June is Pride Month, a time when many LGBTQ+ people around the world are looking forward to meeting new people, coming out, addressing their issues, and voicing themselves in public. India is no exception.
Mumbai hosted its Gay Pride Parade on February 3, 2018. First, it intrigued me as to why there was a pride event in February. Although it wasn’t so much of a surprise as many countries, including the UK and Hungary, do celebrate pride in February. I wanted to know what’s the story behind Mumbai’s choice. So I decided to talk to people just before Pride, to find answers.
At first, I was a bit hesitant as I was very new to all this. After a while, when I felt comfortable, made a few attempts at talking to people, but I gave up hope as the crowd grew. My quest was inconclusive. But I had made several contacts there and decided to pursue the conversation on social media. Yet again I was let down, and this paved way for me to inquire how many people actually know about the history of Pride.
I was shocked to learn how little young people knew about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the founding mothers of the modern-day gay rights movement. The fact that most of them did not know about the Stonewall Inn, then, was no surprise.
Stonewall has an interesting history. It all started in the 1950s and 1960s when homosexuality was illegal in 49 US States. Punishments varied from hefty fines to imprisonment. LGBTQ+ people were subjected to widespread homophobic prejudice, harassment by law enforcement, and discrimination.
Gay bars became havens for people with diverse sexual and gender orientation. The Stonewall Inn was a popular refuge among the LGBTQ+ community in New York City. However, the Stonewall Inn was owned by the mafia who bribed the police to stay out of their matters.
The mafia made money by selling drinks and snacks at an exorbitant price and extorting rich LGBTQ+ patrons by threatening to “out them” to their employers and families.
However, despite the mafia’s bribery, the police regularly raided LGBTQ+ bars and arrested people for solicitation of homosexual behaviour, public indecency, and for not wearing ‘gender-appropriate’ clothing.
All this changed in the early hours of June 28, 1969, when the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn. The cops reached there and tried to arrest bartenders and patrons. Many believe that the revolution started when Marsha P. Johnson threw the first shot at the police. That’s when hundreds of LGBTQ+ people started rioting outside Stonewall. This is what is known as the Stonewall Riots; it is considered a turning point in Gay Rights history.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were two selfless trans women who were at the Stonewall Inn to celebrate Marsha’s birthday. They hardly had enough money to feed themselves, they had nothing to lose. So when Marsha hit back, it was heard around the world by people who were in her shoes.
On the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the first Gay Pride was held by the Gay Liberation Front, the first organization to openly advocate for equal gay rights. Decades later, in June 2016, then-President Barack Obama declared Stonewall Inn and areas surrounding it, where the riots broke out, as a National Monument. If it weren’t for those rioters, we wouldn’t have Pride parades and the kind of sensitizing programmes we have now.
All this felt obsolete when I talked to people. I felt that as a community, we’ve made progress but have failed to educate our younger generations. The media also failed to show this history, sadly.
Pop culture loves ‘the gay lifestyle’ but has failed to stand up for the community’s issues. It has failed young LGBTQ+ people by not providing them with role models to look up to. It has over-sexualized the LGBTQ+ community. In India, Bollywood is no exception, with zero to no representation, and giving queer characters roles that only hurt the community by re-enforcing gender stereotypes.
The LGBTQ+ community needs more representation. It needs proper and responsible representation in media. Our media, as well as the LGBTQ+ community, needs to sensitize the younger generation of queer people about their history and struggle. The queer rights movement is a part of our history and so it should be included in the school curriculum as well, only then there’s progress for everyone.
Happy Pride Month.
Rest in pride, Marsha.
Rest in pride, Sylvia.