Pride is one of my favorite annual events, combining several of my great life loves: equality and visibility for LGBTQ+ folk, celebration and carnival (I’m Bristolian and St Paul’s Carnival is a valued institution). Whilst tolerance for and celebration of people who are not cis and straight is not as widely spread and encouraged in this country as it ought to be, there is still a terrifying amount of homophobic discourse and action in the UK. So as we celebrate Pride, it’s important to remember how we got to this point in history.
Homosexuality has existed for as long as humans have walked the earth. And for much of the time that the planet has been occupied, homosexuality has been at the least, ignored, and in at the most, in many cultures, celebrated. In ancient Greece, a whole army was formed consisting of solely gay men: The Sacred Band of Thebes. In Native American and other indiginous cultures, two spirit people were accepted and even honoured. It’s been established that we knew of homosexuality as far back as when the bible was written, specifically because it is prohibited in it.
Pride, as we know it today, is a comparatively recent phenomenon. At the end of June 1969, there was a violent protest in response to police raids in the so called gay bars in Greenwich Village. Patrons of the bars that surrounded one such bar, called the Stonewall Inn, fought back against an aggressive police force (the more things change…) and this event marked the beginning of what became the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States.
For several nights, riots took place on the streets of Greenwich Village as the police continued their pursuit, leading to the community pulling together to keep vulnerable people safe in an extraordinary display of socially responsible behaviour. After the Stonewall riots, things moved comparatively quickly as activist groups sprang up not only in New York, but on the West Coast too and a year later, marches were organised in cities across the country to commemorate the initial riots. The year after, even more cities held marches, including West Berlin and London and every year since has seen more nations include themselves in Pride. 50 years after Stonewall, James P O’Neill, New York Police commissioner, apologised for the behaviour for the actions of the police regarding Stonewall. 40 years after the riots, President Obama announced June as officially LGBT Pride month, though in the community it had long been recognised as such, further raising the profile of and the legitimacy of the proud tradition.
The fact that the Stonewall Inn was owned by the mafia — specifically one “Fat Tony” Lauria — is a satisfying bit of symbolism to this critical thinker: a bar that existed in the centre of the public consciousness, at the epicentre of cultural understanding (New York City) yet was run by and for two separate illegal groups. The duplicity of the bar’s symbolic significance is immensely pleasing and the community’s refusal to be squashed sets an important example: nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
But LGBTQ+ history certainly doesn’t start with Stonewall, and nor does resistance: besides every act of gayness in a homophobic world inherently being an act of resistance, the Mattachine society and the Black Cat Tavern existed and occured before Stonewall. The riots’ importance was to create the sparks for the beginnings of a tradition intended to honour and publicise the community.
We all know of course that homophobia didn’t end with the Stonewall riots and nor did police raids, discriminiation and violence, but what did change was activism and visibility. Thanks to the publicity surrounding the Stonewall riots, gay rights groups were able to establish themselves in hundreds of major towns and cities across America and the rest of the world.
The work of these communities hasn’t always been plain sailing. TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminist) took issue with allowing the trans community a seat at the table, while some feminists were unable to balance their feelings about the patriarchy and chauvanism with their interest in LGBTQ+ concerns; there have also been numerous other issues and tension remains. However, the fact remains that every year, most of the LGBT+ community comes together to celebrate themselves and each other, to show themselves off, and to be brazenly individual and present.