America has always been known as the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave”. Unfortunately, our country has not let everyone be the “free”, authentic self that they deserve to be. Unlike race, religion, gender and age, sexual orientation is not a characteristic under civil rights laws. Homosexuals have faced relentless hostility and discrimination for centuries and have been on an uphill battle for equality. It wasn’t until the Stonewall Inn Riots in 1969 that a political movement for the LGBT community started to gain momentum.
The history leading up the Stonewall Inn riots was fairly short, yet significant in America. Homosexuals were seen as sexual deviants in the early twentieth century. In 1915, Emma Goldman was one of the first well –known female anarchists and political activists. She was the first American to publicly defend homosexual love and declare homosexuality as not abnormal. Many admired her disapproval of fear and perverse symbolism associated with homosexuality. Almost a decade later, German immigrant Henry Gerber founded the first American gay rights group in Chicago – The Society for Human Rights. After just a few years of living in the US, Gerber was put into a mental institution for being homosexual. He later enlisted into the United States Army and served in World War I in Germany. Inspired by the Scientific- Humanitarian Committee, a German organization against the persecution of homosexuals, Gerber returned wanting to create a similar organization in the US. The Society for Human Rights was then founded, focusing on educating heterosexuals about the nature of homosexuality, and reforming laws that criminalized homosexuality. Henry Gerber is considered to be the first gay leader in the US. Unfortunately, after only seven months, the organization was shut down due to obscenity charges and the overall anti- homosexual sentiment at the time. Although Gerber’s Society for Human Rights was short lived, it helped surface many homosexual’s identities in the 1920s, especially in Chicago. There was no other documented gay or lesbian rights group for the next thirty years. One of the most significant scientists to contribute to the study of human sexuality is Alfred Kinsey. In 1947, Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, now known as the Kinsey Institute for Sex, Research and Reproduction. He published two famous books, one on male sexuality and one on female sexuality. Kinsey and his colleagues criticized the way society understood sexuality at this time. There were clear values placed on these two distinct categories, heterosexual and homosexual. Society deemed heterosexuals as natural, normal and good, whereas, homosexuals were viewed as unnatural, abnormal and immoral. Kinsey’s research discovered that there is a gray area between these two opposing poles. Their work, including estimates of the occurrence of same- sex behavior and the creation of the Heterosexual- Homosexual Rating Scale, known as the Kinsey Scale, has helped to challenge the past, problematic ways of thinking. During the 1940s, World War II helped bring the American citizens together through military mobilization for the war in major cities. Many gay men and lesbians were meeting others like themselves for the first time. After World War II, following the model of the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans, homosexuals were finally starting to come together to create groups supporting their own rights. They were known as homophile organizations. Finally, in 1950, Harry Hay founded the first major organization since the Society for Human Rights, called the Mattachine Foundation. By raising public awareness about homosexuality and convincing society that homosexuals were no different than anyone else, Hay’s intention was to change laws that harmfully affected gays. One of the most fundamental people to take part in the Chicago chapter of the Mattachine Foundation was an attorney named Pearl Hart. In response the ongoing harassment by police in gay bars, she constituted the group to be more politically active.
In 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian association in the United States. The intent for this social group was not only to offer a place for discussion for lesbian women, but also to work with other gay organizations toward the common goal for social acceptance. At this time, lesbians were not only separated from the heterosexual society, but also discriminated in the homophile community. Gay men viewed lesbians as part of mainstream society because the heterosexual community saw them as less threatening than gay men, and law did not forbid their relationships.
The most significant difference between the male and female homosexual was that the lesbian was not only discriminated for being a lesbian, but also for being a woman. It was difficult for a woman to be taken seriously as a leader, especially at that time, but lesbians played the mediator between the male homosexual and society. Despite their differences, lesbian and gay male organizations joined in the common cause.
During the late 1960s, an emergence of civil rights movements was coming to the forefront. The Anti- Vietnam War, the Black Power and the Women’s Liberation movements motivated LGBT activists to start making more radical moves. The Gay Liberation Movement finally transpired at the end of the 1960s. The Stonewall Inn Riots were known as the catalyst for the LGBT movement. It was the first major attempt that gays banded together to resist the hostile discrimination that they had been tolerating for decades. The Stonewall Inn was a dive bar in Greenwich Village in New York City, frequented by drag queens and street people. At the time, there were few places where people could be openly gay. Stonewall was known for having a free- wheeling, colorful and democratic scene where everyone could be themselves. New York City had a law prohibiting homosexuality in public; so many gay establishments were frequently raided and shut down. On June 28, 1969, The Stonewall Inn was raided for supposedly operating without a liquor license. The patrons began to file out as arrests were being made. Then, unexpectedly, people refused to cooperate and started fighting back. The patrons started throwing loose change and beer bottles at the police. As the police awaited the patrol wagons, the people who were released stood outside to see what was going to happen. Within minutes, over 150 people congregated outside of Stonewall. In the words of activist Sylvia Ray Riveria, who was in full drag that night, “I thought, ‘My God, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here’”. Before the patrol wagon pulled away, the crowd attempted to flip it over. The scene then became explosive. The crowd had turned into a mob and police were outnumbered by six hundred. Ten police then barricaded themselves inside Stonewall for their own protection. As people hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails at the building, the streets erupted with violence. It took the Tactical Police Force of NYC to get the officers out of Stonewall safely and to break up the revolt. This event brought a whole new urgency to the LGBT movement. News about the riot quickly spread throughout New York City with the story on the front page of the newspapers. Despite the destruction of the Stonewall Inn, the legendary bar decided to stay open. Throughout the next five days, the rebellion in Greenwich Village ensued as thousands of gays, queens, supporters, and bystanders rallied and were led by “gay power” chants. Homosexuals had never been so news favored. This legendary event was the first its kind in America. There were uprooted parking meters, gay cheerleaders chanting, Molotov cocktails being thrown at police wagons, thrown barricades, fire hoses turned on people in the street, Rockette- style kick lines in front of the police, frightened policemen, and a drag queen hitting a police officer on the head with her purse. While walking home from Stonewall, resident Allen Ginsberg said, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful. They’ve lost that wounded look that all fags had ten years ago.” The Stonewall Inn riots were the single most important event leading to the modern movement of gay and lesbian civil rights. It inspired LGBT people everywhere to come together in support of gay rights. Within two years of the riots, LGBT rights groups were established in nearly every major city in the United States. Following Stonewall, the Gay Liberation movement prospered with new groups forming such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance. Their use of the word “gay” represented their unapologetic defiance against the word “straight”. In 1970, bisexual activist Brenda Howard coordinated the first LGBT pride parade and Pride Day, which is where the annual events originated. Over the course of the next few decades, the activism of the Mattachine Foundation and many other groups, would lead to the success of numerous gay political victories. Slowly but surely, laws passed to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation in many states. As of now, twenty-one states outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and seventeen states and seventeen states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression. Finally, in September 2013, California was the first state to pass the same-sex marriage bill. There are now seventeen states that allow same-sex marriage, along with some states that allow civil unions. It has been a long, difficult battle for equality for the LGBT community and it is not over yet. Our country may be making progress, but discrimination continues in the lives of LGBT people every day. People are still teaching their children to be prejudice towards gays. In turn, kids are still being bullied, and living in fear, resulting in self- loathing and even suicide. This ongoing interpersonal struggle needs to come to an end so LGBT people can live an authentic life without shame. When it comes to the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave”, the real brave ones are the people who have to fight for their identity and acceptance, without letting society define them.
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