Fifty years ago, the frustration and rage of a community exploded onto the streets of downtown New York City.
Lesbians, gay men, trans women and drag queens decided that the perpetual harassment by the police would no longer stand. Bricks were thrown, fires were lit and the police were routed. Stonewall wasn’t a protest, it was a riot.
While there had been LGBT activists before, Stonewall is now taken to mark the birth of the modern LGBT movement. Around much of the globe, Pride celebrations are held to commemorate its anniversary. Stonewall reminds us that great social change can be sparked by those who are most marginalized by society.
When gay men started to die of a mysterious illness in the 1980s, Governments were slow to respond. Although AIDS was identified in 1981, it took until the middle of that decade for the President, Ronald Reagan, to even mention the disease.
By that time, thousands of Americans had died.
The response of governments, families and friends
In the UK the Government were faster to produce national HIV campaign materials but, at the same time, the fear of AIDS was mobilized to drive support for Section 28, enshrining in law a second-class status for lesbians and gay men.
AIDS cut a swathe through gay communities. At a time when being open about your sexuality was still unusual, many families had to deal with the dual shock of learning that their son or brother was gay – and also that he was dying.
Some families rallied but stories of men who were abandoned and left to die alone in hospital beds were all too common.
This was the gay community that I grew into. I was younger than the generation which suffered the greatest devastation but old enough to lose count of the friends I lost.
Many of my generation never expected to live to be so old. This experience of death, and the expectation of an early death, marks a divide between modern generations of gay men.
I was fortunate enough to meet people who were there for the Stonewall riots, their numbers are fewer now, many of them lost to AIDS before age took its toll.
Mobilizing to fight the epidemic
When the AIDS crisis hit, we didn’t just get angry, we got organized. Our communities realised that if we didn’t save ourselves there was a good chance that nobody else would.
Baronesses in the UK’s House of Lords openly celebrated physical attacks on our community. Calls for people with HIV to be interned or isolated were not uncommon. It was clear that the prospect of fewer queers was not a concern for many members of the UK government at that time.
The loss of our brothers and lovers, the fear that we would be next, led to action. That anger and the need to organize and articulate a response led to the foundation of both GMFA and NAM in the UK. It led to protests by ACT-UP in chapters around the world. Lesbian and bisexual women were powerful allies in that activism.
Learn from our history
Each LGBT generation faces its own challenges. I’m thrilled that there’s a whole new generation who’ve never known loss from AIDS. The progress we have made in the last two decades, both in our ability to manage HIV and in LGBT equality has been staggering.
The gains we have made as a community should not be taken for granted. We have seen a renewed vigour in the attacks on our trans sisters and brothers.
Populist parties in the UK, the US and around the world rumble about withdrawing marriage equality and other hard fought for rights. New politicians deliberately stoke homophobia for electoral advantage and violent crime against our communities continues to rise. Hundreds of trans women are murdered every year.
I urge all members of our communities to honour and to learn from the activists in our history: not just the rioters at the Stonewall Inn but also the suffragettes, the members of the Gay Liberation Front, ACT-UP and Outrage.
The struggle continues
AIDS activists in the 80s and 90s demanded access to treatment. We fought to ensure that the lives of gay and bisexual men and trans people were accepted as being as valuable as the lives of others.
This struggle continues. We see it now in the fight for PrEP access, in the community response to the harms caused by Chemsex, and in the advocacy for sex worker’s rights.
Equal health and equal treatment under the law should not be taken for granted. History demonstrates that we are not on a single straight path towards legal equality and social acceptance.
Grasp tightly that flame of activism that those who came before us lit; there may well be dark times ahead.
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.