A partial transcript of Episode 15 of THE ART MOVEMENT. To listen to the full radio show, click here.
This year marks a special edition of Pride becayse it marks the 50th anniversary of the marches that took place on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which are often referred to as the first Gay Pride parade. It’s worth revisiting this important page in the history of the western world because I feel that people just don’t really know about it so here’s a simplified overview of what occurred on one hot summer night of 1969 in New York City. But let’s take it from the top.
In 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar located in New York City’s Greenwich Village that served as a haven for the city’s gay, lesbian and transgender community. At the time, homosexual acts remained illegal in every states of the US, with the exception of Illinois. This meant that a bar or a restaurant could get shut down for both employing and serving gay patrons.
Most gay bars were operated by the mafia and police raids on gay bars were very common. In addition, the Stonewall Inn was also selling alcohol without a licence. This particular venue had already been targeted by the police force several times in that period but this time was different, as patrons actually fought back as they were roughed up pretty bad and arrested. Things got so hostile that the eight police officers tasked with clearing out the place barricaded themselves inside the bar and called for reinforcements.
When reinforcements arrived, things continued to escalate until eventually, the crowd of around 400 people that had gathered outside the bar dispersed. Tensions between the New York Police Force and the gay residents continued over the course of five days and nights. This was the sign that the LGBTQ+ community had reached boiling point and could no longer take being treated as outcasts within society.
Before Stonewall, the efforts to raise awareness for gay rights had been split up into several small groups, often according to gender, race, class and generational obstacles. But this uprising actually served as a catalyst for all of these works to be united in their differences and concentrate on common efforts on establishing places for gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of being arrested.
On the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, gay activist organizations marched together, taking to the streets of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. These marches solidified their pact for a greater good — a pact that would be renewed year after year until today.
It’s important to say that the Stonewall Riots did not mark the birth of a united gay community and John D’Emilio writes, and I quote: “By the time of the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 – the event that ignited the gay liberation movement – our situation was hardly one of silence, invisibility and isolation. A massive grassroots liberation movement could form almost overnight precisely because communities of lesbians and gay men existed.”
Yet, Stonewall provided the gay community with the myth it needed to change the course of history. First of all, to put it in perspective, Carl Jung suggested that mythical stories connected individuals and societies with the “collective unconscious” in which all humans partake, and are one of mankind’s ways of interacting with the vast unseen world. The gay community up to that point may not have been completely invisible but society sure was doing all it could to make sure those queers and dykes stayed shut up in their closets. The myth of Stonewall ensured that they could not stay repressed any longer.
Secondly, Jerry Williams writes that myths have an important sociological function, helping us to understand ourselves as part of a wider human story, and where we fit within it. They shape our aspirations and give us meaning. Therefore, they are absolutely essential in forming the foundation for progress. Fifty years later, the legend of Stonewall lives on and since then, the discussions around gender and sexuality have become more sophisticated and even academicised — which I’m pretty sure is a word. Sometimes, they can be downright confusing. Yet, the fact that these discussions are so prominent within much of the Western World owes a lot to the birth of a cohesive core gay community — for now referred to as the LGBTQ+ community — and that owes a lot to the myth of the Stonewall Riots.