The 45th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots: Still Here, Still Queer, Still Not Used to It

The Gay Liberation Front, pictured here in 1969, formed in response to the Stonewall Riots. Image: PBS

The Gay Liberation Front formed in 1969 in response to the Stonewall Riots.

In 1969, homosexuality was illegal in 49 states. It was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, and it was not unheard of for those who identified as homosexual or transgender to undergo extreme treatments such as lobotomies or castration in an attempt to “cure” their conditions. If it was discovered that you were gay, you were blacklisted. Doctors and lawyers lost their licenses. Your home address was published in major newspapers. You were dishonorably discharged from military service. Non-gender-conforming people were refused service in public establishments, found it difficult to receive health care, and were routinely arrested for indecent behavior — behavior that was often simply being transgender. Society expected that you assimilate with heteronormative ideals by presenting as the gender you were born with, marrying the opposite sex, and having children.

Saturday will be the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. We have come a long way since then, but still have more work to do.

In the late 1960s, Greenwich Village was a progressive neighborhood in New York City that also served as a respite for the LGBTQ community of the time, including the poorest and most disenfranchised. The Village was also home to numerous establishments frequented by LGBTQ patrons in a time when they could not publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation or identity, lest they be arrested. These establishments — which included the Stonewall Inn (a mafia-run bar) — were often the subject of police raids.

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn was raided by the New York City Police Department, just as it had been many times before. This time, Stonewall patrons did not allow themselves to be shoved into the backs of police cars. Forty-five years later, details of the riot remain conflicting and vague, but what is agreed upon is that Stormé DeLarverie — also known as King Stormé, a drag king in the drag group Jewel Box Revue — is credited with throwing the first punch in reaction to being shoved by police. With this punch, the Stonewall crowd exploded into a full-blown violent demonstration. Participants saw the violence of which they were so often the recipients suddenly being turned back on their oppressors.

The riots lasted for six nights, and crowds of LGBTQ individuals and other activists, including anti-war demonstrators and the Black Panthers, grew to more than 1,000 as they rose against the system that rejected and oppressed them. Witnesses recall seeing fires started throughout the neighborhood and objects thrown at the police, including Molotov cocktails. The Stonewall Riots served as the catalyst to the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. It was the first time in history gays and lesbians could be open about their sexual orientation without being arrested.

Stonewall Inn, 2009. Photo: Charles Hutchins

Stonewall Inn, 2009. Photo: Charles Hutchins

Today, it may feel as though the LGBTQ community has achieved equal status with its hetero- and cissexual counterparts, especially due to the dissolution of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 and the subsequent dissolution of same-sex marriage bans in states throughout the nation. While the freedom to choose to marry may be important, marriage is not equality. One should not have to marry in order to receive the financial and health benefits offered by the federal government — especially when simply trying to survive is the most important goal on the mind of so many.

In 2014, there are no federal laws in place to protect individuals who are transgender and non-gender conforming. In addition to the right to marriage and the right to a family, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948) includes the right to desirable work, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the right to an adequate living standard. Transgender and non-gender-conforming individuals routinely face discrimination when trying to obtain housing, health care, and work — the three most basic aspects one requires to stay alive. A 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that transgender individuals were four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, 41 percent had attempted suicide, and more than 60 percent were the victims of physical assault, sexual assault, or both.

Further, in a 2011 study performed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, heterosexual couples are favored over homosexual couples in the housing market. Senior LGBTQ citizens are statistically more likely to be poorer, less healthy, and more isolated than their hetero- and cissexual equivalents. They also face discrimination in assisted living facilities. For LGBTQ youth, 80 percent of LGBTQ middle and high school students report they have experienced verbal harassment at school, while 60 percent report feeling unsafe. LGB youth are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their straight peers. Finally, according to a 2013 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 53.8 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims in 2012 were transgender women. Of LGBTQ victims of violence who filed police reports, 48 percent reported police misconduct.

The Stonewall Riots were the physical manifestation of very real, justifiable LGBTQ anger after years of being rejected, oppressed, and killed by both their country and fellow citizens. While it is currently neither illegal nor considered a mental disorder to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, too many people still lack the ability to live free of discrimination, fear, or punishment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. While a rapidly growing percentage of the U.S. LGBTQ community is now legally able to marry, the issues that spawned the riots — issues of survival, protection, and human dignity that should be available regardless of marital status — still exist. Until the LGBTQ community is afforded these rights by their government and their people, they will remain without equality.