Researching my new book Pride: The Story of the LGBTQ Equality Movement, I was overwhelmed by how few of the key names I knew.
It’s hardly surprising – it’s still controversial to teach kids we exist, let alone for society to tell our history. But there are many names we should know.
People like Craig Rodwell and Barbara Gittens, for instance, who were both instrumental in the early American protest groups the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian group in the US.
Directly after Stonewall, Craig organised meetings in his and his partner, Fred Sargant’s flat, where various people including Ellen Broidy, Linda Rhodes and bisexual Brenda Howard (who has been called the mother of gay pride), organised an ‘annual reminder’ march, called the Christopher Street Liberation Day, held on Sunday 28 June 1970 in New York City which, alongside Chicago and Los Angeles the day before, became the first gay pride events.
We’ve begun to learn about Stormé DeLarverie, believed to be the lesbian who demanded help from the crowd as she fought with police, and Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who formed the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which supported LGBTQ gender non-conforming, street kids, and those in prison.
There are many other people of color we don’t widely know about including African American US serviceman Perry Watkins who never hid his sexuality even as he entered the military in 1968 and Glenn Burke, the first Major League Baseball player to come out to his team in the late 70s.
This anniversary is an opportunity to learn about these people we owe so much to but also a reminder that we have a huge responsibility to protect what they fought for.
The backdrop to the Stonewall riots and the state of the world
The Stonewall riots did not come out of nowhere. They came at the end of a highly unstable decade.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. The year after, the world reeled from the unthinkable assassination of President Kennedy.
In 1965, black civil rights leader Malcolm X was murdered, then in 1968, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both assassinated.
Intense protests raged throughout the sixties against the Vietnam War, for black civil rights and for the rights of women, amongst others.
In France, in 1968, when the University of Paris came down hard on students protesting inadequate accommodation, huge national protests erupted which lead to President Charles de Gaulle fleeing France and calling a general election.
Today the world is again highly unstable. The issues are of similar and perhaps even more consequence and they affect us all.
President Trump is in power, civil discourse is breaking down, the far right rising and, most terrifyingly, nature itself is destabilising.
What is different though is that many of us seem to have lost the appetite for protest. We have been bludgeoned with a constant narrative that only ‘hippies’ and ‘anarchists’ take to the streets and that signing an e-petition or sharing an article is enough. It’s not.
Climate breakdown and ecological collapse
Most worrying to me, it seems the LGBTQ community does not seem to realise that if climate breakdown and ecological collapse is not stopped, it will, in the not distant future, consume all the advances we have made.
An unprecedented UN report told us in early May that the life support systems that enable humanity to survive are now beginning to degrade. Sir David Attenborough has warned over the last six months that the collapse of human civilisation and society is on the horizon.
That’s not a joke or an exaggeration or an eccentric opinion, it’s what the findings of the highest scientific academies in the world suggest.
Civilisation is the glue that binds societies. Without civilised society there is no social justice or respect for LGBTQ people, women, people of color or anyone. History tells us that with societal disruption comes a rise in support for the far right who always target ‘minorities’ first.
If this anniversary inspires anything it should be to rekindle the fire of activism to address the specific injustices that remain with an emergency focus on the unprecedented global environmental emergency.
There are no LGBTQ rights on a broken planet. We must honour the Stonewall veterans by hearing the warnings and doing what it takes to protect and build upon the freedoms they helped secure.
If we look away or hope someone else does it, not only will we be dishonouring them but there may be little to celebrate in another 50 years’ time.
Matthew Todd is the author of Pride The Story of the LGBTQ Equality Movement (Carlton Books) and Straight Jacket (Black Swan). Whyihavepride.com
Stonewall 50 Voices
Gay Star News is commemorating 2019 as the 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world, with a focus on the diversity of our global LGBTI community.
They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.