Compete Network Feature Stories

Stonewall was a RIOT

Featured in our May/June PRIDE Issue!

Happy Pride everybody! As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City (NYC), it is an excellent reminder of what Pride really is and where we, today’s LGBTQI community came from. Pride started as a riot when hundreds of transgender, lesbian, gay, queer people chose to take a stand against the systematic oppression of LGBTQI+ people by the NYC police.

While the initial confrontation at the Stonewall Inn was spontaneous, it didn’t occur without precedent. It 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 Black Cat Protests and the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, nothing had changed. LGBTQI 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 LGBTQI to even be out, let alone to fight back. But at that point they had nothing to lose. I’m inspired by this because the people who were demonized by society as nothing more than weak fairies and perverts found the courage and strength to challenge those derogatory labels. 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 LGBTQI community showed at the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk’s campaign, the HIV/AIDS crisis and other major movements are the kind of qualities that even some of today’s best athletes could only aspire to have.

In my own experience many LGBTQI people question the value of sports within such an activist context. Yet sports have played a crucial role in the development of LGBTQI rights and serve as a platform to advocate for larger change. At the birth of the LGBTQI sports movement in the 1980s it helped challenge the stigma of gay men as being weak. 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.

Even now, sports are the platform people are using to advocate for increased recognition and education about LGBTQI people. Rather than staying in the closet and keeping silent, more people are breaking the social stigma of being LGBTQI simply by participating in sports as out athletes. Whether it be power lifting, cycling, swimming, running, playing football, hockey or hitting the gym, sports have a firm place in LGBTQI rights and progress. As we celebrate Stonewall 50, it is important to remember where we came from and to see just how far we’ve come.

By Dirk Smith

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