Imagine leaving your favorite bar or club in the wee hours of the morning only to be greeted by a police raid. Imagine being assaulted, arrested, or even molested by an officer just for being in a gay club. This was the reality in 1969 when the first of the Stonewall riots took place on June 28. New York City, probably one of the biggest safe havens for gays in our generation, was once so desperate to rid itself of our community that it took drastic measures to try to keep them down and out. Many of us have never experienced anything close to this level of discrimination, and it is a good idea to see where we’ve come from to appreciate where we are about to go.
That night, all members of the LGBT alphabet stood together for the first time.
We celebrate Pride in June in remembrance of the brave men and women that stood their ground that night at the Stonewall Inn. The first to scuffle with the police were an outspoken lesbian, a drag queen, and the homeless youth that slept in Christopher Park. Their home was Stonewall, and it was going to be taken away. That night, all members of the LGBT alphabet stood together for the first time. Perhaps, that doesn’t seem very controversial, but at the time, that kind of unity was monumental. Not everyone in the gay community felt positively about these riots, however. Many of the homophile groups, using peaceful protests, found these acts of violence to be detrimental to the work they were trying to do. But for those poorer and less fortunate gay and trans men and women, the time for peaceful protest seemed to be over. Within six months two aggressive activist groups had formed: The Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. A year later, on June 28, 1970, the first gay pride marches took place in NYC, LA, and Chicago. Massive strides for Gay liberation were being made, very quickly.
The 70s continued to see massive leaps forward in Gay Civil Rights. We were hot off of the heels of Integration, and we seemed to be steam rolling towards equality at an incredible rate. Soon, there were gay publications like “Coming Out,” and “Gay Power.” Our biggest hindrance was the fact that so many of the members of the gay community remained hidden. Homophile interest groups no longer had to keep their intentions a secret. We had groups springing up like PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which provided us with straight allies that we sorely needed to bolster our efforts. Politicians like Nancy Wechsler, and Harvey Milk were coming out of the closet. A few years later in 1973, we reached another milestone when homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder.
When Dan White assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1979, White was given a lenient sentence of voluntary manslaughter, igniting a new violent passion in the gay community that hadn’t been seen since Stonewall. What began as a peaceful protest in the Castro district of San Francisco, is now known as the White Night Riots.
GAYS WERE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER, WHILE STRAIGHTS SAW THIS AS PROOF OF THE PERVERSION OF HOMOSEXUALITY. IT SEEMED THAT WE WERE BEING COSMICALLY PUNISHED, AND ALL THE PROGRESS WE HAD MADE WAS BEING CHIPPED AWAY.
No one could have predicted what was coming next. The AIDS epidemic hit hard and fast, and before anyone knew what had hit them, the Gay Rights Movement seemed to go from a shout to a whisper. A strangling fear swept in on people on both sides of the issue. Gays were afraid of each other, while straights saw this as proof of the perversion of homosexuality. It seemed that we were being cosmically punished, and all the progress we had made was being chipped away.
The 80s were indeed a dark time, but there were still glimmers of hope in the likes of the kindness of Tammy Faye Baker, a minister’s wife that spoke out against the Moral Majority’s hatred and condemnation of gays, and The Human Rights Campaign, founded in 1980, that still remains an influential force within our culture. In a bold move, the popular primetime television series, “Dynasty,” was the first American program to feature a gay character, Al Corley as Steven Carrington, in a lead role. These were merely a couple of the whispers in this very dark time, letting us know that there was hope.
The 90s brought its own set of triumphs and defeats. We may have gotten more of a grasp on HIV, but with the implementation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, we saw yet another set back. Although some saw DADT as a way to at least bring up the issue of gays in the military in a political forum, it did more harm than the good that it was intended to do.
In September 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was enacted, explicitly defining marriage as being between a man and woman only and suddenly we were now fighting the gay marriage war on the religious and federal fronts. On the brighter side, we saw more gays in television. Although Ellen’s choice to come out on her show didn’t yield the success she would have liked, subsequent programs like “Will & Grace” thrived, along with the racy, boundary-pushing portrayal of gay life that we saw with “Queer as Folk.
The early 2000s saw a huge victory as the sodomy laws in 14 states were repealed, now making gay sex legal in all 50 states. We were free to love, but still not to marry, even though we started to see the implementation of civil unions. Hawaii had experimented with something similar in the late 90s, but seemed to waiver in its feelings on the subject. California was the first to pass a law legalizing “gay marriage,” in contrast to civil unions, but unfortunately, this is the event that led to Proposition 8, which passed in late 2008 right after the election. Prop 8, as we know, made it illegal for same-sex couples to marry, once more. Many from the LGBT community have taken photos for the “NOH8” campaign started by photographer Adam Bouska and his partner to overturn this ruling.
We are a force to be reckoned with
Today, we have already seen the dissolution of DADT. Propostion 8 and DOMA are being decided on at the highest level of our country’s judicial system. The LGBT community has a foothold in the mainstream media and culture. Celebrities like Lily Tomlin, Billie Jean King, Neil Patrick Harris, Portia DeRossi, and even RuPaul are beaming into our television screens, making it possible for the rest of the world to see us for what we are…human. We are a force to be reckoned with as barrier after barrier seems to come down. Despite battles with HIV/AIDS, the Moral Majority, the Government, and a fast food company, we are a culture that has persevered. We’ve come too far to slink back into the shadows. It’s hard to imagine a time when violent protests were needed to have our voice heard. Just be glad we don’t have to throw bricks anymore.
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