It’s been two movies, one major theatre production, and 47 years since the historic Stonewall riots broke out on Christopher Street, New York. Stonewall began simply as a bar without a liquor license. Even though it intended to be a safe space for gay clientele in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the bar was raided by city police in the early hours of the morning of 28th June, 1969.
It was institutionalized hatred for ‘sexual deviants’ that caused the raid and unlawful detention of Stonewall patrons that night, and it was the same hatred that killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, this side of five decades. Today we remember the two events that appear to bracket the modern queer rights movement, both of which involved a people laying claim to an accepting space that is routinely denied to them in many of their homes, schools, workplaces, churches, governments, and even bakeries and flower shops.
Equal rights movements have been growing, both collectively and uniquely, out of different places in the world, intersecting with issues of race, sexuality, age, disability, gender, economic opportunity, immigration and more, but it was really the aftermath of Stonewall that gave the queer rights movement a more collaborative and organizational thrust, and it remains till date a defining symbol of the movement. On two separate occasions between 2000 and 2015, the Inn was given landmark status and only four days ago was rechristened the Stonewall National Monument. It now encompasses the 8 acres surrounding it as well, and is the only monument under the National Parks System dedicated to LGBTQ history.
The memorialization of the struggles, losses, determination and achievements of the queer community in the United States was led by President Barack Obama on 24th June, 2016. “The riots became protests. The protests became a movement. The movement ultimately became an integral part of America,” said Obama.
LGBTQ Americans have fought long and hard to be considered “an integral part” of their country – something that appears like a distant dream for many of us in other countries. The anniversary of Stonewall gives us the opportunity to reevaluate queer history so far, both in the USA and the rest of the world. Criticism around Roland Emmerich’s ‘Stonewall’ movie have exposed the ways in which already sparse queer visibility becomes limited to white cisgender men. The prominent figures in Stonewall were actually two trans women of colour – African-American AIDS activist Marsha P. Johnson, and Peurto-Rican gay liberation activist Sylvia Rae Rivera – both of whom co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which played a big role in trans rights legislations in New York.
The whitewashing of the queer movement in Emmerich’s movie was allowed to happen only because of some very real life whitewashing. It also became important to invoke the “latinx” identity of many of those killed by Omar Mateen in Orlando, to talk about how ethnicity, language, and the general political debates on immigration seep into the experience of being queer in America today. Similarly, the issue of euro-centricism has also been raised by queer activists working out of countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the far East. Civilizationally, European and non-European countries have had their individual histories of non-normative genders and sexualities. The overlaps have been beneficial, but when the differences were neglected, the movements suffered.
In 1969, Stonewall was the signal fire – it was the restlessness that grew out of having your humanity denied. Now a literal monumental reminder of how far LGBTQ rights has come (and how far it must go), it stands for humanity asserted. Stonewall may have been an incident rooted in its time and its national culture, but there is no reason it cannot remain and inspiration for movements everywhere. And this is why we remember stonewall.