By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)
Happy Pride everybody! As we celebrate the anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City (NYC) and with the recent actions and threats to LGBTQ+ rights by the religious conservatives within SCOTUS and the US Government, it is an excellent reminder of what Pride really is and where we, today’s LGBTQ+ community came from. While we celebrate Pride today as a festival of openness and acceptance, it is important to remember that Pride started as a riot and a protest when hundreds of transgender, lesbian, gay, queer people chose to take a stand against the systematic oppression of LGBTQ+ people by the NYC police.
While people are generally familiar with the basic story. On June 28th, 1969, the New York Police Department conducted a “routine” raid on the Stonewall Inn. During that era, homosexuality was criminalized, religious conservatives vilified LGBTQ+ people to the bottom rungs of society, propaganda videos making false claims about “the dangerous homosexual” were rampant, police intimidation, entrapment, and brutality were all too common, discrimination in housing, employment, military, and in every other aspect was part of everyday life. It was a very difficult and dangerous time to be LGBTQ+, as fear and hysteria were so easily stoked up, leading to witch hunts to root out LGBTQ+ people from society. Ant-LGBTQ beatings, violence and murder were a daily occurance and would often be ignored by the police, allowing the violent perpetrators who committed such acts in the name of their religious values, to get away without consequence.
LGBTQ+ bars like the Stonewall Inn existed in large cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but were often run illegally by members of the mob as operating an establishment that catered to LGBTQ+ was specifically illegal. Police raids were common on these establishments as they were serving liquor while operating without a license and were able to utilize a legal loophole that allowed them to operate as “membership clubs”. However, given that the mob was running the bars, they were able to pay off the police for advance warning of the raids, “only” be raided once or twice a month, and have the raid typically conducted during an off peak period. The raids served as an intimidation tactic by the police to keep fear within the LGBTQ+ community as a method of control. Typically when the bar was raided, LGBTQ+ people would simply flee over fear of being caught and a handful were usually arrested, without any just cause and kept in jail overnight where they were simply let free the next day.
The night of June 28th, 1969 was different though. Only a few nights prior had the Stonewall Inn already been raided, so the raid to occur that night was unexpected by both the bar owners and the patrons inside. When the raid occurred, rather than fleeing, people who were able to leave the bar started to gather around on the street in front. While the police went about their usual tactics of arresting random patrons inside, frisking them, sexually assaulting them and confiscating the bar’s liquor and cash, the crowd outside started to mock and taunt the police in a jokingly manner.
However, as the raid dragged on, the crowd began to grow more restless. The police stepped up their aggression in the raid, at one point dragging a lesbian woman out in handcuffs to a waiting paddywagon while she wrestled to escape, screaming “do something” to the crowd, who was growing more restless and angry. The atmosphere went from joking and taunting the police, to throwing items at the bar itself as well as the police cars nearby. Soon it erupted into a full blown riot as the police barricaded themselves inside the bar, fearing the pure aggression and frustration of the crowd out front.
The bars windows had already been boarded up as part of the secrecy of it being a gay club, which provided some protection for the police and arrested patrons inside. For their part, the crowd began throwing bricks and materials from a nearby construction site, a few people uprooted a parking meter to use as a battering ram, molotov cocktails were being thrown and attempts by the police inside to call for assistance were continually thwarted. This riotous outbreak was the result of years of pent up frustration, discrimination, injustice and oppression that finally reached a breaking point.
Despite the efforts of people working unsuccessfully within the system for years to enact change as well as previous riots such as the Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot, the Black Cat Protests, and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, nothing had changed. LGBTQ+ people finally had enough! The only way to express their frustration was to literally fight back.
It was an extremely volatile climate for anyone who was LGBTQ+ to even be out, let alone to fight back. But at that point they had nothing to lose. People who were long demonized and vilified by society as nothing more than weak fairies, perverts and transients had found the courage and strength to push back. From a trans woman of color throwing the first brick to Rockette-style kicks taunting a line of a SWAT team members, the police had to barricade themselves inside the bar until they finally gave up.
The police had dealt with previous anti-war protests and civil rights demonstrations without major concern, yet they never expected that trans women of color would be the people who ignited a whole community viewed as the lowest rung of society to fight back. It was a different kind of riot than the NYPD had ever encountered, and it came from a community that nobody expected would flex its muscle in such a powerful way.
The confidence, courage, strength and resilience that the people in the LGBTQ+ community showed during major events and moments in history, from Cooper’s Do-nuts to the Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk’s campaign, the HIV/AIDS crisis, murder of Matthew Shepard up to the current attacks on our LGBTQ+ community and our rights as religious conservatives are doubling down on. These are the kind of qualities that even some of today’s best athletes could only aspire to have.
Many LGBTQ+ people question the value of sports within an activist context. Yet sports have played a crucial role in the development of LGBTQ+ rights and serve as a platform to advocate for larger change. At the birth of the LGBTQ+ sports movement in the 1970s, sports has helped challenge the numerous stigmas about gay men and lesbian women. At the onset of HIV/AIDS many people who tested positive found that exercise through sports had a positive impact on their health. Not only can people live with HIV/AIDS but they also can be successful athletes, such as Greg Louganis who is considered the best Olympic diver in history, competed and won after testing positive; and Michael Mealiffe, the first HIV+ athlete to ever set a world record in any sport, and many others.
Today, sports have become a strong platform that LGBTQ+ people are using to advocate for increased recognition and education about these important issues. They are speaking out while also showing, through their athletic skills, that LGBTQ+ people are strong, capable, confident, and more than able to stand up for ourselves and our community.
Athletes like Megan Rapinoe, Quinn, Laurel Hubbard, Coach Katie Sowers, Pride Cheerleading Association, and so many more are leading the charge for our generation in showing the power of sports in elevating the LGBTQ+ community. Following their lead, more people people are breaking the social stigma of being LGBTQI simply by participating in sports as out athletes. Whether it be powerlifting, cycling, swimming, running, playing football, hockey or hitting the gym, sports have a firm place in LGBTQ+ rights and progress. As we celebrate Pride this year, it is important to remember where we came from and to see just how far we’ve come.