The Stonewall uprisings 40 years ago brought the gay rights movement to the forefront of American culture. Writer and historian David Carter assesses what progress has been made since that pivotal moment and how far the quest for equal rights has to go.
The end of this month marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, an anniversary that has been duly marked by a number of events, including a White House reception on Monday.
But because the history of the gay civil rights movement has generally not been taken seriously by educators nor by the media, people are often uncertain about what exactly Stonewall was: why did the Stonewall Riots occur and what do they mean?
There had been a homosexual rights movement in Germany since the 19th Century, a movement that regained some momentum after the setback caused by World War I. The movement spread in Europe, including Russia, during the 20th century and suffered further setbacks under Nazi and Communist dictatorships.
After World War II homosexual rights movements made progress in Western democracies. The homosexual rights movement began in an organized way in the United States after World War II during the Cold War when the Mattachine Society was founded.
While there was progress toward decriminalizing homosexuality in Canada and Europe, progress in the US was much slower. But in Europe, severe prejudice against homosexuality remained even in those societies where homosexual sex acts were not illegal.
It was the massive and sustained uprising against the police that erupted at the end of June 1969 when the New York City police raided a popular gay bar named the Stonewall that eventually changed the situation worldwide.
Because the riots broke out in the late 1960s after the successes of the US anti-Vietnam War movement and the black civil rights movement, the organizations that emerged immediately after Stonewall were cast in a New Left mould, which also meant a militant consciousness.
The most successful of these organizations, the Gay Activists Alliance, modelled its actions on guerrilla theatre and added camp humour to create "zaps", demonstrations that were highly creative, highly subversive, and designed to get media attention. The result was that gay people were seen over and over in the media acting from positions of power: challenging power and unafraid.
That changed the consciousness of gay people everywhere, including even someone like myself who was a high-school student who was trying very hard to deny his homosexuality.
Suddenly I had a new model: gay men as brave and creative and effective, not as sex perverts who were creeps and mentally ill. And this is why the movement at this historical juncture grew like mushrooms: this was just what gay men and lesbians, who had been so suppressed for so long needed. And because we had witnessed the revolt of all the other oppressed groups, we knew just what to do: all the other militant movements that had changed the consciousness of the masses in the 1960s -even when they had often failed to change particular government policies or pass specific laws - offered a template for ending discrimination and prejudiced thinking.
The Stonewall Riots, in the way that they were immediately commemorated with annual marches, also offered a way to spread the gospel of freedom, equality, and liberation. They were extremely effective because one of the main obstacles against homosexual equality was invisibility.
As long as most people thought they knew no homosexuals what basis did they have for doubting the media image of lesbians and gay men as strange, lonely, sad and probably pathological beings? But when real homosexuals had the courage to march in the sunlight, they did not look so different from anyone else: the normalcy was apparent.
Members of the public might see their co-worker or fellow student or neighbour in the march, and this made it easier for more and more homosexuals to "come out": to quit hiding. This in turn made it possible for people to approach politicians and demand not only that oppressive laws be overturned, but that laws to protect the civil rights of lesbians and gay men be enacted.
And so more and more laws outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation were passed, first on a local basis and then by states. Films and novels began to portray gay men and lesbians more fairly and more accurately.
Ground was lost as a terrifying disease with no cure that was connected in the public's mind with homosexuality spread rapidly. Hysteria was caused in part because it was unclear how the disease was spread. Would mosquitoes or a cough spread it from an infected person to an "innocent" (ie, heterosexual) person?
Again, the gay community fought back as it had during the gay liberation phase by both organizing and by a new creative media campaign. As medical knowledge progressed and the disease spread more and more, it became clear that Aids was not, after all, a "homosexual disease," and hence not a divine judgment on homosexuality.
By the time of the Clinton administration, the gay civil rights movement was ready to spring ahead after 12 years of hostile Republican rule. And spring it did. Gay people were energized by the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and more and more positive and stronger media portrayals from television to Hollywood.
Now with the Obama administration in Washington after eight more years of Republican government, there had been much optimism among gay people in America. This was fuelled in part by Barack Obama's proclamation of support for gay equality except in the area of marriage.
Now the 40th anniversary of Stonewall has simultaneously heightened the gay public's historical awareness, making gay people impatient for action from this administration. Many are wondering whether President Obama will unveil a new policy initiative today.
But whether the Obama administration does so or not, it seems clear that the time of equality is getting close at hand: young Americans don't even understand the idea of discrimination based on sexual orientation any more than young people in the 1990s could understand racial discrimination.
Equality, promised by the advent of the gay liberation movement in Stonewall's wake, is on the horizon. When it finally does arrive, it will be thanks to young gay people who found the courage to stand up for themselves on the streets of Greenwich Village 40 years ago.
David Carter is the author of Stonewall: the riots that sparked the gay revolution. He is a consultant for the BBC Radio 2 programme Stonewall: The Riots That Triggered The Gay Revolution, which will be broadcast on Tuesday 30 June 2009 at 2230BST.
Do you think gay rights still has a long way to go? Use the form below to add your comments.
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Unfortunately 40 years after modern gay rights movement took place, gays and lesbians continue to face discrimination and harassment in Serbia.
The majority of Serbian people display vast anti-gay attitudes. There have been numerous instances of violent gay-bashing, the most extreme during the first Belgrade Gay Pride.
The protection of LGBT people in Serbia is further complicated by the existence of various nationalist and pro-fascist associations like 'Obraz', '1389' and 'Stormfront', which are well-funded and supported by some right-wing political parties. These groups have, on several occasions, made their threats to LGBT people publicly known, with little or no reaction from the media or police.
So, the answer is YES - gay rights still has a long way to go especially in ex-communist countries like Serbia.
Dejan, Belgrade, Serbia
Even in liberal Europe and America, I think we still have a long way to go. The biggest obstacle is 'Civil Partnerships' and their equivalents: these are tantamount to the 'separate but equal' policy that fuelled discrimination in the United States until people began to realise that 'separate but equal' is not equal at all. Gay rights should mean equal rights in name, law and practice.
Josh, Poole, UK
Thank you David Carter for your writing. I too was in high school in 1969 trying desparetly to deny my homosexuality. The gay movement does have a long way to go as I am currently in a graduate program for elementary teacher prep and cannot be open about who I am for fear it will affect my chances of getting a job when I finish. Even after I secure employment as a teacher I won't be able to be honest as there are too many narrow minded politicians in Arizona for me to feel safe here. So yes the movement has a long way to go. God bless you all.
Jack, AZ, USA
Gay rights still has a long way to go in the USA but the sea change over the past generation leaves me dizzy. When I was a young gay man in the 1980s I lived with much greater anxiety about being gay in the USA than I do today. AIDS and the rise of the political right had many gays considering emigrating to what they thought might be friendlier shores in Brazil or Israel or elsewhere (how they came up with those two I never understood.) Flash forward to 2005 and the phenomenal success of the movie "Brokeback Mountain" even in smaller, more rural and conservative areas of the USA. Now the midwestern state of Iowa allows gay marriage. I think the American federal government has a long way to go to catch up with the culture in accepting the equality of gay people. But that's also true regarding universal health insurance coverage and other issues - the fed has been out of step with the American people for generations.
I take inspiration from the vanguard Dutch gay activists, who did not win marriage equality overnight but fought pitched battles for it for more than a generation before they achieved it.
NEVER GIVE UP!
Steve, West Palm Beach, Florida, USA
Stonewall is important, but there was so much done before stonewall. Read the book, 'the trouble with harry hay' and read his accounts of gay life before the word 'gay' was used. he was out in the 1920s. He is a real hero. He organized homosexuals into political action groups long before stonewall.
Sometime you think we are making progress and then you have a setback. Obama is not helping as much as I had hoped. Don't ask Don't tell needs to be repealed. As soon as people find that we are as normal as... "STRAIGHT PEOPLE"... all this will be behind us. I am 54 and hope to see equal rights for me and my partner of 30 years before I die.........
Scott Gilchrist, Indianapolis USA
In extreme cases, women are being raped to cure them of their lesbianism, and gay men beaten and imprisoned in some parts of the world. Educators are still discouraged from talking about homosexuality because apparently talking about healthy and respectful adult relationships will be the undoing of us all. Some religions and religious individuals continue to preach hate and fear and then blame us for their own ignorance. And the media still struggle with portraying gay people as anything other than extreme stereotypes.
We have come an awful long way, but we still have a long journey in front of us...
Allison , Cornwall
I think most people have accepted homosexuality, I also think it's about time they rolled up there banners and stopped bleating on.
John Stephenson, Cork
It's come a long way, and has a long way to go. Believing that marriage is a union between a man and woman is a religious belief - not a law of equality. I am a heterosexual woman. All tax-paying adults should be allowed to marry. If gays are exempt from marriage, they should be exempt from taxes too.
C. Schreppler, Maryland, USA
yes i think that its still a long way to go in our country they say that gays are acceptable but sitll in our culture esp. the beliefs like religion still exist the discrimination in the relationship to gay people.i hope that the people fully understand the rights of gay people.more power!!!
jean acastor, mandaluyong city phillipines
The same way blacks and women had to fight for a long time to obtain equality, the LGBT community will have to do the same. However, thanks to previous civil rights movements, the path for gays has been already made a lot easier. Unfortunately, religious groups and their terror campaigns DO take a toll on the speed of this inevitable process...
Carlos, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Gay rights what a joke! it's gone too far already, these people have rights as individual men and women there is no such thing as a third race your either man or women, get on with it. They should shut up and get on with their lives. They have created resentment form Joe public, people are sick and tired of hearing them complain about how hard done by they think they are.
Gay rights still has a long way to go. Homosexuality or bisexuality is only really accepted if it is clearly labelled as such, either verbally ('coming out') or behaviourally (acting camp or butch). The acceptance of anything other than pure heterosexuality is in its first stage, but the heterosexualist imperative to come out and pigeonhole yourself represents the next hurdle to emancipation and acceptance.
I think that the idea that young people in the States do not understand the idea of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a highly fallacious understatement. When I went to public high school in a relatively affluent part of New Jersey, there would be yearly days of silence in which students and teachers refused to speak in solidarity with those victims of such discrimination. On a number of occasions there were incidents of violence against students who did so, including one which I witnessed; and these were all at a very prestigious public high school.
Because of the increasingly unsanctioned nature of prejudice (primarily against gay males) such thoughts have been increasingly pushed out of the limelight and instead into a more unregulated and less formal (though still) structural form of prejudice. Much like racial or religious discrimination, this is still understood at basic levels of meaning in a very widespread sense: American slang is steeped with a modern linguistic tradition that associates homosexuality with femininity and associates both with negative meaning and inferiority. Calling the time of equality near is a bit of an overstatement. As my classmates used to say in high school (and many no doubt still do), that sentence is gay.
Michael, Westfield, New Jersey
Due to the fanatical influence of intolerant and unelected religious leaders many people still find justification for latent homophobia. In the past 3 years I have made 4 official complaints of homophobia in the workplace in Britain and at best these were dealt with half-heartedly. Laws in Britain in the past few years have moved ahead slowly, but the general population still needs its victim.
E Y, GB
I am considering a career move to Masachusetts US, looking to move there with my partner of 13 years. Although Massachusetts permits gay marriage, federal immigration laws do not recognise same sex relationships of any type.
This is the first time in my life that I have faced difficulties (prejudice quite frankly) as a result of my sexual orientation. Although the company that I work for is fully supportive in moving both me and my partner, there are limitations regarding the visa that my partner can obtain - essentially limited to a 6 month visitor visa.
I find it incredible in 2009 that we are denied immigration equality on the basis of sexual orientation - it is a disgraceful prejudice.
Agulhas, Quebec, Canada
In many countries, especially in Europe many rights are as they should be, but there is still a lot to be done concerning views and opinions amongst the so called ordinary population. This especially applies to the different views on gays in larger cities on the one hand and in rural regions on the other.
Moreover, if we look at the whole world, proper gay rights is still a luxury of the very few. You only have to take a look at many Asian and African countries to understand that the work for gay rights has just begun.
Daniel Saarinen, Turku, Finland
Since I came out in 1977 there has been huge and necessary progress at many levels in the acceptance of gay men and women in both the society as a whole and amongst ourselves. However, when people are still murdered for being gay, when people are still marrying even though they know that they're gay but feel pressured by family or society to do so and considering that if I were to kiss or hold hands in public with another man it might lead to me suffering verbal or physical abuse in many parts of the UK, then it shows that, unfortunately, there's still quite a way to go.
But we're well on the way!
Stephen Watson, Brighton, UK
While great progress has been in LGBT rights in the U.S. during the four decades since Stonewall, the sad truth is that it is other countries that have seen more progress. There has long been a lack of will at the federal level in the U.S. to ensure equality for gay citizens. This is still holding true under the administration of President Obama, who is at best tepid in his interest in gay rights causes. The sort of progress that gays have seen in the U.K., Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and other nations remains a distant goal in the US.
Without support at the federal level, American gays are forced to rely on lengthy state-by-state battles that result in a patchy spread of rights that vary enormously. Gays in the state of New Jersey can have civil unions, while those in neighboring Pennsylvania are not even protected from employment discrimination. Politicians such as President Obama are happy to accept our votes and donations but offer little support for us in return. So yes, gay rights still has a long way to go in America before we can even stand at parity with some Western European nations.
Daniel Syrek, Philadelphia, PA, USA
What David Carter has forgotten is that the Stonewall riots were started not by gay men but by transsexual customers of the Stonewall Inn i.e. TGirls. It is not important but it is a subtle difference. Roy Brookes, Hamburg, Germany
Gays don't need rights. They already have the same rights as the rest of us. What they're asking for is MORE rights than the rest of us.
george cowley, columbia, sc, usa
Gay Rights has come a long way since the Stonewall riots. Thanks to "enlightened" EU Legislation and the hard work of Michael Cashman Ian Mckellen, Elton John, Angela Mason, Peter Tatchell and Ben Summerskill and all their staff/supporters. However, having got rights, they need to be defended, especially when the various religious factions who normally don't see eye to eye agree on one thing; Gays are bad! Defending the Rights we have earned is the long way to go!