The Struggle for Gay Rights: On Stonewall and the HIV/AIDS Crisis
According to the Pew Institute, 70% of Americans believe homosexuality is acceptable, the highest recorded in U.S. history. However, this doesn’t mean that America is a “post-gay” country. Less than 50 years ago, sodomy was a crime in the state of Virginia. Now that homosexuality has been decriminalized and same-sex unions are legal, it is up to present and future generations to continue the quest for complete equality and protection under the law and society. One of the former front runners for becoming the democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential race was an openly gay man in a same-sex union.
Even 30 years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Now that 50 years have passed since the genesis of the Gay Liberation Movement and 40 years since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis, it is essential to reflect upon what it indeed took to reach this point in history.
On the night of June 28th, 1969, patrons of Stonewall Bar rioted against police who arrested and “roughed up” a man who was wearing “feminine clothing” and shouted terms like “pig” at the police officers.
What triggered the rioting itself was that two transgender women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, threw the first brick at Stonewall, aiming at the police. The police began hiding inside Stonewall and returned outside and tear-gassed the rioters until the late hours of the night. The Stonewall Riots started the Gay Liberation Movement and the first anniversary of the riots marked the first Gay Pride Parade. Another significant milestone in the Gay Rights Movement marked by Stonewall was that it was now a part of gay culture to fight back against oppression through protests.
Marsha P. Johnson is known as the “Rosa Parks of the Gay Rights Movement” or the “Mother of Stonewall” because she advocated for intersectionality in the Gay Liberation Movement, aiming to include transgender people of color and drag queens.
It is essential to remember the names of the brave activists who paved the way for the rights, queer people reserve today, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. These two are incredibly important in queer history because they ensured that the liberation movement would be intersectional and include people of color and transgender people. However, both these events in history weren’t just about queer rights; they were about police violence, poor governance, and race as well. Stonewall is not only a significant event for those who identify as members of the 2LGBTQIA+ community, but for any person who believes in human rights and equality and equal protection under the law.
For decades before Stonewall, thousands of gender-non-conforming and queer individuals were arrested and subject to not only police brutality but attacks by citizens in public. Thousands of gay men watched their friends die in front of them because their government did not believe that the lives of gay men mattered, and only until it began to affect powerful and wealthy people did they think that HIV/AIDS was something to pay attention to. The HIV/AIDS crisis humanized gay men to the public as it became a disease that affected straights and gays alike. Change is relative to every situation and region, but what remains absolute is that change doesn’t happen overnight, nor will everyone approach change the same way. Society does not decide one day that homosexuality is a crime and sodomizers go to hell.
These attitudes are fostered through generations, and dismantling these hateful values, takes a significant amount of time. Black Americans still have grandparents who were segregated and great-grandparents who were slaves. At times, people think that events like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the KKK March in Washington, the murder of Emmett Till, and Stonewall all seem so distant when they all happened less than 100 years ago.
It is paramount not to forget or brush off the genuine and current struggle for equality in an America where police are murdering black men like Mike Brown for no reason, and same-sex couples can be fired simply for being queer. Let us never forget those who died for equality and equity.