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Saturday, June 25, 2022

We must not forget our history – Pride was born out of protest

Audrey Black looks back at the Stonewall Riots from which the first Pride March was born.

As the queer community and allies celebrate Pride this year, it is important to reflect on the history of the queer liberation movement. The face of queerness commonly seen in media is white, cis, and male, but the people at the forefront of the movement have historically been gender non-conforming people of colour. This is exemplified by the event which led to the creation of Pride as a month-long celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, the Stonewall Riots. Pride began as a protest against homophobia, transphobia, and police brutality.

In the 1960s, queerness and the appearance of queerness were illegal in the United States. The American Psychiatric Association believed homosexuality was a mental illness and it was listed as a disorder. Individuals were required to wear at least three articles of “gender-appropriate clothing” or they could be arrested. Queer people were forced to hide their relationships and their true selves under the threat of arrest and violence. There was no protection for LGBTQ+ people facing hate crimes— in fact, police officers were frequently the perpetrators of such crimes. 

In a system created to work against them, queer people created underground communities in which they could be themselves. They created traditions like the Sunday Tea Dances, a midday party on Sundays where queer people could dance and drink with each other. The few establishments which allowed them in were typically bars associated with organised crime, even though it was illegal at the time to serve LGBTQ+ people alcohol. One such bar was the Stonewall Inn, which was owned by the Mafia. The Stonewall Inn was known for allowing in the most marginalised people in the LGBTQ+ community: transgender people, sex workers, ‘butch’ lesbians, drag queens, and homeless youth.

On June 28, 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn. They attempted to arrest the attendees, acting aggressively and violently, especially towards the people of colour. The attendees mocked the officers with chants and songs. Members of the community who had not been at the bar that night began arriving in support and the crowd grew. When an officer began beating a handcuffed woman, identified by some as Stormé DeLarverie, she yelled, “Why don’t you guys do something?” It was at that point the agitated crowd erupted into action. The officers were pursuing bribes from the Mafia, so the bar patrons began throwing coins at them, then objects like bricks and bottles. This escalated into six days of continuous riots and protests. Prominent figures in the underground community, such as Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Craig Rodwell, organised further protests and campaigns against police violence. These events are often cited as the beginning of the movement for LGBTQ+ rights.

A year later, on June 28, organisers commemorated these events with Christopher Street Liberation Day, named after the street the Stonewall Inn is located on. Activists marched through the streets of New York City in protest of the violence queer people faced at the hands of the police. This march was the first Gay Pride march in U.S. history. In the years following, Christopher Street Liberation Day spread to other cities and eventually other countries. It has become a tradition internationally to hold demonstrations for queer liberation in the summer. 

When celebrating Pride, queer people must remember our collective history. Pride would not exist without the leaders of the liberation movement, many of whom were queer people of colour and gender non-conforming. Celebration is an imperative aspect of Pride, as queer joy is inherently revolutionary. There is plenty of progress to celebrate, however, we cannot forget the injustices which queer people, particularly queer people of colour, continue to face. Pride is about protesting injustice and institutional violence.

Note: The author has included a number of educational resources, reports, and interviews with those who participated in the Stonewall Riots. These can be found as links throughout the article.

Illustration by Rachel Jung

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