Learning about the impact of incidents like the Stonewall Riots, discovering the individuals who fought, and then educating myself about their stories has made me the queer historian and activist I am today. I believe it made me a better person.
Nowadays, I’m known for being loud about the importance of queer history; I’m more than happy to bore your socks off about the significance of queer people in mermaid folklore or monologue about crossdressing female pirates!
But I have to come clean: until ten years ago I was really apathetic about LGBTQ+ history. In fact, I was often actively critical of anyone that was outspokenly gay and proud.
At the time I even felt uncomfortable with using the word ‘pride’ to describe our community. In fact, I started a group at university called ‘Swallow Your Pride’ as an alternative to the other established LGBT groups.
Some of this was because I didn’t want to be solely defined by my sexuality. But a lot of this was down to my own ignorance and insecurity.
Museums opened my eyes
Things started to change in my early twenties. At this stage I began pursuing a career in museums.
This was my dream job but it also made me question myself and the world I lived in. I started to consider my own place in human history and to question why I never saw anyone like me or my queer friends visible in the museums I was working for.
There is something very powerful about finally getting to work somewhere you have always wanted, but discovering that the field you love doesn’t really love you back.
I realised that something was missing. History was only being told from one perspective, skipping out the bits about people like me.
In my own time I started to try and fill in these gaps. I began to research stories of queer people and their important contributions to the complex fabric of human history.
Of course, I had heard of Stonewall but I had never really engaged with the lives of the people involved.
More importantly I didn’t appreciate how their sacrifices would eventually result in my ability to live openly, healthily and happily as a gay man.
History not taught in schools
Part of my earlier ignorance was down to my own arrogance and internalized homophobia, but in all fairness I had never come across these stories at school or university.
One reason for this was that I was in secondary school whilst Section 28 was still in effect. This was the legislation which aimed to prevent the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in British schools. It meant my education was pretty much bereft of any open acknowledgements of LGBTQ+ people.
How incredible to discover an entire set of heroes and heroines who had paved the way for freedom and equality. It left me feeling that on one hand I owed a deep debt of gratitude, but I also felt a profound sense of joy at finding that people like me even had a history.
One of the most important of these moments in history, for me, was the Stonewall riots.
This series of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience in America back in 1969 would come to define the LGBTQ+ liberation movement across the Western world.
Whilst this moment in history didn’t happen in isolation it had major ripples internationally. It gave all queer people courage that progress could be made towards equality.
What Stonewall taught me
Stonewall taught me a number of things. Firstly, that I stood on the shoulders of giants and my sexuality, whilst not a defining trait, was an important part of who I am.
Secondly, I now believe strongly that being a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ people is important, that the laws and systems that allow us to be free are not to be taken for granted.
Finally, I know it is possible for a minority of passionate and brave individuals to change the course of history.
I have no desire to lecture anyone who does not feel connected to LGBTQ+ history. I know this approach would never have convinced me. But I would gently suggest every LGBTQ+ person should spend an hour online and finding out about the likes of Marsha P. Johnson, Virginia Apuzzo, Martin Boyce, Raymond Castro, Danny Garvin, William Henderson, Jerry Hoose, Carl J. Keller, Jr., Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, Dick Leitsch, Leigh McManus, Daria Modon, John O’Brien, Electra O’Mara, Yvonne Ritter, Sylvia Rivera, Craig Rodwell, Fred Sargeant, Martha Shelley, Howard Smith, Lucian Truscott, Terri Van Dyke, Dave West, and Doric Wilson.
Irrespective of your sexuality or gender identity, these ‘Stonewallers’ who were part of the riots are part of our collective history. At worse, it’s an hour of your time, while at best, it could change your life.
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.