The Stonewall Riots are one of—if not the most—important moments in modern Queer history. They’re the reason we have Pride parades. They’re the reason we get to see a gay couple on HGTV, or the women’s soccer team kiss their girlfriends at the World Cup. Fifty years ago, New York police attempted to arrest a number of people at The Stonewall Inn, simply for being there, and now two men can be legally married. It’s easy to look back and say, “Look how far we’ve come”. But how far have we come?
The Stonewall Inn had been open for 39 years before the riots but had only been a gay bar for 3. The exact beginning of the riot is still up for some debate, but the generally agreed upon report is that the rioting began after Butch Lesbian Stormé DeLarverie shouted: “Why don’t you guys do something?”. From there the scene became violent. The common belief is that Marsha P. Johnson was the first to throw a brick and fight back, but she herself denies the allegation.
On March 9th, 1969 Howard Efland checked into a hotel in LA. That night he was beaten to death by members of the Los Angeles Police Department for the crime of being gay. On June 28th, 1969 the New York police stormed the gay bar and drag club The Stonewall Inn in an attempt to arrest the patrons for “cross-dressing”. From Queer people still observe targeted violence from the police, but at a much lower rate. But that’s not to say being Queer is all of the sudden a safe existence.
On January 2nd, 2018 Blaze Bernstein, an openly gay, Jewish man was stabbed to death by a Neo-Nazi. On March 28th, 2018 Amia Tyrae, a Black Trans woman was shot to death in a motel room. According to the Human Right Campaign, 128 Transgender people were murdered between 2013 and 2018. 115 of those people were Trans women, and 110 were people of color.
In 2018, all acts of extremist violence were committed by right-wing groups or individuals. In comparison, nearly all extremist violence in 1969 was committed by Left-Wing Radicals such as SDS, Sam Melville, and Jane Alpert in the name of anti-war causes. Violence against Queer individuals is no longer directly perpetrated by the U.S. government, but when the President of the United States refers to these right-wing groups as “very fine individuals”, it’s hard to not read that as an endorsement of their violence. Violent prejudice still exists within government entities, it’s just no longer the letter of the law. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 2013, 67% of hate crime homicides were committed against transgender women of color. The FBI found that in 2017 15.8 percent of all hate crimes were targeted because of bias specifically against sexual orientation. The takeaway? Queer-identifying individuals and groups—particularly individuals of color—are still targets of horrific violence, even if it isn’t committed by the state.
A common sentiment amongst older generations is that there seems to be “more gay people now”. The thought makes sense. Depending on the study, Gen-Z (also called the i-Generation and Zoomers) identifies as between 51% and 33% Queer. But there is a deeper root cause of this sentiment. The HIV/AIDS crisis erupted in the 80s (it began in 1981) and as of 2016 675,000 people had died of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. An entire generation of Queer people were lost to this disease. The worst part is that these deaths weren’t a certainty of our existence. There was deliberate inaction on the part of the United States government which allowed this to happen. The violence of this is still felt to this day, where 3.5% of the Washington D.C. population suffers from HIV/AIDS. One in three Black Trans Women contract HIV/AIDS. The most commonplace portrayal of the AIDS crisis, the musical Rent, stars a straight white cis man, avoids topics like ACT UP, and is almost entirely ripped off from Sarah Schulman’s People In Trouble. This is an active erasure of LGBTQ+ history.
When someone says “There are more gay people now” they aren’t wrong. Hundreds of thousands of Queer people were allowed to die, and now the history of that is hardly talked about.
A form of this history erasure is called Pinkwashing. Pinkwashing is described by The New York Times as “the promotion of the gay-friendliness of a corporate or political entity in an attempt to downplay or soften aspects of it considered negative”. Pinkwashing can apply to really anything but is most often applied to LGBTQ subjects. Pinkwashing takes a number of forms in popular culture, whether is a police car sporting a rainbow flag or AT&T donating to an anti-LGBTQ North Carolina politician Virginia Foxx. The grand-sum of these things is an erasure of Queer struggles. Companies sell Pride during July but seemingly couldn’t care less any other month of the year.
Of course, Pinkwashing is often used against Queer people. When someone cries Homophobia or Transphobia on social media, you can almost guarantee that someone will link an ad to Converse showing off their Pride collection. This is the danger of Pinkwashing. When companies and politicians claim to care about Queer people but do nothing to support them, complacency and homophobia can continue to exist and breed.
That’s not to say things haven’t gotten better. While Pinkwashing is a legitimate problem, it is an indication that Queer people have gained the privilege of visibility, even if that visibility sometimes takes the form of exploitative marketing campaigns. In 2003 the final anti-same-sex relations law in Texas was struck down. In 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized. As of February of this year, nonbinary (X) became a gender option on government IDs in 11 states, including Washington D.C. It can be easy to only see how difficult and dangerous life is for Queer folks, but life has improved overall. We’ve gone far, but not far enough. Queer people are still targeted by right-wing extremists and police at an alarming rate. Blatant discrimination is still allowed under the excuse of “religious freedom.” Progress is a difficult thing to quantify. Is the erasure of years of suffering and homophobia the price of some cool converse with rainbows? Is seeing two gay men kiss on TV worth ignoring the daily instances of homophobia that real people experience every day? Moments such as these are so important, but are they price we’re willing to pay?
50 years ago The Stonewall Riots started a movement that continues onto today. It’s important to remember that the movement continues, and there are still battles to fight. No matter how far we’ve come.