From Midnight Raids To Same-Sex Marriage: What's Changed In The 50 Years Since Stonewall

I began my education of LGBT history by reading Martin Duberman’s Stonewall as a high schooler, growing up in New York City in the 1990s. In these pages, I first learned about this galvanizing movement for equal rights when poor street queens, homeless queer teens, fags, dykes, and Latinx, Blacks, and white people resisted.
It was a hot-humid night on Friday, June 27, 1969, when 200 or so people packed into the mob-owned Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village. Hours after midnight , the NYPD raided the club for the second time that week. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, police kept track of suspected homosexuals, and they regularly raided bars, shut down businesses, seized alcohol and money, and arrested people for not wearing three pieces of clothing appropriate to their gender. Those arrested were imprisoned, and their names were printed in newspapers. They risked public outing, loss of jobs, and forced commitment to mental institutions. People were fed up with the police and with constant social regulation of their bodies and desires.
It’s said that a stoned drag queen throwing punches or a cross-dressing dyke named Storme DeLarverie, who was hit with a nightstick, may have started it all. But pushback grew and a tactical patrol force was brought in. Over the course of five days, riots, protests, and fires ensued. These events would become known as the Stonewall Riots.
Duberman’s Stonewall tells the stories of the uprising, from the point of view of six people living during that time. Yvonne Flowers, an African American lesbian activist, was one of them. I identified with her. She had stakes in the Civil Rights, Black Power, Women, and LGBT Movements. I found myself drawn into what Flowers speaks about, where you subsume your sex and sexual politics into racial politics. I don’t want this subsumption to continue to ring true. So when I think about Stonewall, and where we’ve come in the 50 years since — and what’s next — it’s not just through the lens of LGBTQ+ rights, but also women’s rights, African American rights, and the rights of all those who are marginalized.
I’ll admit, I can’t tell this timeline straight, because it’s been a starburst of a road and there’s still a ways to go. But as we celebrate Pride this month, it’s important to remember the history — national, global and above all else personal histories — that brought us here.
1950-60s: Civil Rights and the Start of a Movement
The Stonewall Uprisings was within and alongside a series of actions for recognition and rights. The Civil Rights Movement, which took place predominantly from 1954 to 1968, and lead to the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, significantly influenced the LGBT— now LGBTQ+ — movement.
Many of the demonstrations and marches of the 1940s-70s were orchestrated by openly gay, pacifist Bayard Rustin. A prominent advisor to A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin designed the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King famously gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.
In the documentary Brother Outsider, Rustin addresses a group of young activists — with such power and beauty — and says: “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
These words, these protests, and these movements set a template for Stonewall, and the ongoing liberation of LGBTQ+ individuals.

1970s: Christopher Street Liberation Day March, Title IX, and Harvey Milk

In 1979 I was born and my aunt, previously married to a man, announced her relationship with a woman — a woman with whom she would be with for the next 25 years. Met with intervention and concern from my family, my aunt and her partner remained visible, which modeled for me in my mid-teens, how to be present in and accepting of my sexuality.
After Stonewall, lesbian activist Martha Shelley suggested a follow-up event, which led to the Christopher Street Liberation Day march on June 28, 1970. And near the end of the decade, from October 12 to 14 in 1979, the first Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference was held in D.C. and the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place. The agenda of the latter aimed for many of the same equalizations — end discrimination in the military, protections for lesbian and gay youth, and support and passing of a comprehensive lesbian and gay rights bill — that we’re still hoping for today.
Congresswoman Patsy Mink of Hawaii first drafted the Education Amendments, which would later become known as Title IX when it was signed into law in 1972. It’s an important civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities. Title IX would be challenged over the decades — as we’ve seen with the Trump Administration — but it’s an enduring example of what our government can accomplish on behalf of marginalized groups when it tries.
In 1973, homosexuality was de-pathologized with the help of LGBTQ+ activists and a 1950s study conducted by Dr. Evelyn Hooker. Hooker compared 30 gay men and 30 heterosexual men, and found very little psychological difference between these two groups. This in part led to the American Psychiatrists Association removing the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Four years later, Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, making him the first openly gay male elected to public office in the United States.
The changes were slow, but the march towards acceptance was steady and progress was being made. Then HIV and AIDS happened.

1980s: HIV, AIDS, and The Reagan Administration

The ‘80s knew a lot of death like all its planets were in the eighth house of the Zodiac. HIV and AIDS were initially called GRID: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. The virus took thousands of lives, and left palpable absences in the LGBTQ+ community. We lost, in the ‘80s and onward:
Rock Hudson
Arnie Zane
Alvin Ailey
Robert Mapplethorpe
Keith Haring
Ryan White
Angie Xtravaganza
Arthur Ashe
Marlon Riggs
Pedro Zamora
Essex Hemphill
Ulysses Dove
Willi Ninja
Gil Scott Heron
The Reagan Administration failed to act on the AIDS crisis because it was a disease contracted mostly by — but not all as evidenced by the list above — homosexual men and intravenous drug users. From 1981 to 1987, the CDC reported 47,993 deaths due to AIDS. In 1985, for the first time, federal resources were made available to state and local health departments dedicated to HIV prevention.
Also in 1985, gay activist Cleve Jones asked those attending his annual candlelit march to honor the lives of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, to write down the names of people they knew who had succumbed to the disease. During the event, he noticed that the display of these placards looked like a patchwork quilt, and that led him to found the NAMES Project Foundation. On October 11, 1987, during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with 1,920 panels — larger than a football field — for the 500,000 people who came to visit it and the thousands of people who had been affected by the disease.
In 1987, the same year that The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed, the F.D.A. approved the first drug for the treatment of AIDS, AZT. But because of its costs, however, not everyone could access it. Still, AZT and other medicines that came after it offered a chance at life. Meanwhile, ACT UP protested everywhere and everyone that impeded treatment for the disease or spread false information about HIV, and as a result incited conversation, swayed public opinion, and moved change along.
My Uncle Butchie died of HIV in 1988 before he could take advantage of AZT. An intravenous drug user, he walked around with a plastic gallon bucket and squeegee and cleaned windshields and store front windows for cash. The sun was clouded that day in the Walt Whitman housing projects as I watched family members enter black limousines from the sixth floor window of my grandmother’s apartment. They were stoic and solemn like crows.
From 1988 to 1992, there would be 181,212 known deaths in the U.S. from HIV and AIDS.

1990s: Religious Freedom Restoration Act, The Defense Of Marriage, And Matthew Sheppard

This decade started with The Immigration Act of 1990, which removed “sexual deviation” as a basis for barring homosexuals from entering the U.S.
Plantation Lullabies, Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s studio album, debuted on October 19, 1993. She was one of the first first out bisexual hip-hop artists. The songs “Outside Your Door,” “Picture Show,” and “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” opened up a sexualized and non-gendered space for new genres of identity to occur, and I rewound and replayed those tracks on my Sony Walkman over and over.
For its complex depiction of white gay men and AIDS in the 1980s, Angels in America, written by Tony Kushner, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Earlier in that same year, Sharon Bottoms was sued by her mother for custody of her son. Due to the sodomy laws in Virginia, which made oral sex a felony, her lesbian relationship rendered her an unfit parent. Sharon lost custody of her son and was granted visitation rights, but not in her own home.
Then, in March 1993, President Clinton signed into federal law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits “burdening a person's exercise of religion.” The law has been used continuously to justify disenfranchising LGBTQ+ individuals from their rights. Clinton also gifted us with 1996’s The Defense of Marriage Act, which gave states the power to deny lawful same-sex marriages from another state and defined marriage as a legal “union of one man and one woman.”
Nineteen-ninety-eight was a year of reckoning with the brutal imagination of white men. Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old out gay man, was lured by two men from a lounge, and driven to a remote area of Laramie, WY. There, they beat him with the butt of a pistol, struck him 19 to 21 times on the head, and tied him to a buck fence. He remained there for 18 hours. His murderers received two consecutive life sentences. That same year, James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old black man, was murdered by three white men in Jasper, TX. His assailants drove him to a remote area too, beat him severely too, urinated on him, and then chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck and dragged him three miles. All three were tried and convicted, two received the death penalty, and the third, life in prison.
Over a decade later, through the activism of Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law on October 28, 2009, by President Obama. The new act expanded the 1968 federal hate-crime law to include offenses motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

2000s: California, The L Word, and Travel Bans

After completing graduate school in western Massachusetts, my girlfriend and I headed West two years after the state became the first in the nation (and sixth jurisdiction in the world) to legalize same-sex marriage.
After months of unemployment and part-time jobs in Oakland, California, I scored a project management position with a dance company, and my girlfriend and I registered as domestic partners so she could receive my health and dental benefits. The California domestic partner registry was passed in 1999, and from 2002 to 2012 a series of laws in the state gave domestic partners the ability to use sick leave to care for their partners, rights to inherit without a will, step-parent adoption rights, health care, equal tax treatment, and much more. All of this was accomplished, in part, thanks to the consistent presence of vocal and visible lesbians in the California Assembly and Senate, including Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Christine Kehoe, and Jackie Goldberg.
The L Word aired on Showtime from 2004 to 2009, and its cast included Jennifer Beal, Pam Grier, and Laurel Holloman, who were a part of a community of lesbians and queers in Los Angeles, navigating interwoven relationships, limbs, and plot lines. I loved getting lost in their chart of desires that were similar to my own. The show’s producers and writers received criticism for its lack of relevance and diversity — all valid points — but I must say, The L Word reframed “lesbian,” activated a popular cultural conversation that centered lesbians, and gave lesbianism star appeal. Times were hard, and these were the years of the Great Recession, and The L Word provided a wellspring of distraction.
In December 2008, the Bush administration refused to support the U.N. declaration that hoped to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide. But President Obama endorsed it in March 2009, and in October that year he removed the HIV travel ban in the United States. The leading national LGBTQ immigration organization, Immigrant Equality, celebrated.

2010s: President Obama, President Trump, and Transgender Rights

I still have proof that I voted for Obama for his first and second terms. His administration provided us with hope for a more inclusive nation with his expansion of Title IX protections for transgender students, his repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, same-sex marriage, and his Dear Colleague letter.
When Black Lives Matter formed in 2013 to “build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes,” its founders — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi — continue the legacy of lesbian and queer women being on the front lines of social movements. They galvanized people through social media after the man who murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was acquitted, and reached the international stage after 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a Ferguson, MO. police officer. The organization openly: “Supports the lives of the Black queer and transgender communities, the disabled, the undocumented, those with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.”
A year later, Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. And she’s cute.
Two years after that, there’s the deadliest violence against LGBTQ+ people in U.S. history: the Pulse Nightclub Mass Shooting, in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people were killed and 53 injured, mostly Latinx.
Then came the Trump administration. They reminded us that making America great is not an inclusive and equitable enterprise. In 2017, many transgender protections were reversed. In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, which leaves many LGBTQ+ individuals potentially vulnerable in medical settings. And Trump’s admin has barred transgender people from joining the military.
#WontBeErased started in 2018 as a response to these roll-backs of federal rights protections for transgender people, and the Trump administration’s move to narrowly define gender “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
If every step forward is met with two steps back, here’s an onward action for you: On March 13, 2019, Congress was presented with the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex.

Today: The Fight For LGBTQ+ Rights Continues

I certainly didn’t cover all the fights and triumphs for LGBTQ+ rights that have occurred in the 50 years since Stonewall, but I hope this timeline has pointed you in directions for further explorations and deepened your understanding of the historical moment in which you occupy. I believe we are arriving, and that is where we need to be — always active in creating a more equitable and inclusive nation. I say with critical optimism that it is getting better, because I need to dream forth a place where trans youth, such as Blake Brockington and Shelley “Treasure” Hilliard, do not live in fear and disenfranchisement. Projects like the It Gets Better campaign, for example, gives people a sense of a future and encourages us to embrace the past from which we came.

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