Stonewall: The Legacy

Today’s the day, everyone! Fifty years since the first night of the Stonewall uprising! Deciding what to write today was difficult, but I finally decided…. this is a pretty momentous occasion, especially for a queer history web site. So I’m going to talk about what sets Stonewall apart, and what lessons we learned 50 years ago that we can still be carrying with us today.

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People always like to say that Stonewall was the start of the gay rights movement but if you’ve been following us for a while, you know that’s not strictly true. There had been organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis fighting for gay rights for decades. We’d already had riots like Compton’s Cafeteria, the Black Cat Riot, and Cooper’s Do-nuts, we’d already had protests like the Annual Reminders and the Dewey’s Sit-In. The gay rights movement was pretty well in effect by 1969.

So what made Stonewall so important? Why is that the moment that changed everything? Because that’s the first time we stood up against the people oppressing us together. The LGBTQIA+ community, even now, is rife with division and it was then too. The divisions were different, but they were there. The community was broken up into the “butch” gays — the “respectable” straight-passing men who could blend into mainstream society; the queens — basically any more effeminate gay men could fit into this group which was also divided up by drag queens, transvestites (who, now, we’d mostly call transgender women), street queens, and “scare queens.” There were similar divisions between lesbians — butch and femme, passing or not. And in all of those groups, of course, there was a division between the white people and the people of color.

But on June 28, 1969 none of those divisions in the queer community mattered. The divisions were still there, but it didn’t matter. We had each other’s back. Stonewall was mostly full of butch gays — and mostly white gays at that, and the police were letting most people who weren’t in the “wrong clothes for their sex” go free — but they didn’t leave, they stayed outside and watched and drew in a crowd. The street queens weren’t in the bar at all, they would have been fine — but they were the ones who started fighting back. Because — for maybe the first time ever — it wasn’t only about self-preservation. And for five nights of rioting, we all had each other’s backs. That’s what changed — that’s why we’re able to look at Stonewall as the beginning of something.

To me, that’s why Stonewall was so powerful and important. It showed that, as long as we are looking out for each other and working together, that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

We’re not yet at the bright future every single one of the heroes of Stonewall we’ve talked about this month — and all of the ones we haven’t talked about yet — had envisioned for us. But I can promise, that is how we’ll get there. Working together, as a community.

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I know this was like hokey and sappy or whatever, but it’s over now. Go celebrate!

Annual Reminders

I want to talk a bit about the Annual Reminders — partially because they were born out of a protest in Washington DC in 1965 and partially because, without them, we would almost assuredly not have Pride happening each June.

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On April 17 and 18 of that year, a multitude of gay rights organizations (or “homophile organizations” as they were called) from across the East Coast gathered in Washington D.C. to protest the US and Cuba’s policies on homosexuality. Cuba, at the time, was forcing homosexual men into labor camps. This protest was the combined effort of the DC and NYC chapters of the Mattachine Society, Philadelphia’s Janus Society, and the NYC chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis. These groups decided to band together, forming the East Coast Homophile Organizations (or ECHO). Only 40 activists were present, but it was — at the time — the largest demonstration for LGBT+ rights in world history.

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Following the protest in DC, Craig Rodwell decided that there was enough issues facing LGBT+ people in the US that they shouldn’t disappear into the woodwork when there wasn’t a crisis. Other members of ECHO, including pioneers of the gay rights movement such as Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and Kay Tobin agreed. And so, the Annual Reminders were born.

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On July 4 from 1965 to 1969, ECHO gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia to protest. Independence Hall was chosen very specifically, not only because it was where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written but because in 1965, it was the home of the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell had been a powerful symbol for women’s suffrage and for the abolition of slavery. ECHO was making a concerted effort to tie the struggle of LGBT+ Americans to civil rights efforts of the past.

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Frank Kameny had insisted on a very strict dress code for the Annual Reminders. Men were to wear suit jackets and ties, women were to wear dresses. The Annual Reminder ran from 3:30 pm to 5 pm. The press mostly ignored them, although they were described in an article entitled “Homos on the March” published in Confidential magazine’s October 1965 issue.

Screen-Shot-2014-07-01-at-8.22.58-AM.pngThe final Annual Reminder occurred less than a week after the Stonewall Riots. The organizers received death threats, but Frank Kameny arranged for police protection and chartered a bus from New York City to Philadelphia to help activists arrive safely. There were 150 participants in the final Annual Reminder — more than triple the number of participants in the “world’s largest LGBT+ rights demonstration” of just a few years prior.

The Stonewall Riots changed everything for ECHO, which reorganized itself as the Eastern Regional Conference of Homphile Organizations (ERCHO), and decided that instead of having an Annual Reminder in 1970, they should have a non-political parade to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. They named this the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade but it was, in fact, the first Pride Parade. The proposal for this change was drafted by a number of leader in the gay rights movement, including Craig Rodwell — the man who had originally conceived of the Annual Reminders.

picket-plaqueIn 2005, a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker was placed at Chestnut and 6th Streets in Philadelphia to commemorate the Annual Reminders. The city also held a 50th Anniversary celebration in 2015, which included a recreation of the first reminder on July 4th.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)