Stonewall at 40 Resource Kit | January 2009
On the morning of June 28, 1969, a group of patrons at the Stonewall Inn – a New York city bar that was a frequent target of police raids because it catered to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community – fought back against police brutality and harassment. Their uprising set in motion a wave of activism among LGBT people that continued for five more consecutive nights and came to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion, the Stonewall Uprising or the Stonewall Riots, and many historians credit Stonewall with putting the issue of LGBT civil rights on the American political map
With the 40th anniversary of Stonewall occurring this month, GLAAD is encouraging media professionals to use this important milestone as an opportunity to look at the progress made by the LGBT community and its allies over the last 40 years, as well as to examine recent progress and setbacks on LGBT-related policy issues at the federal, state and local level. GLAAD also encourages journalists to frame their coverage of 2009 Pride events, many of which will occur in June, in the context of these past 40 years of cultural, legal, political and community progress.
History of Stonewall
The Stonewall Riots began at around 2 a.m. on the morning of June 28, 1969, shortly after the New York Police Department raided the popular Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village that catered to the LGBT community. At the time, police raids on LGBT bars were common, and during these raids LGBT community members often experienced harassment and brutality at the hands of law enforcement. The night of the Stonewall Rebellion, patrons resisted, refusing to comply with police officers during the raid. Outside of the bar, crowds of bystanders began to gather, growing increasingly agitated until eventually they fought back. The rebellion sparked five more consecutive nights of protests, drawing out greater numbers of LGBT and allied supporters each night.
Previous incidents of LGBT people resisting police brutality and harassment have been recorded – most notably the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco – but Stonewall roused thousands to action in the days and weeks that followed. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front formed in New York, and though gay and lesbian networks such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis existed before Stonewall, the uprising marked the first steps in a shift in the visibility and approach of the LGBT community.
Beginning with the galvanizing moments of Stonewall, the LGBT movement has made tremendous progress over the past 40 years, though there is still a great deal of work to be done. While there have been important advances in legal protections for LGBT Americans at the state and local level (particularly in areas of inclusive hate crimes laws, domestic partnerships, non-discrimination laws, and, in recent years, marriage equality), significant work remains in terms of securing inclusive federal legislation in the areas of marriage and relationship recognition, hate crimes laws, employment non-discrimination, immigration equality, ending the HIV travel/immigration ban, and repealing the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law barring military service by openly gay personnel. (For more details on policy issues facing the LGBT community, please see the issue maps published by the Human Rights Campaign and the Task Force.)
Progress & Setbacks
In 1969, LGBT people regularly faced a political and social climate that often excluded the LGBT community from safeguards and legal protections. Local, state and federal legislation protecting LGBT people from violence and discrimination was virtually non-existent. LGBT Americans were frequently perceived as mentally ill, and some people perceived to be LGBT were monitored by the government for illicit activity. Raids by law enforcement on bars and other gathering places catering to LGBT people were common, and people could be arrested for engaging in consensual sexual activity in their homes because of the existence of so-called “sodomy laws.” LGBT people were all but invisible in the mainstream media, and many LGBT people lived their lives in secret, keeping their sexual orientation or gender identity hidden from family members, friends and coworkers. Those that lived openly risked severe backlash and ridicule that often impacted their personal and professional lives.
One year after Stonewall, a coalition of gay liberation organizations held the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march in New York and several other US cities, an event that led to the proliferation of annual LGBT Pride events nationwide and around the world. The organization also worked on policy issues. In 1971, the New York City Council debated one of the first efforts to extend the city’s human rights policy to gay men and lesbians – thanks in large part to the work of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Other events signaled greater visibility in other parts of the country. In 1975, Elaine Noble became the nation’s first openly gay legislator when she was elected to the Massachusetts legislature. That same year, Air Force Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich announced he was gay, and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine under the headline “I Am a Homosexual: The Gay Drive for Acceptance.” In 1977, openly gay politician Harvey Milk won a city Supervisor seat in San Francisco, though he would be assassinated just one year later.
The HIV/AIDS crisis that emerged in the 1980s had a devastating impact on the LGBT community. Early reports identified HIV as a “gay cancer,” and sensational media coverage and a lack of action on the part of public health officials led to the stigmatization of people with AIDS and the LGBT community. Advocacy and public education organizations including Gay Men’s Health Crisis (formed in 1982), the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD, formed in 1985) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP, formed in 1987) emerged and galvanized members of the LGBT community in the face of the crisis and created new models for activism.
Over time, the LGBT community has experienced both key progress and setbacks that translated into legislative action at the federal, state and local level on issues such as hate crimes, workplace nondiscrimination and relationship recognition. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Georgia law outlawing consensual sex between same-sex couples in Bowers v. Hardwick, which was eventually overturned in 2003 by the court in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas ruling. In 1990, the passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act marked the first federal law to reference lesbian, gay and bisexual people, though several years later, the passage of the of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 marked setbacks for the LGBT community in the area of federal legislation. Currently, the inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been re-introduced to Congress after failing in 1996 and 2008, and the Matthew Shepard Act has recently passed the House of Representatives and will soon go before the Senate.
At the regional and local level, many ordinances extending employment protections, civil unions and domestic partnerships to LGBT people and expanding existing hate crimes laws to include the LGBT community have been passed. Some of the most visible efforts have been around marriage for same-sex couples. In 1993, a Hawai’i trial court ruled that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying was not justified, setting the stage for the movement for marriage equality. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court extended marriage equality to same-sex couples in the state – though from 2004-2008 many states enacted constitutional amendments prohibiting marriage for same-sex couples. Last year, the extension of marriage to couples in California was overturned by the passage of Proposition 8 in November, though recently marriage has been extended to couples in Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.
The LGBT Community Today
Since the uprising at Stonewall forty years ago, the movement for LGBT equality has become increasingly organized, with an array of professional and grassroots organizations working to advance LGBT issues and to support LGBT people at the national, state and local level. Advocacy organizations take a range of approaches, including direct lobbying and policy work, public education and outreach, community organizing, and legal advocacy. Direct service organizations provide resources and services for LGBT people, while LGBT community centers often have programming, social events and other opportunities for the LGBT community to come together. Thanks to the advent of social and online media, a new generation of advocates – many of them youth and young adults – have found new ways to get involved with LGBT advocacy, notably with the “Join the Impact” rallies and marches that took place in the aftermath of the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California.
The advocacy work of these organizations and individuals continues to bring greater visibility to LGBT people and families, allowing many members of the LGBT community to feel more comfortable in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and houses of worship. That visibility has also helped everyday Americans to recognize the common ground that they share with their LGBT friends, family and neighbors – creating new opportunities to change hearts and minds around LGBT-related policy issues. The vocal support of straight allies in local communities, politics and mainstream media have also helped to build support around LGBT issues across the country.
Despite this progress, LGBT people still face tremendous obstacles and are still disproportionately singled out for harassment and violence. It is still legal to fire someone just because they are gay in 30 states and because they are transgender in 37 states. LGBT people are also banned from serving openly in the military, and many loving, committed same-sex couples are unable to adequately take care of and be responsible for each other because of anti-gay marriage bans and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars any federal recognition of same-sex couples.
While the LGBT community is more visible than ever before and has experienced significant political and social progress, many members of the LGBT community are not included to the same degree in mainstream political conversations or media representations of the community. LGBT people of color, transgender people, bisexual people, LGBT elders, and people from diverse socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds are often left out of mainstream media conversations about LGBT community and policy issues. Historically, many of these communities have taken steps to create alternative spaces for organizing and activism. For instance, the ballroom scene has created an opportunity for African-American and Latino LGBT young people to build affirming communities and networks in many cities, while transgender advocates have used online networks and regional conferences to connect and develop approaches for advocacy specific to the transgender community.
The majority of LGBT Pride events are held in June to commemorate the anniversary of Stonewall. These events often feature marches, parades, festivals and parties, and provide an opportunity for the LGBT community to come together in celebration and solidarity. In 1999 President Bill Clinton declared June ‘National Gay & Lesbian Pride Month.’ In 2000, the federal government declared the former Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the streets and sidewalks in their vicinity where the Uprising occurred a National Historic Landmark, the highest level of recognition given by the federal government for historic importance. This year, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation recognizing June as LGBT Pride month. Many Pride celebrations this month will place particular emphasis on recognizing the 40th Anniversary of Stonewall and will feature programming that reflects the special significance of the anniversary. For more information on covering LGBT Pride events, please see our Pride 2009 Resource Kit.
For more information about Stonewall, please see the Web site of David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. The site is a resource for those who want to learn more about Stonewall and to make available to the public a listing of events taking place during this special anniversary year:http://www.davidcarterauthor.com/
Please contact GLAAD for media referrals to historians, LGBT advocacy organizations or LGBT people who can speak to the significance of Stonewall:
Director of National News
For local angles on the LGBT community as it relates to Stonewall, you can locate the LGBT community center in your area:
National Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Centers
Terry Stone, Executive Director
The LGBT Community Center in New York can speak to local LGBT advocacy in New York as it relates to Stonewall:
Director of Development and Communications
Many LGBT seniors have a unique perspective on the history of the LGBT community. SAGE, Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, can provide you with information and potential referrals.
SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders)
For information on specific LGBT policy, legal, social and cultural issues, please refer to the organizations and advocacy groups listed in the Directory of Community Resources in the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.