Human Rights

Forty years since ‘Stonewall’

This weekend was the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which most consider the symbolic beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Peter Tatchell has a piece on CiF which is attracting a lot of attention.

Previously, LGBT people worldwide had largely complied with arrest and criminalisation. But not in New York on the nights of 27 and 28 June 1969. What began as a routine police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, turned into sporadic street battles. In the aftermath of this history-making queer resistance, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed in New York and similar groups sprang up across the US and the world. The modern LGBT rights movement was born.

There had been earlier homosexual law reform and welfare organisations in the US, Britain and the Netherlands. But these were small, discreet lobby groups. Their members were brave trailblazers but very defensive and mostly closeted.

The global GLF movement was radically different. It was a watershed in queer consciousness – the moment LGBT people discarded victimhood and stopped apologising. Instead of pleas for tolerance, the demand was unconditional acceptance. Thousands came out. This had never happened before.

I joined London GLF, aged 19. Our slogan: Gay is Good. These three simple words were revolutionary. Until then, nearly everyone – including many LGBTs – believed that gay was bad, mad and sad. Whereas mainstream society saw homosexuality as a problem, we said the problem was homophobia. Straight supremacism was, to us, the equivalent of white supremacism.

Our vision was a new sexual democracy, without homophobia and misogyny. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with socially enforced monogamy and male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – queer and straight. Our message was “innovate, don’t assimilate”.

Personally, I’ve never really had a problem with ‘assimilation’ and I think many of my post-Stonewall, post-babyboomer contemporaries (GenX, or whatever you like to call us) don’t either. But I think the non-conformist reaction was, in retrospect, a necessary step towards the eventual ‘normalisation’ we enjoy today. Much, I think, in the same way the 50s and 60s revolutionised society’s way of looking at a lot of issues, like racial and gender equality, for a start. So I am not unappreciative or dismissive of the efforts of these queer pioneers.

Anyhow, you can read the rest of Peter’s article – in which he laments the ‘loss of radicalism – here.

David T adds:

Also read Oliver Kamm, on the power of legislation to shape attitudes.

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