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The Legacy of the Stonewall Riots

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Rainbow flags hang outside of the Stonewall Inn.
InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (] This image has been cropped.

Fifty-years-ago, in the early hours of June 28, 1969, occupants of New York City’s Stonewall Inn rose up against a police raid. The establishment was known for serving members of the gay community, and that night, its patrons began an act of resistance that would catalyze the LGBT+ rights movement. It was the spark that ignited fifty years of fervent change for a community that, throughout history, has been marginalized. 

Ahead of the Stonewall riots’ 50th anniversary, we spoke with SIS professor Naomi Moland to learn more about the impact of this historic event and the current state of LGBT+ rights movements across the globe.

The Riots

Police raids were not unfamiliar to the patrons of the Stonewall Inn. Before the World’s Fair took place in New York City in 1964, then-mayor Robert Wagner shut down gay establishments and increased police raids on those that remained in order to “clean up the city” before visitors arrived for the fair. From then on, the raids became a common way to suppress the gay community.

“Police would come into the bars, turn on the lights, make everybody line up, and then ask everyone to pull out their IDs,” says Moland. “It was against the law, at that point, to dress in drag, so if there were people who appeared as women who officers suspected were actually men, a female officer would take them into a bathroom and verify their sex. If they were in drag, they could be arrested.”

On that summer evening in 1969, a group of people at the Stonewall Inn refused to cooperate when the police came to raid the tavern. Rather, they fought back and taunted the officers. People told to disperse instead held their ground and passersby began to gather outside the bar. The resistance escalated when the officers barricaded themselves inside. Bottles were thrown at officers. Windows were smashed. Garbage was set on fire. Word of the clash spread, and the riots continued, on and off, for five more nights.

“It’s interesting to wonder if a moment like this was premeditated, but the Stonewall riots were spontaneous,” says Moland. “They certainly can’t be divorced from the broader contexts of the other social justice movements that took place in the 1960s, and this isn’t to say it [Stonewall] was the first-ever moment of LGBT+ activism. There had been decades and centuries of different kinds of LGBT+ activism, but this was the event that shifted a lot of things.”

Moland believes that a unique aspect of Stonewall is the opportunity it gave people in the gay community to outwardly show their identities: “The interesting thing about the LGBT+ minority is that they’re largely invisible. And so, police and others were shocked that there were this many gay people who were out in the open. So you think of this term ‘coming out’ as a powerful way in which suddenly the minority that was largely invisible became, at that moment, visible.”

Impact in the US

The momentum of the Stonewall riots’ impact was fast. A few weeks after the event, new LGBT+ organizations and newspapers were founded. A year later, the first Pride parade took place on its anniversary, and, the next day, Pride events and marches took place on the West Coast. From then on, the marches spread across the US and around the world.

“I think the Stonewall riots were a huge opening. These communities had existed for a long time and, for the first time, they were able to be out in a different way,” says Moland.

But that’s not to say that all legislative and social LGBT+ progress has been speedy. It took decades to reverse US laws that were discriminatory against LGBT+ populations, and the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage only as recently as 2015. All in all, there’s still room for discrimination in the United States.

“There are a lot of states that still do not have anti-discrimination laws on the books, so discrimination based on sexual orientation is still legal in many parts of the US,” says Moland.

Moland is, in fact, currently contending with discriminatory US legislation: “I had a baby in March, and my wife now has to legally adopt him—even though we’ve been legally married for four years. My wife’s name can go on the birth certificate, but she’s not his legal guardian until we go through the adoption process. These are just strange relics of old laws that haven’t caught up to present-day society. There’s still a long way to go, but the US has certainly made a lot of progress.”

Impact on the Globe

Many countries and activists see the Stonewall riots as a moment that echoed across the globe.

“Even by the early ‘70s, only a couple of years after Stonewall, there were Pride marches in different countries, and NGOs and nonprofit LGBT+ organizations started up in Canada, Australia, and western Europe,” says Moland.

One LGBT+ organization in the UK, a charity that works with institutions to create inclusive and accepting cultures, is even named after Stonewall.

According to Moland, many American LGBT+ organizations now have a global reach, and when organizations in other countries design their strategies, they sometimes look to these American organizations that have existed for longer: “It’s really fascinating to think about how these organizations around the world often sprouted from the LGBT+ movement in the US.”

Increasingly, in the last decade, even global organizations like UNICEF, UNESCO, and the United Nations have more broadly started speaking out against LGBT+ discrimination, and they have established protocols to measure how different countries are discriminatory.

“It’s become a global conversation,” says Moland.

The Current State of LGBT+ Rights across the Globe

There are now 27 countries that allow for same-sex marriage. At the same time, there is a death penalty for homosexuality in 11 countries and imprisonment for homosexuality in 57 countries. According to Moland, there are still many countries that do not have official laws addressing LGBT+ rights, which means people still can be arrested or harassed informally.

“Some of the toughest parts of the world for LGBT+ rights are Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe, and those are the regions I’ve focused on in my research,” says Moland.

She, along with her colleague, Oren Pizmony-Levy, at Columbia University and several research assistants, recently conducted research on LGBT+ rights movements around the world. Pizmony-Levy conducted a global online survey of 350 LGBT+ organizations, and Moland conducted qualitative follow-up research  by interviewing activists who work with NGOs in 40 different countries. She wanted to investigate how the activists navigate the cultural and religious barriers to LGBT+ rights.

“One common belief that we found in a lot of countries around the world is [the idea] that homosexuality has been imported from the West and that it’s a Western phenomenon that’s been forced on these countries,” says Moland.

Many of her interviewees explained that they try to combat this rhetoric by emphasizing that homosexual behavior has always existed in their societies, but the idea of labeling it as an identity and attaching it to rights is newer and might be more rooted in countries that have had a longer history of recognizing citizens’ individual rights in general.

Another form of rhetoric that activists run up against is the idea that homosexuality is a behavior that goes against countries’ cultures. In response, activists point to the fact that they themselves are gay and also identify as citizens of their countries.

“Another rhetorical strategy that activists use is questioning the idea of culture,” says Moland. “They ask ‘is there such a thing as one agreed-upon African culture, or Zimbabwean culture, or Hungarian culture?’ Who gets to decide who is a part of those cultures and who isn’t?”

Activism is difficult in many countries, especially when members of the LGBT+ community feel isolated from what’s considered the “norm.”

“I think about this in my own life,” says Moland. “If I was the only one who felt this way, and I had no examples of people around me who were out and proud and having kids, it would be difficult to know if I would have ever been able to do that myself.”

Nonetheless, despite enormous amounts of persecution and danger in some countries, LGBT+ rights activists continue the movement—even if political tides are not currently turning in their favor.

In a number of countries, human rights safeguards have sharply diminished, and the US has rolled back on supporting human rights at both national and global levels. Last year, the US left the UN Human Rights Council, and the Trump administration took steps to dismantle LGBT+-friendly health policies in the US. 50 years later, the legacy of Stonewall is one of many steps forward for the LGBT+ community, but the present includes some dangerous steps backward.

“Some of the scaling back on human rights more broadly by the Trump administration and by other administrations around the world is really scary to people in countries with [LGBT+ persecution],” says Moland. “Because they saw and still see the US as this beacon of human and LGBT+ rights, I think many of them are shocked to know that those rights are still contested in the US.”