The legacy of Stonewall: 'Where Pride began'

Since the now-historic 1969 uprising, Stonewall has emerged as a headquarters for the LGBTQ community in both celebratory and tragic times.
By Gwen Aviles

Since the now-historic 1969 uprising, Stonewall has emerged as a headquarters for the LGBTQ community in both celebratory and tragic times. Whether people are gathering for a political rally, as they did in 2017 to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and his “anti-LGBTQ” appointees, to mourn those who’ve died in the community as they did after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, or to commemorate marriage equality, Stonewall is one of the first places activists trek to.

“If you go back to as early as 2008 when ‘don't ask, don't tell’ was overturned, watching officers come into the Stonewall and have a drink actually in uniform for the first time was an incredible experience,” Stacy Lentz, co-owner of the Stonewall Inn and co-founder of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative (SIGBI), told NBC News. “The fact that they all knew to gather here was incredible.”

Stonewall became a national monument and the first LGBTQ space to hold landmark status in New York City in 2016, solidifying its role not just in gay history but in American history.

Yet as noteworthy as the space is, with its dozens of rainbow flags planted outside it and a sign declaring it “a raided premises,” Stonewall’s legacy extends beyond the physical bar in the West Village. Stonewall is an ethos that persists today in the courageous activism of subsequent generations.

“It did unleash the energy of a new generation of political activists. It did lead to foregrounding coming out of the closet as a critical political strategy,” George Chauncey, a Columbia University history professor and author of “Gay New York,” said. “Certainly people had come out before … but the useful thing about Stonewall is that a lot of people point to it to say, ‘We can’t stay quiet; we can’t acquiesce.'”

The continued fight for LGBTQ rights has led to significant progress. Four years after the 1969 Stonewall uprisings, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses. In 1974, Elaine Noble of Massachusetts became the first openly gay person elected to statewide office. In 2003, the landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas declared that American laws prohibiting private homosexual activity between consenting adults was unconstitutional. And in 2015, same-sex marriage became legal across the U.S. thanks to the landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges. After the country’s last midterm elections last year, a rainbow wave was declared when more than150 LGBTQ candidates won their races.

Yet just as Stonewall didn’t technically mark the beginning of the gay rights movement, its 50th anniversary doesn’t mark the end of it either. For many, remembrances of the Stonewall uprising serve as a reminder of what work remains to be done, of whose voices still need to be heard and of whose queer bodies still need to be protected.

“We don’t live in a society where you fight for your rights and all of a sudden, they’re one and done. It’s about building on the backs of our forefathers and foremothers,” Danielle Moodie-Mills, host of the SiriusXM show “WokeAF,” said. “It’s about carrying on and the idea of creating more space at the table, more space in society. Each and every day, each and every decade.”

In 2018, advocates tracked at least 26 violent deaths of transgender people — the majority of whom were black transgender women — according to the Human Rights Campaign. This year, at least 11 transgender people have been killed, further exemplifying that such violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color.

“The LGBT community as a whole in addressing the issue of trans people and the violence that we face is something that we’ve always been doing,” Kristen Lovell, a trans advocate and film producer, said. “I think now it needs to be the people who claim to be our allies … or the people who claim to love us to stand up and let people know that it’s not OK to attack us, to beat us, to demonize us.”

But part of instituting change, Lovell states, means knowing complete LGBT history. Lovell remembers learning about Stonewall as a teenager, but it wasn’t until she met Sylvia Rivera later on that she knew who she was — the trans trailblazer behind Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Her knowledge of transgender activist and icon Marsha P. Johnson, who died in 1992, also came later.

“There was trans profiling and … getting snatched up off the street,” Lovell recalled of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period with fierce policing of transgender people over the piers that have since been transformed into the Highline. “And so when I began to learn about Marsha … seeing visuals of Marsha or just hearing Marsha from her own stories, and I realized that nothing had really changed from their time to my time."

There’s also a tendency for LGBTQ activists and allies to “compartmentalize” issues, which impedes progress, according to Glenn Magpantay, the executive director of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.

“In Stonewall, we were fighting against police raids. … Today, we’re fighting against ICE raids,” Magpantay told NBC News. “We are still facing the government actors who oppress us, who attack us, who victimize us. … Whether we are gay or immigrant, we have shared struggle; we have common cause. We should be working together.”

Magpantay adds that people must broaden their understanding of the legislation that can bolster and protect the queer community. While he believes the Equality Act, which bans discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing, employment, education and other public accommodations is vital, he doesn’t view it as the end-all, be-all.

“We need to fight for the Equality Act as vigorously as we fight for immigrant rights, as we fight against racial injustice and against police misconduct,” he said. “All of these aspects affect all our communities.”

Under the Trump Administration, federal rollbacks against LGBTQ rights have been set in motion. In April, the president’s contentious transgender military policy, which bars transgender personnel from serving openly and denies them access to gender-affirming medical care, went into effect. Last month, the Health and Human Services Department proposed a new rule suggesting that federal laws banning sex discrimination in health care don’t apply to patients’ “gender identity.” United States citizenship has also been denied to some children of LGBTQ couples, among other policies activists deem harmful to the LGBTQ community.

“I think the story of the march toward justice and the journey toward justice in our country around the world is never linear. … There's no question that in the two and a half years of the Trump-Pence administration we've seen the most explicitly anti transgender administration in our history and certainly one of the most anti LGBTQ administrations in our history,” said Sarah McBride, the national press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. “They've made clear that LGBTQ people are not part of the America that they seek to serve, and it's our job to make clear to them that we are here to stay.”

Perhaps the most visible legacy of the Stonewall uprising is the establishment of Pride parades, which sprouted from gay rights marches and now take place all over the world. Such parades show Stonewall’s dual purpose. The historic event serves as both an invitation to celebrate and a prompt to rebel as those bar patrons did that summer night in 1969.

"The fight doesn’t happen just in June,” Magpantay said. “Stonewall is a reminder that we need to keep doing this work all the time.”

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