From Safe Spaces to the Streets: Pride on the 47th Anniversary of Stonewall

The following guest post comes to us via Kelley Dupps, public policy manager for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.

pride flagsEarlier this month, the nation was shocked by a mass shooting — the deadliest in our history — at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Gay bars have a long history of giving customers a safe place where they can be free from the hatred and bigotry that might surround them in their everyday lives. At least, they’re safe places until the hatred and bigotry of the outside world are visited upon them. In Orlando, that hatred and bigotry took the form of a heavily armed gunman who targeted the LGTBQ community with an assault rifle. In the wake of this tragedy, some wonder if the fight against gun violence will be reinvigorated by the LGBTQ community’s spirit of activism. It would not be the first time that major social change was born from the violation of a safe space by the forces of hatred and bigotry.

From Stonewall to Pulse, patrons of LGBTQ clubs seek a niche of acceptance and space to breathe joy.

Tuesday, June 28, marks the 47th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — a three-day riot in New York City in 1969 that started the modern movement for LGBTQ+ equality.* The Stonewall Inn — the birthplace of the Stonewall Riots — became the first LGBT national historical monument this month. Remembering Stonewall is a way to honor our LGBTQ+ forebears and the sacrifices they made, and a way to reclaim power as a community to fight for systemic equality for all people.

The Stonewall Inn never set out to make history. If anything, the Mafia-owned bar paid off local beat cops to raid other bars that catered to a certain clientele, while leaving the Stonewall alone. But the Inn would be the site of the beginnings of a movement that started with rage, fire, and riots and found itself advocating for justice, equality, and love for all.

Stonewall Inn, 2009. Photo: Charles Hutchins

Stonewall Inn, 2009. Photo: Charles Hutchins

The Stonewall Inn was not a stereotypical gay bar like we think of today: disco ball, great music, overpriced drinks. It had served as two horse stables in its previous life and the (Mafia) owners had done little to improve the atmosphere. It was more of a speakeasy than discotheque: hushed whispers, shadowed corners, and overpriced drinks. Some traditions live on.

Like so many other niches that have felt like home, this dark, intimate place offered — even under the threat of arrest and harassment — a safe place to be yourself. To be able to exhale and breathe joy — even if it just lasted the night.

At this time — 1969 — there was a New York state law that made it unlawful to employ or serve liquor to a “known homosexual.” So it’s understandable why the patrons were surprised on that hot summer night when the cops busted through — arresting anyone in “violation,” which was code for too queer. Were you just a bit too obvious? Can’t pass? You were in handcuffs that sticky June night waiting for the patrol wagon to arrive. Apparently there was traffic that night, because the wagon was late.

But there was something different in the thick air that night. The language of liberation was alive and the community chorus of rage against the machine could no longer be ignored. As residents and neighbors of the Stonewall began to gather and inquire about what the entire ruckus was about, and learned of the raid and subsequent arrests, people erupted in righteous rage — enough was enough!

After years of being targeted and shamed, there was a swell of anger that could no longer be contained. Bottles began to fly and trashcans were set on fire. Police cruisers and riot cops were harmed during the three-day event that would become known as the Stonewall Riots — the beginning of the LGBTQ+ equality movement (formerly known as the gay rights movement).

Make no mistake: This was an uprising of marginalized queer folks — butches, femmes, trans folks, and drag queens; brown, black, and white folks who had enough erupted with a common purpose that night. During the fight for civil rights in the 1960s and ’70s, riots were the language of the unheard — queer folks, black folks, farm workers, Native Americans. There were riots, standoffs, and marches that shut down traffic — sound familiar? Gay Pride marches began in cities across the nation in June 1970 to commemorate the Stonewall Riots and to call for more acknowledgement and acceptance of the gay community. There were marches in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Marches were not parades. People didn’t get a parade permit to take to the streets. Local churches were not making rainbow floats for a march. Marches were about communities taking back power from those who use that power to oppress. (Does that sound like a wonky dissertation or what?!) If you were passionate, you took your message and your people to the streets! This is how messaging was done before there was Twitter.

san-francisco-pride1But in all seriousness, Pride was often a BFD. You were publicly outing yourself — publicly acknowledging your queerness (let alone, being proud of it?!). If you were seen at one of Those Pride Things, you could be outed to your family, your job, or your hometown. Media coverage often included flamboyant gay men kissing, drag queens, and a leather daddy in assless chaps. It was good TV, but a limiting view of the community.

I was deluded as a youngster to believe that “We the People” meant all of us (even if you’re assigned female at birth, black or brown, queer or straight, young or old) — I mean it — everyone. This is my America, and there will be rainbows and glitter and unicorns! Also equality. Pride, too, began to be about more than flamboyance — it started to be about people. We the people. Real people with real lives who were not acknowledged, protected, or celebrated — and that was simply unfair.

As Pride evolved, so did the LGBTQ+ community, and frankly, so did the country. This evolution happened not because it was profoundly unfair that LGBTQ+ folks were excluded from “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not because LGBTQ+ folks were unable to access the 1,139 rights and responsibilities one is afforded in marriage, but because we came out. Actual face-to-face feelings are rare these days with text, snap chatting, and all the other ways we avoid human interaction, but LGBTQ+ rights would not have been recognized had we not shared something core about who we are with someone in our lives.

We came out as queer people, allies, and people who love and advocate for queer folks; we came out as LGBTQ+ parents and parents of LGBTQ+ children. We came out as gay Republicans and as queer undocumented migrants; we told our parents, our children, our bosses, and our friends. Some of us lost the people with whom we shared that core part of our being. Some of us were met with unconditional love. Some of us are still figuring it out.

Through Pride, we as queer people were able to connect to a family of choice, to a culture we yearned to live out loud. That’s what the patrons of the Stonewall Inn sought in 1969: a niche of momentary acceptance and space to breathe joy. And the patrons of Pulse in Orlando were seeking the same haven that tragic night.

I wonder if we will remember Orlando as the beginning of a new kind of movement; one that starts not with riots but with repeated massacres of coworkers, school children, parents, straight and LGBTQ+ folks. We need to come out as people against hate and violence; against the never-ending armament happening in this country. Nearly 1 in 3 people is touched by gun violence.

We the People — all the people — need to be involved in a movement that recognizes all the intersections where we are at risk for violence and harassment simply because of who we are. We must disarm hate because no one is free until we are all free.

We must all be a voice against gun violence. TAKE ACTION! Contact your elected officials today.

* Regarding LGBTQ+ Terms: Gay was often used as an umbrella term in the 1970s to mean someone who is not straight/heterosexual. Eventually, that evolved into Gay and Lesbian and then to LGBT. Then there’s the Q for Queer (one of those reclamation terms) or Questioning. This alphabet soup of identities will change again the more we learn about one another and what personal autonomy looks like. Queer is used in this essay as an umbrella term for any and all who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.