Fifty years ago, on a street emptying onto New York’s busy 7th Avenue, the harassed and fed-up patrons of a popular bar called the Stonewall Inn spilled out onto the street, giving birth to the modern LGBTQ liberation and human rights movement. Not unlike similar movements, the spark which ignited that set off the rioting, direct action, and ultimately annual celebratory parades was police brutality.
NYPD harassment of gay bars and hang out spots was nothing new, but something shifted that night as angry patrons began to evade or escape from police custody and fight back. Maybe it was the influence of the increasingly militant black freedom struggle and emerging feminist movement. Some suggest the inspiration grew out of grief around the drug overdose death of Judy Garland several days before. But maybe the mobilizations, now referred to as the “Stonewall Riots,” took place because many in the crowd felt that there was nothing left to lose.
As Stonewall veteran “instigator,” Andy Warhol model and beloved drag queen Marsha P. Thompson, in a phrase today being used as headline to the Brooklyn Museum’s official Stonewall 50th special exhibition, commented: “Nobody promised you tomorrow.” People were going to have to take history into their own hands.
Fifty years later, many activists complain that the commemorations and Gay Pride parades that have become features in every major city throughout the world have become too corporate, commercialized and institutionalized. Perhaps the perfect symbol of official acceptance is the space just outside the still-operating Stonewall Inn, now a monument maintained by the National Park Service.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary, however, the scene inside the bar was as political as ever. The National LGBTQ Task Force partnered with one of the oldest, most respected and largest LGBTQ organizations — the International Imperial Court — to host the official dedication and unveiling ceremony of the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor, a permanent tribute to pioneers and trailblazers of the movement.
Task Force deputy executive director Kierra Johnson passionately noted the need to keep the focus on campaigns and action, linking with environmental, women’s rights and other movements. “Stonewall was not just the birth of the LGBTQ movement,” Johnson asserted. “It was a rebirth of the feminist movement. It was a rebirth of the civil rights movement.”
The Wall, spotlighting 50 inspiring LGBTQ figures, includes well-known writers and poets such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich. Artist Keith Haring and organizer Bayard Rustin are also featured alongside less recognizable bridge-builders.
All 50 individuals are now deceased, but many were represented at the dedication by family members and close colleagues. Assassinated politician Harvey Milk was spoken for by his nephew Stuart Milk, president of the Harvey Milk Foundation and himself an outspoken global leader for LGBTQ rights.
The parents of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old college student from Wyoming who was beaten to death in 1998, were present for the ceremony and extremely well-received. “Straight and gay are boring,” proclaimed father Dennis Shepard. “We are all just humans … you just dress better than we do!” Shepard noted, to the mostly LBGTQ audience.
The final presenter at the dedication, described as “an icon of the struggle” by International Imperial Court System Queen Mother Empress Nicole Murray-Ramirez, was nonviolent activist and War Resisters League leader Mandy Carter of Durham, North Carolina. Also celebrating the 50th anniversary of when she first became a paid organizer for the West Coast office of the WRL, Carter reminded the gathering of the two necessary qualities for a life of working for justice and peace: “resistance and resilience.” Carter is now embarking on a year-long, North Carolina-wide voter registration initiative with Southerners on New Ground, which she helped form 27 years ago.
The roots of a movement based on resistance and mass organizing could be felt throughout the Wall dedication, by the speeches, the spirit, but also by the bar’s own history. A “Raided Premises” posting from the 1969 NYPD is prominently displayed on a wall to remind folks of how far we’ve come. It was therefore more than fitting that Mandy Carter closed the Stonewall Inn dedication with a chant popularized by the New Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Mondays Movement: “Forward together, not one step back!”
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As Congress considers requiring women to register for the draft, it’s time we remember the movements that fought to abolish conscription and learn from their victories.
The push toward corporate profits over people’s needs is already happening, but it doesn’t have to go that way if movements start planning big.