The roots of Pride Month

This week marks the end of June – Pride Month – the commemoration of the Stonewall Rebellion and the celebration of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community.

Pride celebrations have been in the news this year, the 24th anniversary of Stonewall, primarily because of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s refusal to allow a Pride celebration to be held on Justice Department (DOJ) grounds in Washington. While Ashcroft was subsequently forced to rescind his ban on the use of DOJ facilities, he has continued to withhold official DOJ sponsorship.

Pride month is something to be celebrated by more than the GLBT community, though. It is a commemoration of the fight for civil rights and against police repression.

Leading up to the Stonewall events of June 28, 1969, many had been fighting against anti-homosexual laws. While Stonewall was perhaps a sea change in the strength of the movement, the struggle for GLBT equality had been around for years.

Gay bars were deemed illegal, and any place where three or more homosexuals gathered was considered a gay bar and subject to losing its liquor license. Such rules added to an already homophobic society. The Mattachine Society of New York, a gay rights organization founded in the 1950s, and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged this unconstitutional law head on. Though no lawsuit was ever filed, the news coverage of the challenge forced the city to legalize gay bars. (Among the Mattachine Society’s founders was Communist Harry Hay.)

What still remained was police entrapment and repression. Vice cops would go to the newly legal gay bars and arrest patrons, treating them as prostitutes. Between pressure from judges, whose schedules were being overwhelmed with these cases, and from the community, the police commissioner announced that this policy would end.

However, as the events of June 28, 1969, showed, the issue of police targeting of gay bars was far from over. In a summer flurry of bar raids, focused on gay, Black and Hispanic bars, the police charged that the Stonewall Inn was violating liquor control laws. At 3 a.m., eight plain-clothed police officers entered the bar and ushered patrons out. As raids had become a common event, most peacefully walked out and waited for their friends.

The mood shifted, though, when a police wagon drove up. The raiding officers forced two bar employees and four patrons into the wagon. The patrons realized that this was not the same as the other raids they had been through. As a result, people started throwing things at the wagon as it drove away. The crowd grew more and more angry and the items being thrown became bigger.

Violence broke out between police, who had stationed themselves inside the bar, and protesters. The police response was to beat protesters and threaten to shoot.

The protests continued on and off for a number of days. The crowd at the June 29 demonstration was estimated to be in the thousands.

On July 2, the demonstrations turned more violent, with the police using their nightsticks indiscriminately in the crowd. Those out in support of gay rights were left battered, bruised and bloody in the streets.

The significance of Stonewall is not the violence, though. It was the first time that there was active resistance against the persecution of homosexuals. While the GLBT rights movement stretches back much earlier than June 1969, the Stonewall Rebellion set off a new militancy and openness to the movement.

Starting in 1970, marches have been held every year to mark that shift, and the entire month of June has been set aside as a time to be proud of the past, present and future of the GLBT movement.

The author can be reached at jbarnett@pww.org