised in Taiwan and Botswana. Our Pride must continue to seek equality and stand in support for LGBTQ communities around the world who face violence, even death, through oppression for just being who they are.

The United States calls itself the Land of the Free. Yet the year after the Stonewall Riots the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA first proposed in 1923) was introduced into the US Congress seeking to amend the US Constitution to give equal rights to men and women. The wording is simple:

“No political, civil, or legal disabilities or inequalities on account of sex or on account of marriage, unless applying equally to both sexes, shall exist within the United States or any territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”

The Land of the Free has still to adopt the Amendment and accept that women are equal to men not under the law but in fact. The Me Too scandals and the attempt to roll back Roe vs Wade show the fragility of respect for human rights.

This day, therefore, commemorating the 50th anniversary of such a significant event in the history of equal rights, let us remember not just those people of the Stonewall Riots and all others who have contributed to attaining those rights, but let us remember that we need to keep marching, we need to keep remembering, because we need to continue to maintain vigilance for ourselves and fight so that all may enjoy equal rights.

Ken Gibbons

Want to learn more about Stonewall? Amnesty International LGBTI Action Group WA and Amnesty International Curtin are screening the documentary Stonewall Uprising today at 6:30pm at Curtin University. 


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Posted by OUTinPerth on Wednesday, June 26, 2019


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