This week fifty years ago, the first gay pride march took place, marking the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Stonewall was the beginning of the end. The end of bigotry fueled by fear and ignorance. The end of police raids and paddy wagons, of extortions and exposés, of going underground and living in closets.
Like Lexington and Concord two centuries earlier, Stonewall was “the shot glass heard ‘round the world,” a reference to one of many objects that were hurled by patrons of the nightclub at the cops who tormented them. (The New York Police Department has finally apologized.) And similar to the American Revolution, Stonewall has become an inspiration for LGBTQ movements in every part of the globe. Five decades later, the story of the uprising reverberates with activists from Bogotá to Bangalore who remember the Stonewall Inn as if it were their Alamo. And to be clear, it was a riot – messy, violent and impactful. Not all progress comes from peaceful protest, especially when the people we are protesting don’t care about keeping the peace.
That night marked the beginning of the end of police brutality and violent hate crimes that disproportionately target transgender people of color. It was the beginning of the end of stigma. After Stonewall, the American Psychiatric Association voted to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. Eventually, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy would speak out against conversion therapy, affirming that “Being gay is not a disorder. Being transgender is not a malady that requires a cure.”
The Stonewall riots in the summer of ’69 were the end of victimhood, the beginning of acting up and fighting back. That fighting spirit would serve us well when our government, the media, and the medical industrial complex failed us completely during the plague that was to come. Silence equals death. Stonewall is where we learned to scream.
Stonewall sparked a sequence of events that led to the end of sodomy laws, of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the bans on same-sex marriages and adoptions. Our march for equality has been interconnected with parallel movements for women’s rights and African American civil rights – a fact that came into stark relief this month as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, the same 1964 Civil Rights Act that is designed to protect women and people of color from discrimination at work, applies to us, too.
But, of course, none of us are free until all of us are free. That is why we must continue to stand with other historically marginalized groups and make their struggle our cause. We must say “Black Lives Matter” and, particularly, that “Black Transgender Lives Matter” because that self-evident truth has not reached all hearts and minds. Stonewall taught us to stop relying on heterosexual allies — however well-intentioned — to save us. We’d have to save ourselves while they spent the next 45 years evolving their way to “the right side of history.”
And thanks to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Ray Rivera – Black and Latinx drag queens (and sex workers) who took on the police that night — Stonewall was the end of centering our history around wholesome, palatable cisgender white men. Stonewall taught us that it’s OK to be loud and proud, Black and beautiful, dark and dusky, colorful as the rainbows beneath which we march and femme and fabulous and sex-positive and body-positive and HIV-positive. Stonewall was about the end of hiding or passing or the gibberish of straight-acting, masc4masc profiles that perpetuate anxiety, depression and self-loathing in our community.
Stonewall was the beginning of a new power: social, political, and economic. It was the pathway to LGBTQ people serving as CEOs, ordained ministers, professional athletes, judges, and members of the United States Congress. Like Seneca Falls and Selma, Stonewall fell from the lips of our first African American president in his second inaugural address. It will be equally front and center when a member of our community is finally elected to the highest office in the land.
Most consequential of all, Stonewall was the beginning of coming-out stories, painful and heroic, each one a catalyst for change. It was the end of apologizing for who we are and of begging the people who are supposed to love us to please, please not hate us. After Stonewall, the response to someone coming out shouldn’t be “I love you no matter what.” We don’t want to be loved in spite of who we are but, rather, just as we are. The correct response to someone coming out is “I didn’t realize I could love you even more than I already do.”
We know that progress doesn’t happen in a moment. It happens in a movement. Stonewall was the beginning of our movement. The end is yet to be written. The progress is still to be won. On this 50th anniversary of the first march for gay liberation, remember this: Stonewall was the end of shame. And that’s the beginning of Pride.
Parag V. Mehta leads philanthropy at Mastercard as Executive Director of the Center for Inclusive Growth. He is a former public servant who worked to advance civil rights and address disparities for LGBTQ and other communities under four U.S. Presidents. Last year, Parag married his husband, Vaibhav, in a big, fat traditional Indian wedding in Killeen, Texas.