In Depth

Stonewall 50: from riots to Pride

How gay rights fought their way into the mainstream

Pride marches across the world have a particular significance this year. Fifty years ago, on 28 June 1969, the Stonewall Riots took place in New York City, an incident which went on to fuel the rise of the gay rights movement as we know it.

London will hold its annual Pride parade on Saturday 7 July, with tens of thousands of people expected to march through the British capital to celebrate their identity and proclaim their right to express their love, sexuality and identity. But Pride might not exist without the riots that took place 50 years ago in New York.

The Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall riots of June 1969 take their name from the Stonewall Inn, a formerly Mafia-owned bar in the Greenwich Village area of New York City.

Alongside various illicit activities, the bar also became a social institution for the city’s gay community. At a time when sexual minorities were routinely persecuted by police, “gay bars were places of refuge where gay men and lesbians and other individuals who were considered sexually suspect could socialise in relative safety from public harassment”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Tired and angered by constant raids, when police stormed the inn during the early hours of 28 June 1969 - the second time that week they had raided the bar – patrons fought back.

As officers cleared the bar, allegedly roughing up customers and taking some into custody for offences like cross-dressing, the crowd gathering outside the Stonewall “began to jeer at and jostle the police and then threw bottles and debris”.

“Accustomed to more passive behaviour, even from larger gay groups, the policemen called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar while some 400 people rioted.”

Unrest and protests around the Stonewall, spearheaded by figures including black drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, would continue for five days after the raids, turning an act of persecution into a transformative moment in LGBT history.

One month after the raids, the first march was held to demand an end to the persecution of gay men and lesbians – and one year later, to the day, the first Pride march took place. However, it was another eleven years after that, in 1980, that all sexual relations between consenting adults were legalised in New York state.

The Stonewall bar was designated a national monument in 1999 because of its pivotal role in the development of human rights in the US, says the New York Times.

Over the rainbow

The iconic rainbow flag first appeared years later, after the LGBT movement took on the pink triangle originally used by the Nazis to denote gay people as a symbol of liberation.

Artist Gilbert Baker – aka drag queen Busty Ross – created the rainbow flag for a San Francisco march in 1978. He dyed thousands of yards of cotton to make the flags, one of which was raised in the United Nations Plaza, reports The Independent.

Baker said the flag was the perfect representation of the LGBT community. “We are a people, a tribe and flags are about proclaiming power,” he told New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Party or protest?

London’s parade is known for its colourful imagery and party atmosphere, leading some critics to argue it has lost its purpose as a means of protest. Writing in The Guardian this year, activist Peter Tatchell says it has suffered a “political retreat” and has sold its soul to capitalism.

However, in countries where homosexuality is either illegal or barely tolerated, organising a march remains an act of protest and the global LGBT community continues to do so even when the parade has been banned.

Perhaps the most unusual commemoration of the riots is taking place on a very small scale: Danish toymaker Lego has built a tiny Pride parade at its Westchester, New York, centre, Pink News reports.

The site says “tiny attendees” at Lego’s parade are wearing colourful costumes and waving “little Pride flags”. The parade has two Lego floats and a Stonewall 50 mosaic.

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