June is Pride Month and the perfect time to learn about these historic events.
This Pride Month, learn the true stories of Stonewall, the White Night Riots after Harvey Milk was murdered, and more.
1. Compton Cafeteria Riots
Via Screaming Queens, Frameline
In 1966, in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, the gay and lesbian community was not welcoming of the transgender community. Additionally, strict laws prevented the wearing of any articles of clothing for what was considered the “opposite gender” one had been assigned at birth. Since transgender people could not freely go to the bars designated for gay people, they often congregated at Compton Cafeteria. The staff of the cafeteria began calling the police, who were notoriously violent toward transgender people. The trans community picketed the cafeteria, and when the police were called again, the situation escalated into a riot. Though Stonewall gets all the love as the event that inspired the LGBTQ+ movement, the Compton Cafeteria riots were the first incident of LGBTQ+ people fighting back for their rights.
2. Stonewall Riots
It took until June of 1969 for a similar incident to happen in New York City, though this one is often recognized as the true beginning of the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. The Stonewall Inn, named a national monument in 2016, was owned by the Mafia and catered to the outcasts of Greenwich Village — drag queens, transgender people, and queer people of color (the poorest of all these categories). Even so, raids happened often, and the patrons were far from safe. Assimilationist organizations (groups who sought to prove LGBTQ+ people were just like anyone else, and nonthreatening) had made little progress against the laws at the time that framed queer people as mentally ill deviants. On the night of June 28 the most marginalized of the LGBTQ+ community, led by trans woman of color Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, fought back. The riots went on for several nights and are commemorated each June with pride parades.
History Pro Tip: The 2015 film Stonewall is not an accurate representation of this time. It centers cis (not trans) gay white men as the leaders and erases the people who were at the forefront because they had the least protection and the least to lose. For a better and lighthearted representation, watch this episode of Drunk History.
3. The Assassination of Harvey Milk and the White Night Riots
Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay people to be elected as a city official. He served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk was instrumental in passing gay rights ordinances. He was assassinated by Dan White, a former board member who had been blocked from returning to the board shortly before the assassination. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter — a conviction that allows that any normal person would have acted similarly under the same circumstances in the “heat of passion” or due to an understandable mental disturbance. This was a frequent conviction in relation to “gay panic” defenses. What additionally outraged the San Francisco gay community was the efficacy of what was later referred to as “The Twinkie Defense,” in which a psychiatrist testified that Dan White was very depressed and the refined sugars from the junk food he ate had, in part, caused the murder. After the lenient verdict was announced, a march began on Castro Street, a center for gay activity at the time. A group of over 5,000 proceeded to City Hall, where the rioting began. By this point in history, the message was clear: While LGBTQ+ people had been silent before, they no longer would be.
History Pro Tip: The Dead Kennedys’ version of “I Fought the Law” is based on this moment in history and includes the lines “I blew George and Harvey’s brains out” and “a Twinkie is the best friend I’ve ever had.” Also, check out Gus Van Sant’s Milk.
4. Sylvia Rivera Interrupts the ’73 Pride Parade
By 1973, pride parades had begun in New York City to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. Serious rifts had come up post-Stonewall in LGBTQ+ organizing, many of them between cisgender and transgender people, white people and people of color. Despite her involvement in Stonewall and her activity in STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), Sylvia Rivera took the mic in the 1973 pride parade amid boos and calls for her to step down. She spoke out against the cisgender, white, middle-class forces that she felt were co-opting the movement, and about her fellow trans women of color being incarcerated, raped and murdered at high rates while still being shut out by their community. These rifts continue to exist in LGBTQ+ organizing to this day, and Rivera’s speech remains one of the most relevant pieces of queer dissension that exists.
5. ACT-UP and the AIDS Crisis
After the beginnings of liberation that the LGBTQ+ community felt in the ’70s, the ’80s were not a good time. First was the appearance of the AIDS crisis (originally called GRID — Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), which struck the community particularly hard. Then the government’s reaction — President Reagan’s silence and then the press secretary’s laughter. The LGBTQ+ community had learned about how to organize and retaliate long before this point. Some of the most influential organizing began, including AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), whose protests on Wall Street pushed toward access to experimental HIV and AIDS drugs, and shutting down the FDA for a day. Some of the unsung heroes of the AIDS crisis, though, were not just the people fighting for their lives but those allies and community members who took care of people dying of a mysterious, fearsome, misunderstood and ravaging disease.
History Pro Tip: Though there was critique that most of the focus was on white and cis activists, the 2012 David France documentary How to Survive a Plague is a great entry to learning more about this piece of history.
6. Gay Marriage
The first modern protections of gay marriage were enacted in 2001 in the Netherlands, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that statewide bans on it were unconstitutional. The legal protections that come with marriage are truly vital, and the stories of couples who waited their entire lives to have these protections were touching. However, many saw the fight for gay marriage as a watering down of the LGBTQ+ movement into the assimilation politics of the pre-Stonewall era that hadn’t gotten the community very far. Further critiques involved the allocation of funds to the fight, which took away from funding for the myriad problems faced by the most vulnerable members of the community, such as homeless LGBTQ+ youth (LGBTQ+ youth make up 5-10% of the population, while the percentage of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ+ is somewhere between 20-40%). Personally, I spent 2015’s pride parade carrying a sign that read, “Stonewall wasn’t the beginning, and marriage isn’t the end.”
7. UN Calls for Protection of Intersex Children
Although the intersex population is about as large as the number of people globally who have red hair, many places in the world have a shameful track record for how intersex infants are treated — including forced surgeries and mutilation of what are considered “nonstandard” genitals. Thankfully, the world seems to be waking up to the rights of intersex people. In a 2013 treatise on inhuman or degrading treatment, the UN’s Human Rights Council declared that intersex rights fell under a protected group, and prior practices were tantamount to torture. “Children who are born with atypical sex characteristics are often subject to irreversible sex assignment, involuntary sterilization, involuntary genital normalizing surgery, performed without their informed consent, or that of their parents, in an attempt to fix their sex, leaving them with permanent, irreversible infertility and causing severe mental suffering.”
8. The Fight for Trans Rights and the Ongoing Crisis of Murder of Trans Women of Color
We’ve all heard about the 14 states that have introduced legislation to prevent trans people from using the bathrooms consistent with their gender, but if that’s the most you know of the current battle for trans rights, there is so much more to learn. Transgender people, an estimated 1.4 million adults, lack legal protections in many states, where they can be fired at will. The trans population is more than four times as likely to have an income under $10,000 annually. Most terrifying, though, is that the most vulnerable members of the population, trans women of color, are being murdered at alarming rates, and their murderers are often going free with the defense of “trans panic,” which claims that the victim’s gender identity was a reasonable justification for the murder.
With the fight for the humanity of a vulnerable section of the population once again in the current historical moment, this Pride Month is the perfect time for LGBTQ+ people and allies alike to ask themselves which side they’re on.