We usually celebrate June as Pride Month with joy and excitement. However Pride Month 2020 has started on a much more difficult note. We’ve spent the last few months quarantined in our homes trying to slow a pandemic. We’ve experienced the highest unemployment rate since The Great Depression, and many self-employed individuals are struggling to keep their businesses open. To add to all that, this past weekend, protests and riots raged all over the country sparked by the abhorrent treatment of Christian Cooper and the murder of George Floyd last week. It’s hard to feel hopeful or celebratory amid so much pain, turmoil and unrest.
It may be helpful to remember that we have been here before. Throughout history, periods of upheaval moments have often given birth to genuine progress and change. Pride Month commemorates one such time, where riots and protests created awareness of deep-seated problems and energized people to take action to create substantial change. So as the crowds march and the fires burn in many cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia and my hometown Chicago, this feels like the perfect opportunity to revisit the history behind the Pride Month and use some lessons from it to move forward today.
In the early morning of June 28th, 1969, eight officers from the New York City’s Public Morals Division, a unit of the police department, raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. This raid wasn’t unusual in New York (or many other cities). Back then, the Public Morals Division enforced all laws for vice and gambling, including prostitution, narcotics and homosexuality. Cops could arrest and even force hospitalization of gay people.
On this particular evening, however, the bar patrons fought back. It started when Marsha P. Johnson cried “I got my civil rights!” and threw a shot glass into a mirror (now known as “the Shot Glass that was Heard Around the World”). More and more patrons joined the fight, including people from neighboring bars, and mayhem ensued. Hundreds of people resisted arrest and fought against police oppression. Rioters broke windows, set cars on fire and injured three police officers. The police ended up barricading themselves inside the Stonewall Inn.
New York City’s Tactical Patrol Force intervened, but even they were run out of the neighborhood by the rioters. Things eventually calmed down. But once the word got out about the riots, thousands returned the next night to continue the protest. The protest lasted six days.
Increasing Our Pride
Stonewall was not the start of the LGBTQ movement. LGBTQ activists have been organizing since at least the 1920s. But the rage and fervor caused by the Stonewall riots helped catapult the LGBTQ movement to a new level.
Media coverage of the riots allowed others to see the LGBTQ struggle for themselves and to relate to and support those fighting for their rights. Events at Stonewall emboldened others to do what they could to help.
The following year, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots was marked by demonstrations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At first, the New York City day of celebration was called “Christopher Street Liberation Day.” In Los Angeles and San Francisco, these events became known as “Gay Freedom Marches,” and the day was called “Gay Freedom Day.” Chicago had Gay Pride Week.
The parades were a mix of politics and celebration. They promoted visibility of the LGBTQ community. They also served as a huge megaphone for LGBTQ needs and rights — like protection against harassment, raising awareness of the AIDS epidemic or fighting for marriage equality. They gave a growing LGBTQ movement a voice and, as support grew, that voice began to be heard.
The culture shifted in the 1980s, as less radical activists began taking over the march committees in different cities. They dropped “Gay Liberation” and “Gay Freedom” from the names, replacing them with “Gay Pride.”
LGBTQ Rights Today
The first few marches drew only a few hundred people, but the Pride Parades today include hundreds of thousands. In fact, the Chicago Pride Festivals have had crowds of more than one million people since 2013.
We’ve come a long way from the police brutality and stigmatization of the 1970s. We’ve also made it through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. The parades have long been the voice and coming together of the LGBTQ community to celebrate our lives.
For seven straight years, from 2009 through 2016, President Obama officially declared June as LGBT Pride month. Today we can get married and legally adopt children in all 50 states.
While there have been some huge gains, we still have a ways to go. For the LGBTQ community specifically, financial planning is still different. The Trump administration has proven time and again that it does not want to take our rights into consideration, especially when it comes to trans rights.
Lessons We Can Use
The fact that the fight for both LGBTQ and racial equality has been going on for centuries and may be going on for centuries more feels overwhelming, especially for those of us in both camps. We won’t be able to fix everything at once. But there are lessons that we have learned from the past, that can help us take on each moment as it comes.
Creating more awareness around the injustices of today has become more important than ever. People of color and the LGBTQ community have known and experienced this hurt for a long time. But as we saw with the coverage of the Stonewall riots and the most recent riots, increased awareness can have a mobilizing effect. This awareness, if accepted at the emotional level, can lead to effective action. One way to create that emotional level acceptance is through personal stories.
We’ve seen throughout history how powerful coming out has caused our families, friends and neighbors to act. And as a friend pointed out this weekend, “it changes people to know someone and enough changed people, changes the world.”
I encourage you to tell your story. Let those around you see how moments like this deeply affect you on an emotional level. The LGBTQ movement was shaped by stories like Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols who picketed the White House in the nation’s first major gay rights protest in 1965. People like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who rallied the rioters at Stonewall, helped empower other people to stand up as well. Brenda Howard, known as the “Mother of Pride”, in her work in coordinating the first Pride March, started a movement that later touches millions of lives. These stories have caused a ripple effect that has led to substantial change.
Keep in mind “telling your story” doesn’t apply to just those within the community. It will take more than just those of us directly affected by discrimination to correct a problem of this magnitude. That means those who are not directly affected need to stand up for those who are. Telling those around you about your desire to see change and action will have a significant impact on those around you. And whether you like it or not, standing silently on the sidelines also says a lot.
We can’t control everything that’s going wrong in the world. It’s easy to get discouraged about the lack of coordinated effort from our federal, state and local governments or a President fanning the flames of division or some groups using protests as an opportunity to create unrest. But let’s not get stuck feeling helpless. While we are in this together and change will have to come from the collective, in moments like these, I keep the focus on me.
I use what I call my three commitments — three commitments I can make to help with the problem. Here are mine:
- Increase awareness of this inequity through my various platforms
- Provide as much information and education as possible to help
- Help connect people to resources that can help them through difficult times like this
Keeping the focus on ourselves and letting others do the same can have a compounding effect. What are your commitments? Specifically, what actions can you take to create awareness or encourage acceptance. How can your actions create the change you want to see?
Some commitments I’ve already seen include:
- Speaking up about this issue in your social circle
- Calling your legislator expressing your concern
- Educating yourself on the best things to do right now, especially when it comes to listening
- Asking those around you how you can support them
- Practicing self care
There are no right answers, and the commitments will look different for everyone. Once you outline what you can do, ask yourself:
- How am I going to do it?
- When am I going to do it?
- Who can keep me accountable?
- How does it feel having this plan?
Take one day at a time
Lastly, one of my favorite mantras, is “one day at a time.” The only day we have is today. For me, worrying about the enormity of the problem only overwhelms and drains me. When that happens, I remind myself to stay focused on the present. What can I do today to help myself? How can I be of service to others? What is the next right step? Tackle the problems you can today and leave tomorrow’s problems until tomorrow.
If you’re interested in learning more about the LGBTQ movement for equality, check out the amazing content I drew on to write this article:
- Historian David Carter’s Book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution
- Democracy Now’s 40th Anniversary Special of the Stone Wall Riots
- Dave Isay’s Remembering Stonewall
- Sexplanations with Dr. Doc “History of Pride” episode
And lastly, if you’re just looking for some info on LGBT history, check out the following:
- ABC’s mini-series When We Rise
- CNN’s pictures of the initial Pride Parades
- WBEZ’s Curious City’s episode on the “Making of Chicago’s Boystown“
I know it’s hard to be positive right now. That’s normal, understandable and okay. The good news is we’ve done hard things before. I believe we can use this moment to keep moving forward.