This Friday is the 44th anniversary of a major turning point in our history. Forty-four years ago, a standard police raid of an establishment frequented by people living on the edge of society went awry. Violence broke out, and suddenly the world was a different place.
I live in a world where in the past week both the House of Lords in the UK and the Supreme Court in the US have been the settings for fierce debates about whether everyone should be allowed to marry, even if their genitals match. I live in a world where the needs of transgendered people are beginning to be taken seriously, where sexism is being pushed back year by year, where the ideas of gender essentialism are finally, slowly, beginning to lose their power.
In my world, public opinion sides with the victims of police brutality. In my world, you can fight bigots through the courts and maybe even win. That’s not the world our parents lived in forty-four years ago.
In 1969, if you were born a woman and caught in New York City wearing fewer than three pieces of “feminine” clothing, you could literally be arrested for that. In 1969, if you were a woman who had been born with a penis police could raid a New York City bar on suspicion that you were in there, wearing a dress, and arrest you for your pink and pearls.
In 1969, if you weren’t a straight, cisgendered white man, you lived in fear, even in so-called “enlightened” “modern” countries, not just of not being accepted, but of being brutalised and arrested just for existing. Just for not being a white, cisgendered, heterosexual man.
In 1969, if you weren’t heterosexual, your sexual orientation was labelled by the medical community as a mental illness – a fear of the opposite sex rather than a love of the same sex – despite a study done thirteen years before that had found that being gay absolutely does not inherently equal emotional problems.
In 1969, being attracted to someone of the same sex in the US meant being put on an FBI watch list; that they were keeping track of where you spent your time and with whom. There was even a not-insignificant opinion that being gay, or “engaging in depravaties” meant you didn’t have the moral fibre to not be a Commie.
In 1969, US police were setting traps for homosexual men and arresting them for flirtation with other men. In 1969, it was legal in many US states for armed officers to break into your home on suspicion that you were engaging in homosexual activity, and if you were found doing so, you would be arrested.
In 1969, keeping your head down in fear seemed like the best way to avoid the violent attentions of the police.
On 28 June 1969, at one or two in the morning, a group of people who happened to be around the Stonewall Inn, a drag bar in New York City, suddenly decided that they had had enough. It was the night after Judy Garland’s funeral, which meant something to some of them; she had been an icon to many gay men. Before that night, there had been a couple of riots over the years when people marginalised for their sexuality had fought back, but nothing like this.
It was just supposed to be an ordinary raid. The police had planned to go in, line up everyone in the bar, get IDs and check genitals so they could arrest anyone wearing clothes assigned to the other sex. This was standard procedure, and it had gone smoothly a hundred times before. That night was different. People were restless. It was one of those days. There was a growing feeling that they’d had enough of this shit.
Some of them refused to line up, refused to show their IDs or their genitals. The police began making arrests, loading people into the patrol wagons. A crowd formed outside. One gay woman, being shoved toward the wagon, complained that her handcuffs were too tight. A police officer responded by hitting her on the head with a billy club. She fought back, and tried to escape several times. A police officer bodily lifted her into the wagon. Overpowered, the woman shouted at the crowd, “Aren’t you guys going to do something?”
And they did.
The riots lasted for days. People were tired of hiding, tired of living in terror that armed men would come into their safe havens and attack them, under the full authority of the law, because they chose to consort with each other instead of the opposite sex, or because they chose to wear something other than the clothing dictated by the iron rule of cultural norms enforced by law.
Things began to change. After the riots, gay rights organisations popped up everywhere in the US – and became more assertive than the few that had appeared previously. Suddenly there was a shift in attitude, from “We’ll be orderly, really, please don’t hurt us!” to “We demand respect. Stop fucking assaulting us.”
Forty-four years later, where I live, homophobia is frowned upon. Assaulting someone because of their orientation or transgendered status is considered a hate crime. In thirteen countries I am legally allowed to marry any unmarried adult who wants to marry me, regardless of whether or not our genitals match. And transgendered people are slowly moving towards being able to own their own identities, with many countries allowing change of gender on official documents.
Not everyone is lucky enough to live where I live, however. In 2013, there are still people who live in terror that someone will discover that they have a lover of the same sex or that their sex and gender are different.
In 2013, there are still people being beaten and killed, under the vicious hand of unreasonable law, for being gay or transgender.
In 2013, there are people still fighting, not just for social acceptance, not just for equal rights, but for the right not to be hunted down and killed on suspicion that they are gay or transgender.
While many people I know have eagerly watched the debates in the House of Lords or in the Supreme Court to learn whether they may be able to legally marry their partners in a ceremony with friends and family, there are many people living in fear of discovery.
The world is a better place than it was forty-four years ago, and things are still getting better. More and more countries are beginning to accept their citizens who aren’t straight or cisgendered, and each victory is cause for celebration. But please don’t forget, on this anniversary of the riots that sparked a revolution, that we still have work to do. There is still freedom to be won.
Places Recognising Same-Sex Marriage
Mexico (only marriages performed in Mexico City)*
Saint Pierre et Miquelon
United States (only in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland,
Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont,
Washington and the District of Columbia)*
Wallis and Futuna
Places with Same-Sex Unions/Registered Partnerships
Australia (only ACT, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and
Isle of Man*
United States (only in Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Nevada,
Oregon, and Wisconsin)*
Places Where Homosexual Sex is a Crime
(Usually Punishable by Imprisonment)
Antigua and Barbuda
Jamaica (punishable by 10 years hard labour)
Palestinian Territories (Gaza)
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
TRNC (Northern Cyprus)
United Arab Emirates
Places Where Homosexual Sex is Punishable by Life in Prison
Saudi Arabia (or death)
Sierra Leone (only for men)
Somaliland (or exile or death)
United Arab Emirates (or death or deportation)
Uganda (only for men)
Places Where Homosexual Sex is Punishable by Death
United Arab Emirates
*Transgendered people legally allowed to change gender on official records (Some countries require sex reassignment surgery. Countries requiring compulsory sterilisation for gender change are left unmarked, because I really don’t consider that freedom to change your gender.)