What A Greenwich Village Riot Did For LGBTQ Americans
In the wake of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s death at the hands of three white cops, which was caught on video earlier this week, and the explosion of outrage that saw protests and riots erupt from coast to coast, people watching the events unfold at home expressed their own indignation at the wave of civil disobedience. Conservatives in particular, including President Trump, were quick to decry the uprisings as the act of “thugs”, and threatening state-sanctioned violence of their own against the aggrieved masses who had clearly endured quite enough. In recent years, we’ve seen scores of Black and brown people killed by the police, under the most questionable and suspicious circumstances. Often, these extrajudicial killings result in no consequences for the officers involved; the system is designed to award great latitude to keepers of the law in their use of force, ostensibly in the maintenance of public safety.
But who is safe when agents of the state can mete out capital punishment without fear of oversight? Occasionally, a police officer does get brought before the bar, as Dallas cop Amber Guyger was after she murdered Botham Jean, a Black man watching television in his own living room. (Guyger said she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own). But most police officers are never punished in the slightest degree for the lives they take. It is true that the police sometimes must, and are expected to, use force in carrying out their work, but asphyxiating a handcuffed, restrained prisoner with your knee until he is dead, does not fall within that criteria. Therein lies the impetus for the unrest we are now witnessing in our cities, and rightfully so. I will justify that statement by turning the clock back fifty years.
It’s June of 1969 in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. This is a time when homosexuality is illegal, and assembly of gay men in gathering places like gay bars is strictly forbidden. Members of the LGBTQ community are looked upon as sexual deviants and pedophiles, at best severely mentally ill, and at worst a clear and present danger to society. It was amidst this hostile environment that gay, lesbian, and transgender New Yorkers tried to find safe spaces in which they could be themselves among like company. One such venue was the now-legendary Stonewall Inn, one of several such establishments in the Village. As was the general practice of the era, on the night of June 28, the NYPD’s Vice Squad and agents from the State Liquor Authority (SLA) prepared for a raid of the Stonewall. It was then illegal to “permit homosexuals, degenerates, and undesirables to congregate on the premises”, giving the authorities an easy pretext to shut the bars down and arrest the patrons. The raids were therefore a frequent occurrence.
When LGBTQ people were arrested during these police actions, the damage to their lives was often severe. Their names, addresses, and pictures were published in the newspapers, leading to job and housing loss, sometimes divorce or disowning by their families, and violence from their neighbors for being “a threat to society”. Jail time, fines, and unemployability further aggravated these consequences. Faced with these threats, and growing tired of being punished for the non-crime of being who they authentically were, the patrons of the Stonewall finally chose to fight back when the cops, led by Inspector Seymour Pine, burst in the front door and announced a raid. (Pine later changed his mind about that night, telling PBS, “Yes, [homosexuality] was against the law. But what kind of a law was it?”) Rather than go quietly into the night, the clubgoers started swinging.
This was the beginning of what history knows as the Stonewall Rebellion, which continued for nearly a week thereafter, and drew participants from all five boroughs. The crowds fought hand-to-hand battles in Sheridan Square (now part of the Stonewall National Monument, administered by the National Park Service) with the police, and LGBTQ people of color were at the vanguard of the uprising. As today, the roots of the Rebellion were deep, structural, and undeniable. LGBTQ individuals, having tolerated all they could, raised their hands to stop an injustice that permeated their lives, and agitated for lasting, meaningful reforms. Riots are the last resort of the marginalized, the dismissed, the “less than”, and, as the late Nobel laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted, “the language of the unheard”. No more fitting description could be applied to the LGBTQ community in 1969, and there was no more fitting reply to this than to take part in a civil uprising to effect changes.
Today, the LGBTQ community enjoys rights scarcely dreamt of in 1969. We can marry the person we love, we can (in most cases) live and work as our true selves, the APA has removed homosexuality as a mental disorder from their catalog of psychiatric illnesses, we can’t be fired or evicted (in most cases) for being LGBTQ, we can serve openly in the military (unless you are trans; Trump took that away) and we can take jobs as teachers, first responders, or caregivers without our sexual orientation or gender identity being an obstacle. We owe all these things, and more,to the brave young men and women who on one steamy evening in New York City, who finally stood up, and said, “Enough!”
We’re seeing and hearing that once again in America today. I think that’s a good thing.