US, from the Stonewall Inn to Today: The Story of Gay Pride for Those Who Invoke Normalization

Every year, in response to Gay Pride (which in the U.S. occurs in the month of June), the same vacuous debates arise. What does “pride” have to do with civil rights? Why does this masquerade of naked butts and nipples in the air undermine the “at-least-in-part-shared claims” of LGBT people? Could there perhaps exist a heterosexual pride? Shouldn’t those who seek “normality” try to promote a “normal” image? The answers to these questions, other than in reason, reside in the last 50 years of American history.

In the 1960s, the United States experienced profound social revolutions. The 1964 black riots in Philadelphia were followed by those in Watts in 1965, in Cleveland and Omaha in 1966, and finally in Detroit and Newark in 1967. Having exacerbated social conflicts and disparities, the Vietnam War caused the exponential growth of the pacifist movement.

The gay community was preparing its awakening slowly and without a unified political platform. In March of 1969 on the West Coast, in San Francisco, Gale Whittington, then in his 20s, had been fired summarily from the States Steamship Company because, on a photo published on the Berkeley Barb, he appeared hugging his friend Leo Laurence, director of Vector, the press arm of the Society for Individual Rights (SIR). At the time, the pro-homosexual organization most representative of the city could not or did not want to intervene to defend Whittington. So Laurence founded the Committee for Homosexual Freedom (CHF), and with the help of Huey Newton, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers, he modeled his new organization on the Black Power movement. In those months, apart from organizing numerous demonstrations, the CHF produced “Refugees from America: A Gay Manifesto” by another young activist, Carl Wittman, which is considered the written document said to have symbolically marked the birth of the gay liberation movement. In his pages, Wittman promoted a mass coming out, self-defense, intransigence and political struggle.

At the same time on the East Coast, discontent was increasing toward the actions of the Mattachine Society of New York. Founded by Harry Hay in 1950, the Mattachine Society had always followed a so-called “ameliorative” or soft political policy, perceived by many as “respectable,” not aggressive enough, too conciliatory, and more like that of a mutual aid society and not adapted to the agenda of a liberation front. Among its most critical members, John O’Brien, then in his 20s, was first expelled from the Mattachines for being too radical and then from the Young Socialist Alliance for being gay (or more precisely, for having refused to deny rumors of his alleged homosexuality). Thus, he founded another group, still anonymous, that used to meet at “Alternate U,” a kind of social center situated at the intersection of 14th Street and 6th Avenue. The language of O’Brien’s group included slogans like “Gays Must Fight Back” and “Resist,” which promoted action and aimed at the involvement of as large a group of activists as possible. On the female front, an ever-increasing number of activists was starting to not tolerate the agenda of the Mattachine’s counterpart, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), which was seen as too weak. Even though she was an active member of DOB and a representative of the movement at Columbia University, Martha Shelley was among the most restless voices, and her subsequent choices had a great influence on the history of LGBT rights and American feminism. This was the situation on the eve of the Stonewall riots.

Located at 53 Christopher St., The Stonewall Inn was one of the most popular meeting places in Greenwich Village. On Saturday, June 28, 1969, the establishment was full as always. Around 1 a.m. Lili Law, Betty Badge and Peggy Pig knocked on the door, ordering to be allowed in. The drag queens had given these nicknames to the police agents who regularly burst into the bar, as they did in all the other establishments in the Village. The legal means that the police had at their disposal were two: Article 240.35, Section 4 of the Penal Code and the compliance of the alcohol license. The infamous article aimed to punish any “unnatural attire or facial alteration;” basically, whoever wore fewer than three articles considered “gender appropriate” was automatically susceptible to arrest. As for the alcohol, in 1966 the New York Court of Appeals had ruled that even homosexuals had the right to consume alcoholic drinks in public establishments. But the license of the Stonewall Inn was apparently not conforming to the rules. Under this pretext, six agents, four men and two women, of the First Division morals squad entered the bar. Their intention was to carry out one of their usual sweeps.

As the story goes, once people had been arrested, a lesbian about to be loaded on the van turned to speak to all those who had not been arrested, exclaiming, “Why don’t you do something?” At that point, the crowd armed itself with bottles and bricks and began to revolt. According to that night’s witnesses, the drag queen Marsha P. Johnson filled a handbag with bricks and started to shatter a police car. In the meantime, John O’Brien had come to help from the Alternate U headquarters. Those who had been arrested were freed and the police were forced to barricade themselves inside the Stonewall Inn to avoid being lynched. Lamp posts and parking meters were uprooted and used as makeshift weapons to storm the six members of the morals squad. While everyone rushed toward the phone booths to call for reinforcements, the story goes that another drag queen, Silvia Rivera, said the famous words, “It’s a revolution!” Many rushed to contribute to the revolt, including Martha Shelley, who is to date one of the most valuable eyewitnesses from that night. But around 2:20 a.m. the Tactical Patrol arrived. A group of drag queens and transgender patrons greeted the handful of police with notes of “Ta-ra-ra-a Boom-de-ay.” The police also attacked and were very violent. The people of the Village had had enough. The following three days passed by in relative calm. But Wednesday night, things lit up again and the clashes resumed with never before seen violence. It was the beginning of a new era for all LGBT people because, to paraphrase Dick Leitsch of the Mattachine Society, it was the first time that thousands of homosexual people were rebelling and gathering publicly to protest their daily oppression. Soon after, the young Martha Shelley founded the “Gay Liberation Front” and from the streets of the Village, the fight for civil rights spread across the entire territory of the United States. The end of the 1960s gave rise to an activism that determined the course of fundamental social progress during the 1970s and the following decades.

This is the story and whoever invokes a normalization of pride is not familiar with it. There is not heterosexual pride because there have never existed articles in the penal code facilitating the arrest of heterosexual people for being heterosexual. And whoever is scandalized by a nude transgender woman should remember the sacrifices that many transgender people and many drag queens made during the Stonewall riots. Every year we celebrate pride in commemoration of those days. All public buildings in the United States are adorned with colorful lights as a sign of solidarity. All the mayors of the major cities, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, participate in the parades. All the most important universities honor the memory of those nights with an official ceremony sponsored by the president, and no one cries scandal. Since the year 2000, the Stonewall Inn has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the other side of the ocean, 48 years after the night of the riots, Italian LGBT people still cannot marry each other, nor can they adopt children, and transphobia continues to be the trench of prejudice.

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