Monday, 28 June 2010

Big Gay Monday: Stonewall Riots and Gay Pride.

"This shit has got to stop"- anonymous participant in the Stonewall riots.

You might not realise this, but on 28th June 1970, 40 years ago to this day, brave gay and trans-gendered people got together and organised the first ever gay pride event in New York City, exactly one year after the iconic Stonewall riots took place. I don't really have a lot to say on the matter, it's all been said before by writers far more capable of summing the thing up by myself, but I will give it a go because this is something that I feel very passionately about.

In the 1960s there were no "gay districts". Any bars that happened to be populated by gay people were not to be advertised as "gay bars", this was a time when the issue was very much swept under the rug and not talked about, and most of these bars were owned by the Maffia who would take advantage of their customers by over-charging and watering down the drinks. The resident gays had to put up with this, they had nowhere else to go and just be themselves. Police riots on these bars were fairly common, and most places had an emergency stash of liquor hidden in wall panels for when the police confiscated their alcohol. Often the bartenders would have some sort of light signal so that the customers would know police were on their way and to stop kissing and touching each other, and for any present drag queens to discard their women's clothing, given that drag was illegal at that time (an idea I find frankly bewildering since my gay nightlife experience is undeniably enhanced by the scene's resident drag queens).

These police raids were no regular raids, however, with the gay men inside often assaulted, lesbians violated and transvestites ridiculed by the police all because of the way these people were choosing to live their lives. The protocol of these raids was that, once lined up, patrons would be asked to present their ID so that any men dressed as women, or vice versa, could be arrested and detained. On 28th June 1969, a raid took place at the Stonewall Inn that would arguably change everything. The gays were in low spirits anyway, their guardian angel Judy Garland had been buried the same day and suddenly their sanctuary from the judgement of the outside world was being raided by the police. The police were pushing people around, humiliating the people who were only there to have a drink and a good time. A lesbian being detained by the police shouted at the dumbfounded gays looking on, "why don't you guys do something?" They did. For the first time, the gays were fighting back.

"Why don't you guys do something?"

Eventually the police were forced to lock themselves inside of the Stonewall Inn along with the trans-gendered people they were detaining. As crowds of gay people flocked outside, the riots escalated with bottles and bricks and basically anything they could get their big gay hands on were flung at the door. Of course, this was no ordinary riot this was a gay riot so they did things in style. Drag queens were hitting the police with their handbags, chants were directed towards the police standing guard and when reinforcements showed up to try and control the crowd, the angry homosexuals (allegedly) joined arms and formed a kick line in their direction. For those of you who don't know what a kick line is, think of your dad when New York, New York comes on at a wedding. Now think of rows of homosexuals, arm-in-arm, using this as a violent protest against the police. It was chaos.

And in the light of day the following day, that was that. The gays of Christopher Street (where the Stonewall Inn could be found and, indeed, where the Stonewall riots happened) had made their point and what was next? They were out of their closets, and there was no way they were going back in. So they didn't. Overnight, everything was different. People were holding hands with their same-sex companions on the streets, flyers were being posted around encouraging gay people to open and operate their own bars rather than relying on the mob for protection (the real birth of gay bars) and within a year the annual New York pride event had been born.


I know that a lot of modern gay people often say that the idea of gay pride is dated and irrelevant in the 21st century. They might be right, we've come a long way since the Stonewall riots and in my life I feel like I can be a proud enough gay man on a daily basis to not really need one day a year where I can be extra gay. But, in my opinion, gay pride isn't really for us anymore. It's not to show that we're here and we're queer and that people can bloody well get used to it (famously, Lisa Simpson once shouted at a gay pride parade in an episode of The Simpsons "we are used to it, you do this every year!"). Gay pride for me is to remind us how far we've come, and to commemorate the brave actions of those first Stonewall rioters. For me, not going to gay pride would be like letting their actions go in vain.

We live in a world of civil ceremonies and gay bars, Scissor Sisters and Pet Shop Boys, Will & Grace and Queer As Folk, Alan Carr and Paul O'Grady. A world where Sean Penn can play Harvey Milk and Ian McKellen can play Gandalf the Grey. This might be a bold statement to make, but if it hadn't been for those brave drinkers at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, we might still be restricted to the closet- separating from our partners when the police arrive and drag queens stashing their clothes under a bar so they aren't arrested for indecency. It might seem like a lifetime ago that this sort of thing was going on, but the scary thing is that it wasn't. It was less than half a century ago. Things might be more or less peachy for us 21st century guys and gals (we still have a long way to go, of course, but it might also be fair to say that the worst, for the most part, is over) but it wouldn't be if it weren't for those first brave gay people who decided to challenge the system. I'm not on the scene tonight but I will nonetheless be having a drink in their honour because without them who knows what kind of closeted state I'd be living my big gay adventures in...


  1. "I feel like I can be a proud enough gay man on a daily basis to not really need one day a year where I can be extra gay."
    Can I quote you? Pretty please with shiny things on top?
    I think this entire post was brilliant - and I've gotta say that I completely agree with what you said about Pride, all of it. It's something I've been saying for awhile now, and you're the first person who's seemed to agree with me :)

    all in all, I guess what I'm saying is Amen

  2. Aw well thanks very much :)

    I'll still be participating in my local gay pride shenanigans because I think it'll be fun but it's much less of a statement thing nowadays and more of a "look how far we've come"-style celebration thing. Still important in the gay world, of course.


  3. Never assume that the worst is over. There will always be people working tirelessly to take your freedoms away from you. Even now we have brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who are jailed and even executed for being gay. We have come a long way, and I'm so glad that you recognize and honor the fight of those who came before us, but we still have a long way to go.