Stonewall forty years on


It was forty years ago, on the night of the 27th and morning of the 28th of June, 1969, that patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village rioted after one police raid too many. You can read about it in detail on an unusually thorough (caveat lector) Wikipedia page. Violence, harassment and suspicion is something gay people still have to endure today but in the 1960s things were considerably worse and the riots which began that night marked the point at which gay people in America showed they weren’t going to be pushed around any more. The exact nature of the events is still being argued over but that doesn’t negate their symbolic value. Here in Britain Parliament had grudgingly (and with ridiculous provisos) decriminalised homosexual acts two years earlier but the Stonewall riots have proved a potent enough symbol to lend their name to Britain’s leading gay rights organisation.

Things have improved immeasurably since 1969 but the struggle for basic civil rights continues, whether for marriage equality in many western countries, or for freedom from persecution and execution elsewhere. Martin Luther King said “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Likewise, Oscar Wilde, given two years’ hard labour under the law which wasn’t abolished until 1967, said upon his release, “Yes, we shall win in the end; but the road will be long and red with monstrous martyrdoms.” Most of the time it can feel like we’ve reached the end of Oscar’s road but that’s only true in a handful of countries. Until the map on this page can be turned a single colour, the end of the road for many people will remain out of sight. But the arc of the moral universe is long. And it bends towards justice.

• The Times: Church ‘out of touch’ as public supports equal rights for homosexuals

Previously on { feuilleton }
Over the rainbow
Forty years of freedom after centuries of injustice

5 thoughts on “Stonewall forty years on”

  1. Holy shit, gay marriage is legal in my state, well I’ll be damned. I’d always wondered how so many hardline err, whatevers and so many err, flamboyant people could co-exist in Des Moines without having some of the confrontations that one sees in the prettier but poor Deep South states. Oh I know, because even if they don’t like it, they grudgingly accept that equal rights is supposed to be the law.

  2. Yes, Iowa changed the law a couple of months ago.

    In the past it’s nearly always been the flamboyant types that led the way in standing up to prevailing social attitudes; other men could pretend they were straight and hide behind sham marriages. A notable example of the former is Quentin Crisp. In Jack Gold’s great film of The Naked Civil Servant, there’s a crucial scene in court after he’s been wrongfully arrested by the police who accuse him of importuning. He gives a speech describing how he stoically bears the brunt of society’s vilification yet refuses to behave any differently. That was a tough stance to take in the 1930s.

  3. I was just going to mention “flamboyance” as I read the comments. One highly important thing to remember about Stonewall is the degree to which trans people, drag queens, et al. were instrumental in the revolt. Like them or not, people refusing the yoke of gender norms have always been at the forefront of the battle. They’re literally the avant garde of lgbtq rights, and those homosexuals who would exclude them from the mainstream(?) human rights movement are both foolish and hypocritical.

    My rant is now complete.

  4. Rant entirely justified, thanks. The police in their nightclub raids were harassing and arresting drag queens, not guys in business suits. “Avant garde of lgbtq rights” is exactly right.

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