Stonewall50: The Things We Forgot
In a recent piece for Beat Rehab, I went back to uncover what was in the jukebox on the night of the Stonewall Riots (the playlist is embedded here). 50 years ago, the songs that were soundtracking protests seem more poignant than ever before. Stonewall is arguably the most important event in LGBTQ+ history, and sparked sweeping changes across the western world. As far as FoH is concerned, Stonewall was a catalytic moment that birthed disco, and from that all the dance music we know and love. Those changes, both musical and social, should certainly be celebrated, but I’m also left asking ‘what did we miss?’. If you’re unaware of Stonewall you could do worse than read a recent long read from PinkNews or watch the incredibly measured and well-crafted Stonewall Uprising from PBS.
I’m not the most qualified person to answer that question. Instead, here at FoH we’ve reached out to journalist Hadley Stewart to talk about how much further is left to go. Who are those people for whom Stonewall didn’t go far enough? What changes still need to happen? The recent events at the Stonewall anniversary celebrations serve to only cement the need to reassess the legacy of the riots.
50 years since Stonewall, the fight for LGBTQ+ equality is far from over.
It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Inn in New York City was raided by the police; a night that prompted a civil rights movement for LGBTQ+ equality. The strides that have been made cannot be dismissed. However, given the recent headlines surrounding an increase in hate crime towards our community, coupled with an international political culture that seems to be drifting away from tolerance and acceptance, I think it’s fair to argue that there is still plenty of work to be done.
Rights for LGBTQ+ people were practically non-existent 50 years ago. In fact, here in the UK, homosexuality was only partially decriminalised in 1967. But even then, the age of consent for gay people was unequally set to 21 years of age, and the wider LGBTQ+ community had little legal protection from discrimination. The lifting of the ban on LGBTQ+ people serving in the Armed Forces would come later, with equal marriage coming decades after that night in New York City. This evolution in the law is thanks to activists from our community, who worked tirelessly to ensure that the next generation wouldn’t face the same prejudice and discrimination they did.
But whilst many are praising the narrowing of the gap between LGBTQ+ rights and the rights of heterosexual people, I do worry about how easily things might start to go backwards. The rate at which rights for LGBTQ+ people living in countries like the UK and United States has changed is phenomenal, although it could also be argued that we are also at risk of seeing them just as quickly disappear.
An image of two women covered in blood on a London bus made headlines across the world. A lesbian couple were asked by a group of men to kiss for their entertainment, and when the couple refused, they were physically assaulted. It was a shocking image, and for some in the LGBTQ+ community, brought back their own experiences of bullying at school, harassment at work, or even being a victim of a hate crime. As a gay man who was bullied at school, I asked myself how this image would have made me feel if I were at school today. In all honesty, it wouldn’t have filled me which much hope of acceptance beyond the school gates. The incident reminded us that our worst fears could become a reality, whilst young LGBTQ+ people were left asking themselves if things really do get better.
Today, it seems clear to me that LGBTQ+ young people are still in need of our collective support. According to a survey conducted by LGBTQ+ young suicide prevention charity, the Trevor Project, 39% of LGBTQ+ young people in the USA considered killing themselves last year (the stats are even more severe for non-binary and trans young people). As somebody who used to work for an LGBTQ+ mental health charity, I know how invaluable these services are to queer young people. But not every young person is able to access this support. Moreover, a perception from society and government that things have improved for the LGBTQ+ community skews their perception of what it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ young person today. This in turn leads to a lack of financial support for these services, and a lack of empathy from the general public for how growing up in a heteronormative society might impact a young person’s hopes and aspirations.
We also perpetually group the rights and experiences of LGBTQ+ people together, which might also be providing us with an overly optimistic picture of how far we’ve come as a society. I sometimes feel like we solely focus our thoughts to the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, leaving transgender people out of the conversation. According to data obtained by the BBC this week, the number of transphobic hate crimes increased by 81%. It’s shocking, but hardly surprising. You only have to look at the comments under an article about a transgender person, or at social media posts after a transgender person appears on TV, to understand the ferocity of transphobic thoughts that sit in the underbelly of our society. I continue to be appalled when I see television ‘debates’ about transgender people. No human being should have their existence debated. The implications of such transphobic messages are catastrophic. I fear that we as a society have become side-tracked by the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, leaving trans people to fend for themselves.
The political canvas is also stained with anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes, policies and laws. President Donald Trump implementing a modern-day ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ban on transgender people serving in the US military added more momentum to the anti-trans movement. His discriminatory views have given the green light to a new movement of anti-acceptance. It has now become almost fashionable to share harmful and discriminatory views about a person’s identity, culture and background. Yet Trump’s divisive politics don’t just impact upon people living in the United States, they also have ramifications that stretch across the globe. Heads of state in countries that seek to impression, torture and kill LGBTQ+ people will have had their views validated by the most powerful man in politics, to the detriment of the safety of their LGBTQ+ citizens. World-wide equality for LGBTQ+ people still feels like a distant dream.
The progress in LGBTQ+ equality since the Stonewall riots should be celebrated. There is no doubting that we have come very far as a society in a relatively short space of time. That being said, much more work is left to be done. Hate crime remains a reality for many LGBTQ+ people, even those living in the most accepting parts of the world. Elsewhere, engrained anti-LGBTQ+ laws leave queer people fearing for their own safety. Our focus on lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s rights has left us neglecting the rights of our transgender brothers and sisters. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that nobody is left behind on the walk towards equality, and that the work that was done over the past 50 years is never undone.