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26 June 2019

Stonewall: 50 years on and so much to be proud about

June marks the beginning of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ+) Pride Month, a month where we celebrate and honour the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York. Whilst we so often focus on the future and what is next to come, Pride Month reminds us all of the impact that LGBTQ+ individuals have had on history all over the world. More specifically, 2019 Pride Month celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising which kick-started the movement of fighting for gay rights across the globe.

What was the Stonewall Uprising?

The Stonewall Uprising was a series of spontaneous violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn: a gay bar for the LGBT community in Greenwich Village, Lower Manhattan. The raid began in the early hours of 28 June 1969, leading to riots from the LGBT community which lasted a total of six days. During the weeks following the riots, many Greenwich residents congregated into activist groups to focus efforts on establishing places for the LGBT community to be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity without the fear of persecution.

Whilst the raid on the Stonewall Inn triggered the uprising, it is important to appreciate that tensions were high following the constant berating of the LGBT community by the American anti-gay legal system in the 1950/60s.

Looking back 50 years, the LGBT+ community was subject to ignorance, hostility and misunderstanding, which left them feeling marginalised from the rest of society. For example:

  • during the 1960s, it was illegal for same-sex couples to show public displays of affection in the State of New York;
  • New York had implemented a criminal statute that allowed police to arrest those individuals wearing less than three gender-appropriate articles of clothing;
  • homosexuality was illegal in the UK for most of the 1960s, and even when legalized in 1967 it remained illegal for gay people to marry or adopt children; and
  • The New York State Liquor Authority would penalise and shut down many drinking establishments arguing that serving the LGBT community was ‘disorderly’.

When looking at the social and political climate prevalent at the time of the raid on the Stonewall Inn, it is clear that this was far more than just another police raid on a gay bar. It was a personal attack on the entire LGBT+ community. This is why, on 28 June 1969, the LGBT+ community and its allies decided to take a stand for equality.

What effect has the Stonewall Uprising had in the USA?

The Stonewall Uprising arguably constitutes the most important event leading to the Gay Liberation Movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the USA. The Uprising sent a message throughout the whole country, invigorating the force of LGBT political activism and leading to numerous gay rights organisations, such as Gay Liberation Front, taking a more active role in politics and society.

A year after the Stonewall Uprising, the first gay pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. These events included parades, rallies, commemorations, community days, dance parties and festivals. They acted as a positive stance against discrimination and violence towards the LGBT community and to promote their self-affirmation, dignity, equal rights and celebrate sexual and gender diversity. This year, in remembrance of the Stonewall Uprising, the state of New York is to host the largest international celebration of LGBT pride in history, Stonewall 50 – WorldPride NYC 2019, in partnership with I LOVE NY’s LGBT division.

What impact did the Stonewall Uprising have in the UK?

It was not too long after the USA’s first Pride marches that the UK followed in its footsteps. On 1 July 1972, 2000 people took part in the first London Pride Festival to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and support equal rights. Now, in the space of almost forty years, more than one million people celebrate London Pride, with countless other Pride events taking place all over the world.

Whilst the Pride Festival signalled movement in the right direction, the UK was far from affording equal rights for the LGBT community in the aftermath of the Stonewall Uprising. In 1988, 19 years after the riots, the UK Parliament introduced ‘Section 28’ of the Local Government Act which prevented teachers from promoting gay relationships in schools. Further, the possibility of marrying or adopting children for gay people was still impossible thirty years after the uprising.

However, the LGBT community in the UK continued to gather momentum from the Stonewall Uprising and continued to make their voices heard in UK politics. For example, in 1971, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality group rallied to have the age of consent for gay sex lowered from 21 to 18, the age of consent for heterosexual sex. In 2002, we saw real change come when the law allowed gay people to adopt children. Soon after in 2003, almost 35 years after the riots, ‘Section 28’ was overturned and teachers were allowed to promote gay relationships in schools. A year after that, in 2004, the UK legalised civil partnership, and 10 years later legalised gay marriage.

It is obvious that without the Stonewall Uprising acting as a catalyst for global change in the way others treated the LGBT community, both politically and socially, these milestones may never have been achieved.

What does the future hold for the LGBT community in the UK?

The UK has made real progress in securing equal rights for the LGBT community since the riots in 1969. It is undeniable that without the Stonewall Uprising, the UK and the rest of the world may not be as forward-thinking and inclusive in respect of the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, in 2016, Obama designated the site of the riots a national monument in recognition of the area’s contribution to gay and human rights. The bravery and courage of those on 28 June 1969 paved the way for LGBT rights and Pride is the perfect opportunity to reflect on this and give thanks to the sacrifices made. Therefore, whilst the fight for LGBTQ+ equal rights continues, let us remember during this Pride month the people who led the way to where we are today.

Written by Ashley Robertson, Trainee Solicitor and member of Best Self.

Best Self is BDB Pitmans’ internal LGBTQ+ group. The group is open to anyone at the firm identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and questioning as well as other sexual and gender identities (such as intersex and pansexual). Straight allies are also very welcome and encouraged to be part of the group.

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