June 28, 1969, was a milestone in LGBTQ history. The police had frequently raided the unlicensed bar, Stonewall Inn, but on this night the patrons resisted. The police were in the process of arresting cross-dressing men and a lesbian on trumped up charges when people poured into the streets in protest. Years of unwarranted harassment had built up a tangible distrust of the police; the powder keg found its spark. At this time in New York gay and lesbian bars had to pay bribes to avoid being raided. Drag queens led the crowd in throwing loose change at the arresting officers as a form of payoff. The tossed pennies were replaced with empty cans, bottles, and bricks. The riot escalated and spilled into the pre-dawn streets of the West Village, lasting almost a week. The riot became a revolution that has continued to this day.
Why was that night different? This was not the first time that a LGBTQ bar had been raided, nor was it the first time that people fought back. What changed during that rebellion in 1969 was the realization that no one had to live with discrimination and that they could fight back as a community.
The crowd found its collective voice and raised it against pervasive social injustice. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1973. Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn led the “lavender scare“, claiming gay men and lesbians were a risk to national security. Beauty queens and evangelicals campaigned through the 1970s to Save Our Children by spreading unfounded fears about child recruitment and abduction by homosexuals. Conservative politicians joined the religious right and used Biblical morality to wage a war on crimes against nature, trumpeting gay conversion therapy as a cure. Suicide attempts among gay teens have historically been 4 times greater than straight youth. Anyone who embraced their true identity could lose their job, home, and bring shame to their family.
Had the Stonewall Riots stayed focused on local police harassment it would have burned out in the narrow streets of the West Village. Instead various groups organized into a coalition to affect positive change. To commemorate the event they held the first gay pride parade. They gained traction by orchestrating boycotts and protests, using their purchasing dollars as leverage against businesses that discriminated against them. The fight moved from the streets to the court rooms, government offices, businesses and classrooms to build awareness. The AIDS epidemic devastated communities forced people to organize and fight for their lives against government negligence, public ignorance, and pharmaceutical foot-dragging. Being LGBTQ in the 1980s was a radical act.
American’s growing tolerance and acceptance was advanced through the media that connected people. Breakthrough comedies, movies, publically out celebrities, and the internet were used to raise awareness. Critical questions and scientific findings about gender and sexual fluidity refuted moral-based objections. As public opinion changed, so did politics. President Obama allowed long-standing discriminatory rules to expire like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the Supreme Court advanced marriage equality after decades of fighting for equal rights. Our understanding of LGBTQ issues has continued to evolve through education and exposure. Knowing LGBTQ people, even in the media, helps people see our similarities rather than our differences. This builds empathy.
In less than 50 years individuals who once had to live in the shadows have emerged into the most ethnically and religiously diverse community, with members in every country around the world. The struggle is not over, not everyone has equal footing or acceptance, it is still illegal to be LGBTQ in some countries, and bias crimes are on the rise. However, the incremental change in public opinion and legal precedents have built consensus that cannot be easily reversed.
Those of us concerned with fighting climate science deniers can take inspiration from this historic sea change. Many of the same obstacles faced by the LGBTQ community need to be overcome to make progress on global issues. The same conservatives who fought against equal rights and marriage equality are fighting climate science. They prefer the status quo and introduce misinformation to retain their view of the world.
Climate science should not be a partisan issue, but some people believe their opinion can refute basic facts. Greenhouse gas emissions, produced by humans, are warming the planet. This is disrupting the water cycle, increasing global temperatures, and melting glacial ice. Coastal areas are more prone to “sunny day” flooding, extreme temperatures and drought are becoming entrenched, forest fires are becoming more frequent. We don’t have time to waste debating whether this is real, or if it caused only by humans. We need that energy to work on mitigation and adaptation strategies.
We have the power to achieve this. Our tools are to keep fighting, educating, and building consensus. March for Science. Invite people into conversation, not battle. Bring everyone to the table. We must understand what climate change is and what we can do today to adapt to it. We can only achieve this together.
The truth always prevails.
Image Credit: The Advocate