On Thursday, Feb. 7, the Rainbow Center held an “Out to Lunch” discussion, hosted by history professor Micki McElya, entitled “Nice for What?” after the song released by Drake last April.
After attending this event, it was easy to see how the lecture earned its name. Just as this song recognizes the hard work of women, this discussion revolved around the work of past LGBTQ+ activists who are the reason we can celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement. McElya led an engaging discussion of the history of the LGBTQ+ movement from 1969 to 2019, focusing largely on its point of origin and what its roots mean for all members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which McElya refers to as an uprising. The Stonewall Inn was changed from a heterosexual nightclub and restaurant into a gay bar in the 1960s, when being gay, lesbian or transgender was considered illegal. On June 28, 1969, police raided the inn, which was not an uncommon occurrence. However, this time were met with a community fed up with oppression. An uprising ensued and resulted in protests and the creation of new gay rights organizations, such as the Gay Liberation Front.
The impact of the Stonewall riots are still felt today, as shown by the memorial and park dedicated to LGBTQ+ history outside of the inn. The memorial was commissioned by President Obama in 2016, along with the creation of a federal park. Their establishment demonstrates the efforts to include the history of the Gay Rights Movement in the broader history of America.
“The Stonewall Monument will be the first national monument to tell the story of LGBTQ+ rights,” Obama said in the video announcing the monument. This was an important step towards writing American history to reflect all of its participants, rather than excluding groups of people from their own stories.
With such a focus on the history of the Stonewall riots, it is easy to think this uprising was the first of its kind, but this is not the case. McElya cited several examples of events occurring prior to those at the Stonewall Inn, such as Compton’s cafeteria uprising in 1966 and the birth of the Mattachine Society in 1950, which became the largest Gay Civil Rights organization in the country. Other organizations also formed in the 1950s, including the Daughters of Bilitis (1954) which aimed to create acceptance for LGBTQ+ people through education and understanding. Their goal was to teach the public that gay and lesbians were no different than anyone else. The question she planted in the minds of the audience members was, “Why Stonewall?” What set Stonewall apart from other uprisings like Compton, which was also sparked by police brutality in a LGBTQ+ space?
Just before the events of Stonewall, Carl Wittman called for action in what he called the “gay ghetto.” He feared the “gay ghetto” would be the last and only place for LGBTQ people, and recognized the issues faced by the community were not separate from other brands of oppression. He urged people to make alliances and connections to other oppressed communities, stating that oppression “is a system that must be addressed.” Wittman believed it was a set of interlocking issues built on a common ground rather than separate problems occurring independently for different groups.
In regards to the driving force of the Stonewall events. McElya says the people who could usually be found at the inn were thought to be too poor and “too much” to go to other bars and clubs. One man at the inn during the uprising said they were the ones who did not have anything to lose, unlike Mattachine, who believed they had much more to lose. Mattachine criticized the people who did not try as hard to be accepted into society as LGBTQ+ and wanted instead to be free of society.
Tied to the question of “Why Stonewall?” this discussion also addresses who is or is not celebrated and included in LGBTQ history. Author Martin Duberman claims everyone is misremembering Stonewall, and forgot who was really behind it. Among those who played a large role in the Stonewall riots were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
“The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is an opportunity to reflect on the politics of the last 50 years and where we’ve been, and also which histories we are celebrating and which we are ignoring,” McElya said in light of the celebrations of the beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement.
“We, as the 21st century LGBTQIA+ community, need to acknowledge the difficult and misremembered past that we benefit from every day and use that history to propel us forward to a more equal reality for all,” Eric, a student who wished to otherwise remain anonymous, said.
The Stonewall uprising, while being a turning point in LGBTQ+ history and an ongoing symbol of what the community has accomplished in the last 50 years, is also a part of history with many forgotten pieces. By becoming aware of everyone who contributed to the movement, we continue to demolish the system of interlocking oppressions addressed by Duberman before the riots. We are given the chance to bring forgotten histories into the light again.
Meghan Shaw is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached cia email at firstname.lastname@example.org.