Stonewall: 50 years on and why we're still fighting

Stonewall riots image by Getty
Stonewall riots, 1969, image by Getty

On June 28th, Virgin Atlantic’s pride flight will touch down in New York to celebrate 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. But why do LGBTQ+ and allies celebrate Pride each year, and what does Stonewall have to do with anything?

It was an unlikely place for a civil rights movement to begin.

The Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich village didn’t even have running water. But in 1969, when being gay was deemed as illegal as rape or robbery, it was one of the few places people could dance, let their hair down and just be themselves.

Patrons were protected by the local mafia, who would pay police off in return for a tidy sum from revellers and bar owners. The cash was nicknamed "gayola", and for a time, it worked.

Stonewall Inn image by Getty

It was a period of rampant discrimination against homosexuals. Hundreds of men were being arrested each week, and the mafia couldn’t keep paying the police off forever.

At 1.20am on the June 28th, police kicked the door to the Stonewall Inn down. 

The raid itself was bad, but what made it even worse was that the police demanded to see ID. Stonewall was a haven for underage drinkers exploring their sexuality, and there were also a number of homeless people and lesbians who’d come to hang out and chat. As being gay was illegal at the time, and they were drinking in a bar which was unlicensed, they were reluctant to hand over their ID. The police ordered everyone to go to the police station, and in protest, someone threw a shot glass at a window, where it smashed.

A crowd gathered outside. People were kicked out of the bar as tensions rose and the crowd began to swell. Here was a group of people frustrated with being frisked and searched because of their sexuality, and they were simmering.

As customers were manhandled into wagons, the crowd snapped. They threw coins, cans and glasses at police. Then it got angrier, fuelled by hundreds of years of history, oppression and persecution. The police manhandled some of the lesbian patrons and a transvestite hit an officer in the face with their purse.

The riots grew more unruly. Protesters threw fuel-filled bottles at the police, and reclaimed the word ‘gay’, shouting ‘“Gay Power” as they marched.

Stonewall Inn

Reuters interviewed a man called Randy Wicker who was at Stonewall Inn fifty years ago.  “It’s like Rosa Parks when she wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. You can only push people around for so long. And once they get a certain sense of self-respect, they say I’m tired of being treated this way, they resist.”

The crowd was broken up, but the riots didn’t stop. The gay community mobilised and went out onto the streets night after night.

The riots ushered in a new, radical voice, and a group representing gay voices was founded - the Gay Liberation Front.

“‘Gay’ as a word was a new, dynamic radical word to use. We were the first organisation that actually called ourselves gay and that was an offensive word to many people. We were naming ourselves and identifying ourselves and finally out of the closet and open and radical,” activist John Knoebel said.

Despite the pivot towards greater visibility, gay rights universally are still poor. We may look at the Stonewall Riots as a turning point for a marginalised group of people, but the same riots and the same protests are happening across the world right now. This year a lesbian couple were assualted on a bus in the UK, and a 12-year-old teenager knifed a gay couple in Liverpool. 

Richard Branson has campaigned tirelessly for greater visibility of gay rights and for far-reaching reforms. He has campaigned against LGBT+ discrimination in Kenya and won an OUTstanding ally award in 2014 for his work promoting LGBT+ visibility across businesses.

In Tbilisi, Georgia, their gay pride march has been postponed multiple times due to violent threats. In Brunei you can now be stoned for being gay. In Indonesia, both women and men are lashed if found with a member of the same sex.

It’s crucial to still recognise persecution exists. We must commit to end it, and remember that thousands are still fighting for exactly the same rights those at Stonewall pushed for 50 years ago.  

Virgin Atlantic's Pride Flight will take off from London Heathrow and land in New York City on June 29th 2019. 

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