By Josh Inocéncio
“Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are,” read a flyer for a July 1969 meeting in New York City. In spite of being the city with arguably the largest gay population in the United States at the time, New York City fiercely upheld its anti-sodomy laws.
That 1969 meeting, consisting of members from New York City’s most prominent LGBT group in the late 1960s, Mattachine, was responding to the Stonewall Inn riots one month prior on June 28, where LGBT civilians revolted against N.Y.P.D. officers after yet another routine raid of the popular gay tavern.
And now, President Barack Obama, who has used his presidency to transform the national conversation on gay and transgender rights, is poised to designate the historic Stonewall Inn as the first-ever national LGBT monument to honor those who have fought for equal rights over the decades. Like African-American history or women’s history, Obama recognizes that LGBT history is American history.
Gay groups in the United States existed before the clash at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but that moment served as a catalyst for emerging gay-rights groups to coalesce around specific agendas. From the wake of the Stonewall Riots emerged the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and, later that year, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Throughout the 1970s, the LGBT movement witnessed the rise of the Street Transvestite Action Revolution (STAR), the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), and, in the 1980s, the “in your face” AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which demanded that the U.S. government recognize the AIDS epidemic that was obliterating gay men.
Since 1969, the combined efforts of LGBT rights groups have achieved federal action on HIV/AIDS research, the overturning of draconian laws that banned gays in the military and criminalized sodomy, and, as of last summer, the freedom for gays and lesbians to marry nationwide in a decisive yet narrow Supreme Court ruling.
And while the designation of a national LGBT rights monument is overdue, there is urgency in the timing. Even though gays and lesbians have achieved marriage equality in all 50 states, the conservative backlash against the LGBT community has resulted in both physical violence and discriminatory legislation. The Guardian reported on 30 alleged hate crimes in and around Oak Lawn, the Dallas gayborhood, over the last year; Republican-led states are passing “religious freedom” policies seeking to undermine adoption and even marriage rights for gay couples; and, perhaps most disturbingly, there are the erroneously titled “bathroom bills” inspiring transphobia in North Carolina, Mississippi, and in 2017, most likely in Texas, among other places.
Aside from the obvious historic import that Stonewall carries, President Obama couldn’t have chosen a better site, given that the riots were led by two trans women of color: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Much more than a museum commemorating past struggles, the Stonewall Inn is a beacon that can unite the LGBT community now.
In the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots, the LGBT community splintered as white gay men (who largely set the agenda for political activism in New York City and beyond) neglected the needs of the trans community in favor of securing their own rights. This harsh division led Johnson and Rivera to launch the aforementioned STAR group, which focused explicitly on trans rights. As the We’ve Been Around docu-series iterates, Johnson and Rivera fought for “people who fell between the cracks of the gay and straight worlds.”
While the “T” remains firmly entrenched in the queer movement’s core acronym, activists have worked to add Q (queer or questioning), I (Intersex), A (Asexual), among other groups. Still, the fracture remains between gays, lesbians, and their trans brothers and sisters. Indeed, before the unexpected backlash after the Obergefell marriage ruling, many gay rights activists believed the fight for equal protections was nearly over. And the lack of historical awareness of Johnson’s and Rivera’s roles in the Stonewall Riots was evident in director Roland Emmerich’s film, Stonewall (2015), where a classically attractive white gay man from the Midwest sidelines the contributions of trans women. This, along with other historical misrepresentations, has prevented transgender Americans from achieving full equality in the United States, both in the eyes of conservatives and fellow LGBT individuals.
But as attorney general Loretta Lynch emphasized in regard to North Carolina’s HB2 last month, “No matter how alone you may feel today, know this: the Department of Justice—and, indeed, the entire Obama Administration—want you to know that we see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.” Only days later, President Obama issued his directive for public schools to allow trans students to use the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
By designating the Stonewall Inn as the United States’ first LGBT monument, President Obama is crystallizing the nation’s commitment to civil rights for not only gays and lesbians, but for transgender individuals, too.
Josh Inocéncio is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine, a playwright, and a freelance writer. Read all of his OutSmart articles at outsmartmagazine.com/author/josh-inocencio.