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A beacon of equality

Reflecting on the Stonewall riot's 50th anniversary and the many queer heroes who have emerged in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Despite 50 years since its uprising, the significance of Stonewall is not widely taught. Though, when spoken about, it is often attributed to being the origin of the gay liberation movement. Reflecting back on the past 50 years, many LGBTQ+ historians and community members have reclaimed history to bring underreported acts of resistance before Stonewall to light; Cooper Do-nuts Riot (1959), Dewey’s Sit-In (1965), Compton Cafeteria Riot (1966), Black Cat Protest (1967), to name a few. In fact, the Stonewall uprising was not the origin, but the catalyst for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

America in the 1960s was a passionate era for change with the civil rights, women’s, student, gay rights, environmental and anti-war movements all under way. Echoing the nonviolent methods utilized in the civil rights movement, existing gay rights groups and associations—such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis—believed creating a community was necessary to overcome oppression and held public forums to provide education about sexualities. Yet public opinion was easily swayed by propaganda and a profound stigma against homosexuality flourished. Categorized as a mental illness, homosexuality was believed to be developed within the early years of life and had the potential to be “treated”—a sentiment that wasn’t declassified by the World Health Organization until 1990. By the mid-60s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited segregation and black voter discrimination, but homosexual acts remained illegal in the majority of the country.

Having to keep their sexuality hidden through the ongoing climate of discrimination and police harassment, members of the LGBTQ+ community could only express their full identity in private; so, the insurgent creation and popularity of gay bars skyrocketed. Unfortunately, these bars were common targets for police raids—especially the mafia-owned Stonewall, which served its patrons without a liquor license and staved of police with payoffs. On June 28, 1969, dancing attendees of the Stonewall Inn (notably Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera) refused to be arrested, which escalated into a series of fueled protests with thousands of participants and supporters. After decades of largely peaceful, some disruptive, protests countering public miseducation and abuse, the Stonewall Riots became an outlet for frustrated members of the community to take a combative stance for their rights and set precedence for future, more aggressive forms of activism. Raids on gay bars continued, and the gay liberation movement gained momentum in return. Stonewall had become a beacon for the fight towards equality. Its anniversary march morphed into modern pride parades, its riot participants evolved gay liberation into the LGBTQ+ rights movement and its location was recognized as a national monument.

Nearing the 50th anniversary of Stonewall has provided a chance to ruminate on the development of the LGBTQ+ rights movement and the many queer heroes, or ”queeroes,” that have emerged throughout its progression. Austin Hendrickson (he/him), a University of Utah student and 2019 Pride Week co-chair, proudly shares its successes:

“Numerous states have passed laws preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and the federal Equality Act even recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Obergefell v. Hodges in the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the land. Following in the footsteps of the legendary Harvey Milk, LGBTQ+ individuals have run for, and won, elected offices across the nation: Tammy Baldwin and Kyrsten Sinema to the U.S. Senate, Kate Brown and Jared Polis to their respective governors’ mansions, Danica Roem to her state legislature, and countless others.”

Yet similar to many movements from the 60s still active today, there are still many obstacles preventing full equality. Despite local queeroes like Jackie Biskupski, Derek Kitchen and the University of Utah and Salt Lake City often being ranked within top LGBT-friendly schools/cities in the U.S., the socially conservative and religious culture of Utah can be contradicting.

“Coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community can be daunting,” shares Taylor Anderson (she/her), University of Utah staff and 2019 Pride Week co-chair. “Especially in our unique Utah culture, shame and repression of one’s identity are not new to queer folk in our area. That was the case for me.”

However, both Pride Week co-chairs maintain a positive outlook for the next 50 years.

“Suitable health care, anti-discrimination laws, resources for at-risk youth and broad societal acceptance are included in the next series of rights to fight for,'' notes Hendrickson. “With inspiration and leadership from our community’s countless queeroes and engagement of the community-at-large, we can remain optimistic that one day we’ll all be able to live our true selves and enjoy each and every day to the fullest.”

Reflecting on Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, Anderson stresses the importance of continuing to share its legacy.

“[When learning about] the brave people of gay and trans experience who risked everything for their rights—those queer folks who faced violence and hate to celebrate their beauty and identity—I learned to love and be proud of my LGBTQ+ identity and to fight for our right to honor who we are.”

Coinciding with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month, the University of Utah celebrates its Pride Week during the first week of October. For 2019, the Pride Week committee has selected “Queeroes: Pride is for Heroes” as the week’s theme, which Hendrickson explains will “highlight queeroes in modern day, who are taking a stand against bigotry and discrimination, opening doors for members of the community, and leading the battle begun at the Stonewall Inn.”

“During the week,” Anderson adds, “we will be recognizing the hero in all of us—especially the heroic efforts exerted by each and every LGBTQ+ person as they live their lives every day. Like the protestors of Stonewall, we are fighting for our rights to live and love, and their example carries through to our time.”

2019 Pride Week at the U will be held Sept. 30-Oct. 4, 2019.

Be on the lookout for a story where we’ll hear more from Anderson and Hendrickson about this year’s Pride Week theme.