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[Editorial] Stonewall: 50 years of fighting for their lives

Tags: General

A single image survives of the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. The grainy black and white photograph is a juxtaposition: a macramé vest, eyes wide, the sheen of sweat on young faces, the officers' crisp uniforms, the glint of service cap visors. In front of the mismatched brick arches of the Stonewall Inn, immortalised, a throng pushing against authority and pushing forward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) liberation.

During a period of anti-gay legal statutes, ostracisation, and when homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric illness, the Stonewall Inn was a refuge where the most marginalised—transgender people, homeless youth, and drag queens—could find community. The increasingly common police raids for liquor law violations in gay bars around the city served as a guise for harassment of their patrons. But that night, instead of submitting to being arrested or dispersed, the crowd lingered and grew to hundreds of people, massively outnumbering police who were barricaded inside. Hours into the uneasy standoff, by some accounts, Stormé DeLarverie, one of the few arrested women and a lesbian of colour, tussled with police. After seeing her treatment, the mood quickly shifted from lively to livid and the crowd erupted. The violence and rioting stretched over two nights, drawing thousands.

In the détente, activists found their window to galvanise the movement, honouring the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising as the date of the Pride marches that began the following year. Friction arose immediately between staid existing organisations and radical groups like the Gay Liberation Front, who favoured more visible tactics drawn from the civil rights movement. LGBT equality has been interwoven with the struggle for equality for all minorities in the USA and in the experience of health disparities that range from discrimination to the denial of civil rights. Yet the hierarchy of privilege and status within the movement drove a narrative in the decades after that focused on cis, gay, white men, minimising the pioneering roles assumed by transgender people and people of colour.

Activism, nevertheless, remained at the forefront. In the 1970s, among a wave of sexually transmitted diseases, health activists started a network of clinics to serve gay men avoiding mainstream health care. As the AIDS epidemic raged in the 1980s, groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) urged political action against the lethargic federal response. The 1990s and the millennium brought another cycle of activism toward gay civil rights and protections. Two watershed events borne out of LGBT activism changed the course of recent history: in 2012, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent HIV infection became available and, in 2015, the US Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage. The ripples of LGBT activism have had a global reach, as PrEP delivery is now being scaled up in endemic countries, and with major developments in 2019, including Taiwan being the first region in Asia to permit same-sex marriage, legalisation of same-sex sexual acts in Botswana, and Brazil's highest court criminalising homophobia and transphobia.

The 50th anniversary of Stonewall demands reflection on the road to equality and these remaining barriers. The past might appear black and white, but its spirit is in colour. As rainbow flags, the symbol of hope and diversity, fly for Pride, they are vibrant reminders that the history and indeed the future of LGBT solidarity, better health, and an end to discrimination depend on acknowledging and uplifting the many parts that make it one.

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