U.S. President Barack Obama’s official adoption of June as Pride Month, matched by a similar official embrace in Toronto, should be celebrated as an important gain for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, (LGBTQ) civil rights since the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village riot of June 28, 1969.
While the Stonewall Riot deserves its pre-eminent place
in LGBTQ memory, resistance to routine police suppression of LGBTQ social gatherings goes back to the early 1950s when federal government Cold War paranoia, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, intensified public intolerance for homosexual people.
Despite police raids and arrests, homosexual men and women, continued to meet and gather in bars and night spots often owned by the Mafia, which cared little for gay civil rights but keenly exploited the prohibition against serving drinks to homosexuals.
LGBTQ civil rights movement
Although raids and arrests fuelled people’s fears, the LGBTQ community organized a civil rights movement through bodies like the male-specific Mattachine Society established in Los Angeles in 1951, and the Daughters of Bilitis established in 1955, by lesbian women in San Francisco. LGBTQ people persisted in their efforts to maintain safe spaces to meet, have fun, love and communicate without harassment. In June 1998, a San Francisco-based historian Allan Bérubé recalled the resilient life of The Castro, the famous heartland of the city’s LGBTQ community, despite official attempts to destroy it.
He beautifully captured the steadfast spirit of the community when he told television network PBS that police “crackdowns made people scared, but on the other hand they made people identify as a group.”
Leading LGBTQ activists reached out for sympathetic allies beyond their community. In 1964, they organized a Council on Religion and the Homosexuals with the pastors of the Glide Memorial Methodist Church to foster dialogue between religious leaders and LGBTQ people. When the police raided a costume ball at the California Hall on Polk Street, San Francisco, organized by this Council, LGBTQ community members’ firm stand against the police gained widespread public sympathy as people became aware that the police had arrested religious ministers simply because they were associating with homosexuals.
This was the beginning of wider public understanding of the need for LGBTQ civil rights. Wider public support helped build the self-confidence of LGBTQ people to put up the kind of brave fight they did at the Stonewall Inn. It helped them persist in pushing for significant legal and social reforms first gained in the early 1970s.
LGTBQ community still a target
Yet harassment, public bigotry, government neglect and police violence has repeatedly reared its head.
Hardly a year ago, Democracy Now reported that a spate of murders against transgendered women – mostly of colour – constituted a veritable state of emergency. In the months leading up to the horrific massacre at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida, LGTBQ activist Hannah Willard told Democracy Now recently that, “homophobia and bigotry are still alive and well in Florida and across our country. …we were very tangibly and violently under attack at Pulse nightclub this past weekend, but, of course, with over 200 anti-LGBT bills filed here in Florida and in states across the country, legislators are targeting our community where we are most vulnerable.”
The famous Stonewall Inn raid was not to be the last instance of police harassment. On June 28, 2009, for instance, the police of Fort Worth raided a newly-opened LGBTQ club called the Rainbow Lounge. They detained 20 patrons and seriously injured two. Beside hostile policing, attempts to erase LGBTQ civil rights as an open aspect of social and cultural norms have involved targeting LGBTQ contributions to the happiness and pleasure of broader society.
Pride and music
It is a well-established fact, for instance, that once popular disco music and discotheques were founded by LGBTQ and African-American entertainers in cities such as New York and San Francisco in the early 1970s. The beginnings of disco culture in marginalized African American and LGBTQ communities was so bitterly recalled by people harbouring racial and homophobic resentments that in July 1979, this resentment was expressed in a riotous outburst called Disco Demolition Night, when spectators at a baseball game in Chicago chanted a thinly-veiled homophobic slogan, “Disco sucks” as they made a bonfire of their unwanted disco records.
Like the Disco Demolition riot of 1979, the massacre in Orlando dares us to forget that Pride means joy and celebration. Nightclubs like the Pulse have a long history as sites of entertainment, subversion, intimacy and community for LGBTQ people. In fact, the romance and flamboyance of the disco era might seem passé in these post-millennial times when trance and transcendental experimental music trumps innocence and gaiety as the meaning of what it feels to be free.
The fight for equality continues
Yet the disco era did not pass solely because of a change in tastes. In fact, it was dealt a devastating blow by government negligence, ignorance and public disdain for homosexuality from the moment the
HIV/AIDS epidemic hit the LGBTQ community in the early eighties. The Orlando shootings are indeed an astounding traumatic incident for the LGBTQ community today. Yet, in light of the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on gay life in the past – with some 160,000 deaths by the early 1990s – it is worth keeping in mind that the Orlando massacre is not the first such atrocity that the LGBTQ community has survived.
The Orlando massacre is a close relative of the neoliberalism (along with the right-wing Christian evangelism) that too long delayed serious public attention to fighting HIV infection as an infinite death sentence. The LGBTQ community has survived in good spirit the virtual massacre (i.e. the HIV/AIDS epidemic) caused by the negligence and prejudice of public policy makers in the 1980s and early 1990s, and so will it continue to celebrate the freedoms that it has won over decades through sheer struggle, although such gains are always subject to the threat of resurgent intolerance in power and public spaces.
Dr. Joe Kelly is an Assistant Professor in History at Athabasca University. He specializes in U.S. labour and social history. Joe has a professional background as a researcher, editor and freelance writer. His interest in the study of history is inspired by the idea that ordinary working people’s ongoing pursuit of social justice, equality and freedom is the spirit which motivates progress through time as well as rich innovations in modern culture such as the novel forms of musical expression.