On 24th June, President Obama unveiled a new national US monument. In a long list of prolific monuments (including Mount Rushmore, The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and the 9/11 memorial), this monument perhaps looks out of place.
It is a bar. From the outside, this aged-old bar doesn’t look like much. But, on the inside, it’s hiding a history that represents community, equality and the fight for freedom. This new national American monument is, in fact, the Stonewall Inn – the gay bar that saw a turn in the fight for LGBTQ equality.
The Stonewall Inn had been a haven for the LGBTQ community of Manhattan. During the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s that sought to investigate and trial anyone deemed to have communist ties, it was stated in an official government investigation that ‘those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons’. Homosexuals were described by the US government as a ‘security risk’.
It was a time of deep-set homophobia. Homosexual intercourse was illegal in every state in America except Illinois. It was illegal to knowingly serve gay people alcohol. It was illegal for homosexuals to dance together. Electric shock therapy was still used as a means of ‘conversion’. Homosexuality was deemed a psychiatric disorder until 1973. To be a homosexual in 1960s America, meant to risk your life to have an identity.
The Stonewall Inn was a place for the illegal run by the illegal. As, indeed, the bar was run and owned by the local mafia. As the bar had no license to sell liquor, the local police were paid off every week to prevent them from raiding it.
One night on the 28th June 1969, everything changed. The lights in the bar were switched off. Confusion broke out. The bar had been raided by the police, with several undercover agents having already infiltrated the LGBTQ sanctuary.
From the outset, the raid did not go according to plan. Transgender people refused to verify their sex to the police, and the arrival of a police wagon was delayed. Police officers were brutally treating those who refused to cooperate and, with the delay of the second police wagon, the Stonewall customers who were being made to stand on the street were becoming increasingly restless.
One of the rioters, Michael Fader, explained that:
“We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit […] It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us […] 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 and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we were going to fight for it.”
Or, perhaps the reason for the shock of the riot was because, as one spectator more bluntly put it: ‘when did you ever see a fag fight back?’
And that is exactly what they did.
The riots were totally spontaneous, leading to a total of six nights of rioting. Bricks were thrown at the police, bottles went flying through the windows of the Stonewall, police wagons overturned. With leading roles form a series of black drag queens and homeless youth, the riots are symbolic in the history of LGBTQ history. As one police officer of the time said, ‘the cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened.’ Despite its name suggesting a sense of strength, the Stonewall Inn was left in rubbles after the riots.
If this all sounds like something incredibly underground and even almost exciting, this is because it was. The repercussions of being gay, bisexual or trans in 1969 meant that the gay community was an underground movement. It was a subculture that transgressed against the dominant conservative social attitudes. In being forced underground, it gave the LGBTQ a grit and rugged passion that was different to anything seen before; the Stonewall Riots were the first time in many of these rioters’ lives where they were publically, and unashamedly, gay.
By making the Stonewall Inn a national monument, Obama is cementing the LGBTQ community’s place in history. Despite not being one of the most well-known battles for equality, the riots have been described as ‘the Rosa Parks moment’ for the LGBTQ struggle.
However, the statement is also problematic.
Everyone has heard of Rosa Parks. Everyone has heard of Martin Luther King Jr. Every year, schools across the UK celebrate Black History Month – and rightly so. The Black Civil Rights movement was a monumental and long-overdue drive for racial equality that inspired people from all walks of life. In fact, the momentum gathered by the Black Civil Rights movement directly inspired the work of gay activists. It showed activists a new-found resilience to hope. It provided them with a toughened edge. However, what makes Stonewall distinct from Rosa Parks’ infamous bus incident, is that Stonewall is not necessarily an event known by the masses.
In failing to provide awareness towards LGBTQ struggles and issues, we are failing our LGBTQ youth and community. In fact, as a result of Margret Thatcher’s Local Government Agreement, it was illegal to promote homosexual values in schools up until 2002. In a 2014 report, 29% of secondary schools teachers even said they were unsure if they were allowed to talk about homosexual issues.
We have crossed many milestones. Now let’s ensure that we don’t fail our closeted LGBTQ youth by letting them know that they’re not alone in a history of oppression. Times are changing. And it’s up to us to ensure they continue to do so.
By cementing the LGBTQ struggle, history and message of equality by making the Stonewall Inn a national monument, Obama is ensuring the preservation of gay rights. In a time where LGBTQ rights have been threated due to the homophobic attack in Orlando, it’s more important now than ever that we remember Stonewall. That we remember the struggle it represents. That we remember what happens when we refuse to listen to a group of people who feel they have had their voices silenced – perhaps something that the MPs down in Parliament could do with learning from in the wake of the EU referendum.
It is only by remembering the past that we can remain grateful of the present. The past has a sobering effect that allows us to appreciate, rather than take for granted, our progression as a society.
There’s something we can all gain from the events of the 28th June, 1969. So, here’s to Stonewall, the forgotten battle for quality.
Words by Juliette Rowsell