Quick show of hands, how many of you know how Pride parades started? Most of you? Not a lot? My bet is that probably a good many of you, particularly if you don’t identify as queer, don’t actually know how Pride started; that’s progress for you. That is, actually and un-sarcastically, progress. Pride began as an angry response to discrimination, and today it’s a joyous celebration of life and love. We’ve come quite a long way, but it’s still good to take a moment every once in a while to look at history and remember where we came from: The Stonewall Inn.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City, patronizing a gay bar meant possibly being subjected to police raids and jail time. Gay bars such as the Stonewall Inn would be regularly raided and anyone in clothing not appropriate to their gender or without proper identification would be rounded up and sent to sit in jail overnight. At the time, selling alcohol to a homosexual was illegal, and thus all gay bars were unlicensed and run by criminals, namely the mafia. This meant that the majority of gay bar owners didn’t actually identify as gay themselves, and might be extremely homophobic and hateful themselves. But hey, selling alcohol illegally is like a mafia pastime, so they figured they could make a few bucks regardless of who they were selling it to.
Anyway, since the bar owners were part of the mafia they often had a bribery system set up; they paid off the police to cut down on the number of raids and so that they were notified of raids before the happened. That was the case with the Stonewall Inn. The owner was connected to the mafia, and so paid off the police to keep raids at a minimum. That seemed to work pretty well until one night on June 28, 1969. Basically, a routine police raid of the Stonewall Inn turned into a riot when some of the patrons decided not to compliantly get into the police van and go to jail. They fought back and in doing so started a gay rights movement.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. There was a gay rights movement well before the Stonewall riots, it was just a very problematic movement. Perhaps the biggest and most well-known pre-Stonewall gay rights organization was the Mattachine Society. It was started by Harry Hay in 1950 as a homophile organization focused on protecting the rights of gay people. By the 1960s, though, Harry Hay and the founders were no longer in charge of the Mattachine, and a much more conservative crowd had taken over. Their focus was largely on assimilation and showing the world that gay people were upstanding decent citizens, just like straight people.
On the face of it, that’s not such a horrible idea. In practice, however, it meant discriminating against anyone who didn’t fit into 1960s gender norms. When the Mattachine held a protest, they did so quietly and without notifying the media. The men dressed in suits and ties and the women dressed in skirts and cardigans. Anyone who wasn’t straight-acting and straight-looking was excluded.
By contrast, the patrons at Stonewall were not assimilationists. And in that sense Stonewall was a beginning; the beginning of collectively standing up and saying ‘we’re not going to take this anymore.’ After Stonewall, the queer rights movement was no longer asking to assimilate, it was demanding acceptance. It still struggled with issues involving inclusion of anyone who didn’t conform to gender norms, but was on its way to becoming the queer rights movements we have today.
A year after Stonewall, the first Gay Rights March was held in New York City in remembrance of the riots. And that’s the start of the tradition: from Stonewall riot, to Gay Rights March, to Pride parades.
So, Happy Pride everyone. I’ll be celebrating this year in San Francisco, where I plan on purchasing quite a bit of alcohol from the very legal gay bars in the city. Like I said at the beginning: that’s progress.
To learn more about Stonewall:
Stonewall by Martin Duberman: Interviews with people who were at the Stonewall riots and a pretty good discussion of what led to the riots and what resulted from the riots.
Stonewall: A fictional movie about the riots. Even though it’s fictional, it’s got enough basis in fact to be worth watching for more info.
—Photo credit: David Jones/Flickr