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During the era of 1969’s Stonewall Riots, police raids against LGBTQ establishments were common. But when Stonewall patrons fought back, the modern gay rights movement was launched. On Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, Judy Woodruff gets perspective from Reverend Emma Chattin, activist and journalist George Johnson, The Anti-Violence Project’s Beverly Tillery and Mark Segal of Philadelphia Gay News.
Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, a milestone and catalyst for the gay rights movement.
We are going to examine the progress since then and the considerable challenges today, but, first, a look back at that moment and just some of the notable moments since.
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the Greenwich Village. Back then, with different laws, police raids on gay bars were common. But gay, lesbian and trans residents fought back. Streets erupted into violent protests and demonstrations that lasted days.
The riots began paving the way for the LGBT rights movement. And, by 1979, more than 100,000 people took part in the first National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
But the challenges have been immense throughout. By the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic played a crucial role in the struggle for gay rights. As thousands died, patients protested for drugs and better treatment, medication that would eventually turn AIDS into a chronic illness for many.
Even so, in the two decades after 1981, the epidemic killed more than 460,000 people in the U.S. During the '90s, there was greater recognition and acceptance for many individuals.
But it was President Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, preventing government-granted federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. Other important victories were to come, notably in 2003, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, when the Supreme Court struck down the state's anti-sodomy law, effectively decriminalizing homosexual relations nationwide.
It wasn't until 2012 that a sitting president publicly supported same-sex marriage.
For me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
The Supreme Court eventually struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, making it legal across all 50 states. But, even as LGBTQ communities have won more acceptance and recognition, there have been other setbacks.
President Trump is the first Republican president to formally recognize Pride Month, but he is rolling back a number of protections for transgender Americans involving social services, health coverage, and making it harder to serve in the military.
The murders of transgender people, particularly trans women of color, continue at alarming rates today, with 10 known black trans women killed this year. For its part, the New York City Police Department issued an apology this month for its actions at Stonewall 50 years ago.
I do know what happened shouldn't have happened. The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple. The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and, for that, I apologize.
This week, the Stonewall anniversary is being commemorated across the country.
And now to discuss the 50th anniversary, four perspectives.
Reverend Emma Chattin is ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church and serves a parish in Northern Virginia. She is also executive director for the Transgender Education Association of Greater Washington. George Johnson is an LGBTQ and HIV activist. He is also a columnist for Afropunk and a guest editor for BET Digital.
Beverly Tillery is the executive director of the Anti-Violence Project. It's an organization dedicated to ending violence against the LGBTQ community. And Mark Segal, he was at Stonewall the night it was raided by police and participated in the riots. He is the founder of Philadelphia Gay News.
And welcome, all of you, to the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.
Mark Segal, I want to start with you.
You were there on the night of June 28, 1969. You were 18 years old. What did you see?
As an 18-year-old kid, I moved from Philadelphia, a city of 1.6 million, to be with my people, in a sense, because we were invisible.
That night, like every other night, I was walking up and down Christopher Street. And at the end of the night, you would go into the inns at Stonewall.
Going into the Stonewall was a typical night, until the lights flickered on and off, and then they came on full force, at which point, police barged in, slammed people up against the wall, used every kind of profanity you could imagine against us, roughed us up.
Then they went to people who looked successful, prosperous, asked them to take out their wallets, and took money from their wallets and put it in their pockets. We had nothing to do, because they were the police. What were we going to do? Call the police.
One by one, they let us out of the bar. As we were let out of the bar, each time somebody would come out, we would applaud. Eventually, they wanted to leave. There were only six police officers in the bar, plus the bar workers. Outside, we were 50 to 75.
Eventually, when we wouldn't leave, we started throwing stones. We started throwing cans, anything we could find, from the street.
For the first time in history, the police were imprisoned, rather than us.
And that was a — those demonstrations went on for days.
Mark Segal, did you have any idea at the time that that was the beginning, that you were part beginning of the gay rights movement?
Not at all.
When Marty Robinson came up to me with a piece of chalk that night and said, "Write on the walls and the streets tomorrow night Stonewall," I didn't realize that would create the second night. I didn't realize us leafletting the second and third nights, creating Gay Liberation Front from that, protesting against the police, that we could take back our neighborhood, protesting against "TIME," "LIFE," Village Voice and other media, so that we would become visible again.
No idea that would become history.
Beverly Tillery, as somebody who works against violence against the LGBTQ community, you have watched the evolution over the years. How have you seen any progress made since Stonewall?
Well, you know, in a way, I would say we're living a dual reality, because, of course, we are benefiting from the arc of progress that has come from Stonewall and before.
We are more organized as a community. There are resources and organizations that, you know, we can speak of that have been around for years. My organization is going to be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, so came just after Stonewall.
So we have this infrastructure. We have definitely won many gains related to our legal rights and protections. So, there's certainly progress.
What many people will say, however, is that many of us in the community, those who were always more marginalized, those folks who hold multiple identities that are already oppressed, are still left behind and continue to be left behind.
And, George Johnson, as someone who has — living with HIV, you have been an activist for many years now.
From your perspective, how have you seen either progress or lack of it in your time?
Yes, it's really tough.
Kind of what Beverly says. It's kind of like we live at two different — almost like two different Stonewalls for black queer people. When we think about Stonewall, we think about Marsha P. Johnson, and we think about Storme, and we think about Miss Major and all of the black trans and femme people who fought so hard through those nights, not knowing that they were going to start a movement.
But we also now — 50 years later, we're still burying more transgender people. They're facing — black trans women in particular are facing higher amounts of violence.
HIV is still an epidemic for black MSMs.
And so while, you know, rainbow capitalism has kind of stepped in and everybody is throwing up rainbows, and it's 50 years, a lot of us are still grieving and we're still mourning.
And we recently had Nigel Shelby, a 14-year-old black boy, gay boy in Alabama, who lost his life by suicide. And so, you know, our pride right now is kind of — it's just two different pride celebrations kind of happening.
And, Reverend Emma Chattin, someone who has been active in the transgender education efforts, who is the pastor of a church, what have you seen? I mean, how have you seen any progress over this time?
Rev. Emma Chattin:
Well, from my perspective, it's been dramatic, because — particularly if you consider the abolishment or the nonenforcement of the presentation laws, where we could finally present our gender as we experienced it.
And that began to happen and blossom after Stonewall. One of the other things that was really huge is just the advent of the Internet in the late '90s as to how we began to communicate — excuse me — communicate, coalesce, and come together as a community.
And how has — I mean, your — much of your effort is focused on the transgender — on the transgender community. How has that intersected with the broader LGBTQ movement?
Well, education is necessary.
There is tension between the trans and the gay, lesbian, and bi communities. And so we can't just say that these are our people. We have to educate everyone, because we're very different. We're identity-based, whereas, when we're looking at gay, lesbian, and bisexuals, we're talking about sexuality.
So, we're talking about identity with the trans and gender nonbinary communities.
And picking up on that, Mark Segal, the challenges abound.
I mean, people like to say that the country's come a long way. We referenced how some laws have changed. Certainly, attitudes have changed. But there are still obstacles. There's still prejudice. It exists all around us.
We're still second-class citizens.
We can get married today almost anywhere in this country, and, later on that day, be fired because we are married. We're second-class citizens because we don't have the Equality Act.
And I think, because of that, we need to go back to that time right after Stonewall. Stonewall — from Stonewall came Gay Liberation Front. Gay Liberation Front was the first organization in America that believed in diversity. We had drag queens, which today we would call trans. We had bi's. We had women. We had radical people. And, at that time, we had young people like me.
We need to learn to go back, get off Twitter, get off Facebook, stop looking for likes, and get into the street, and let's get arrested again.
Beverly Tillery, what about that? How do you see the obstacles that are out there today? And how do you strategize, how do you think about how to get around them and beyond them, through them?
Well, it's really interesting, you know, hearing Mark's story about Stonewall.
One of the things that strikes me is that, you know, we don't often talk about the root causes of that Stonewall riot. It wasn't just, you know, a raid that just happened to happen that day.
As Emma said, you know, this was coming on the heels of people being oppressed for years under laws that were meant to criminalize the community. And those laws mandated how you could dress, whether or not you could gather together as a community, what kinds of jobs you could have.
You were banned from having a government job, you know, for some period of time. And so those criminalization laws were the foundation of what led to the both oppression and the uprising from folks.
And what we're seeing right now is an attempt to bring back those laws, to criminalize our communities that look a little bit different, but, again, we're trying to deny people access to education and jobs, when you talk about a trans military ban, the access to health care.
And, you know, all of that is exasperating the climate of violence that's leading to the numbers of folks who are dying in our streets, who are subjected to all kinds of hate violence in our communities.
That violence hasn't stopped. And so what I would say is, we have to really go to the core here, go back to looking at the criminalization that's happening in our communities, talking about it, naming it and undoing all of that criminalization.
George Johnson, do you — as we just heard Beverly suggest, do you see this as a moment where we have stepped back as a country on the things that are most important to you?
It's always — again, it's interesting, because when we discuss some of these issues, it's like it's based off of where your viewpoint is. You can see progress, where we, some of us may have not seen anything.
And so whereas marriage equality, like, I was happy that day, but I also remember, like, while a lot of more white-core-centered organizations were really fighting for marriage equality, you had black queer people who were just fighting to survive.
And so there was like this huge gap being missed and a divide between both communities. And we saw it in 2016 when we tried to add a brown stripe, just something simple, so that we felt more included, to the flag. It made headlines, because so many people were against even us including ourselves in part of a movement that we started.
And it also speaks to how you have the Matthew Shepard Act, right? But it's actually Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. And everybody often forgets that that act is a white gay man, but is also a black man, and that some of us sit at that intersection.
And so it's very important that you're connecting the issues that we face across community together.
What needs to be done?
We have heard, Emma Chattin, Reverend Chattin, we have been hearing about the attacks on trans women, especially trans women of color. What needs to be done specifically about that? And, you know, why are we having this happen now, is my question?
Well, what needs to be done about that is that there needs to be movement.
If we're looking at — Matthew Shepard galvanized a community and strengthened a movement. The trans communities have yet to have that, and we have had 10 violent murders thus far this year of trans women of color, 10, OK?
And if we look at the years past, it's 26, it's 24 every year. And it is, by and large, trans women of color.
What needs to happen is, a movement needs happen. People need to stand up and say, this is enough. And we need more education. We need more connection among people, intersectionally, with different communities. And it's a long, hard pull.
So, what's it going to take?
It's going to take a lot of people. And it's going to take a lot of hearts, and it's going to take a lot of people coming together. But it's a movement, and it has to happen.
We hear each one of you.
And we thank you so much for joining us today, Reverend Emma Chattin, George Johnson, Beverly Tillery, Mark Segal.
Thank you very much.
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Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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