Why we celebrate

Remembering Stonewall and looking at where we’ve come from

An early activist in the Gay Pride Movement, the late Frank Kameny, continued to fight for equality even up to his death.

With June in full effect, cities across the country are soon to be bombarded with rainbows as Pride returns to celebrate the spirit of the LGBT community and the movement for equality. Day, and even week-long, celebrations are scheduled filled with marches, parades, a variety of entertainment, street fairs, film festivals and more. You can find rainbows on everything in online stores and a variety of unique and clever Pride shirts, so you can be prepared for the events that will be running from now until later in the year.

From an outsider looking into LGBT culture, Pride month and Pride festivals can appear to be simply huge parties and even for members of the LGBT community it is easy to be pulled into the fun of the celebration and to forget about the origins of the movement.

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For many members of the LGBT community, especially older generations, they know exactly what Pride represents and embodies because they lived through the experiences that have made Pride what it is today. For younger generations, the origin of Pride may be a bit more ambiguous; kind of like the outsider looking in. Regardless of which category you fall into, by remembering and recognizing the origin of Pride and the movement it symbolizes, we can honor the efforts of those who have brought the Gay Rights Movement to its current position today.

For many, when asked to identify the start of the Gay Rights Movement, they will reference Stonewall as the origin. While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 are a pivotal moment in the Gay Rights Movement, the reality is that there were events across the country prior to 1969 which provided the foundation for the movement.

After being fired from his government job in 1958, activist Frank Kameny became one of the earliest and most influential advocates for equal rights of LGBT people. Although the United States Supreme Court denied his petition in 1961, his case is landmark as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation.

Kameny is credited with bringing an aggressive and more militant stance to the Gay Rights Movement. He was responsible for co-founding the Mattachine Society of Washington, an organization which fought throughout the 1960s for gay civil rights. Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington pressed for fair and equal treatment of gay employees in the federal government and worked with other groups such as the Daughters of Bilitis to press for equality for gay citizens. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement’s phrase “Black is Beautiful,” Kameny coined the phrase “Gay is Good” to counter social stigma about the LGBT community in the 1960s.

During the 1950s and 1960s, organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society coordinated some of the earliest demonstrations of the modern Gay Rights Movement. These two organizations, in particular, carried out pickets called Annual Reminders to inform and remind Americans that LGBT people did not enjoy basic civil rights protections. These Annual Reminders began on July 4, 1965, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

In August of 1966, a riot in Compton’s Cafeteria, a chain of cafeterias in San Francisco, marked one of the first documented LGBT-related riots in the country and sparked a response three years before the Stonewall Riots. Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco was one of the few establishments where transgender clients could publically gather. At the time, cross-dressing was illegal and so having transgender individuals in a bar was enough cause to allow police officers to raid establishments. This stigma ousted the transgender community from many gay establishments at the time.

On the night of the riot, police were called to deal with a group of transgender customers who were reportedly being loud. When the officers attempted to arrest one of the suspects a riot began and spilled outside of the establishment and into the streets of the Tenderloin. The following day Compton’s would not allow transgender people into their establishment. This led to further picketing of the establishment from a more organized and outraged LGBT community.

From the aftermath of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot came a much more organized series of resources for the transgender community, especially in San Francisco. In 1968 the National Transsexual Counseling Unit was founded. The NTCU was the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world offering social, medical and psychological support for transgender individuals.

On the morning of June 28 1969, LGBT community members rioted following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar at 43 Christopher St. in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. Historically, the Stonewall Inn was known as a Mafia run bar which openly welcomed gay and lesbian customers, an uncommon trend for establishments in the 1960s. A majority of the gay clientele included drag queens and transgender individuals, as well as many other members of the local LGBT community.

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The birthplace of the modern Gay Rights Movement, The Stonewall Inn burst into riots in June 1969 during a police raid resulting in weeks of protests and more. Photo Credit: Joseph Ambrosini

While police raids on bars like the Stonewall Inn were not uncommon, the reaction from the LGBT community on this evening in June spontaneously escalated into a riot which carried over into a string of protests for the following days and weeks.

In November of 1969, the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) proposed the first Pride march to be held in New York City. ERCHO proposed that the Annual Reminder be held annually on the last Saturday in June to honor the spontaneous riot at Stonewall which served as a catalyst for the Gay Rights Movement. The Annual Reminder was dubbed the Christopher Street Liberation Day demonstration. The organization encouraged other homophile organizations of the time to put on similar demonstrations on the same day as a sign of solidarity and national support for Gay Rights.

On June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Christopher Street Liberation Day occurred with a march on Christopher St. This was the first Gay Pride march in U.S. history and covered 51 blocks to Central Park. Similar marches occurred across the country in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

Following the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1970, the organization of the Gay Rights Movement grew exponentially across the country. Of the years following the Stonewall Riots, Kameny noted that “by the time of Stonewall, we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there was at least fifteen hundred. By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was twenty-five hundred.”

As we approach the 43rd anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and enter into the 42nd national Annual Reminder, much has changed for the LGBT community since the pre-Stonewall era. In 2012 alone, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th Amendment, Washington and Maryland have become the seventh and eight states respectively to legalize same-sex marriage and the President of the United States has endorsed same-sex marriage alongside the Vice-President. On May 31, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

This year, as we work within our communities to put together Pride events and celebrate the diversity and the spirit of the LGBT community, let us not forget those who fought before us so that we can freely demonstrate. There is still much work to do as we continue to fight for our complete inclusion and equality. Pride season should continue to serve as an Annual Reminder for us all of where we have come from so that we may continue to push forward together to where we want to go. : :

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Posted by O'Neale Atkinson

O'Neale Atkinson is a former editor of QNotes, serving in the position from Jan. 23, 2012 to June 15, 2012. His first issue as editor was published on Feb. 4, 2012. His last issue was published June 23, 2012. O'Neale currently serves as operations manager of the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte.