The Stonewall Inn in New York during Pride. (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
The Stonewall Inn in New York during Pride. (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
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How the 1969 Stonewall riots led Manchester to join the fight for LGBT+ rights

On June 28th, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn on Greenwich Village in New York, unintentionally kick-starting a movement for LGBT+ equality.

Tipped off by rumblings of bootlegged alcohol and blackmailing mafia owners, the raid on the gay-friendly bar would see patrons lined up, interrogated, and, in some cases, kicked and pushed about.

The evening would be responded with a week of protests, fighting against the handling and marginalisation of the LGBT+ community. During an era where it was still illegal for two gay men to be seen dancing together, the community had decided enough was enough.

The front of the Stonewall Inn. (Photo credit: Travis Wise/@photographingtravis/Flickr)
The front of the Stonewall Inn. (Photo credit: Travis Wise/@photographingtravis/Flickr)

Exactly a year on from the raids, the first gay Pride event in New York took place. “We’ll never have the freedom and civil rights we deserve as human beings unless we stop hiding in closets and in the shelter of anonymity,” Gay Liberation Front founder Michael Brown told the New York Times in 1970.

Those couple of years in New York would set a precedent, not only for gay rights in America but for the rest of the world too. Was it finally time for it to be okay to be gay? Not quite.

It would not be until the late 80s where the UK would have its very own ‘Stonewall moment’. As homophobia hit fever pitch following an association of HIV/AIDS in gay and bisexual men, the UK government was set to put Section 28 in motion – an amendment to the Local Government Act 1988 that would stop local authorities and schools from promoting homosexuality.

The amendment was met with criticism up and down the country. Most famously, Manchester became the centre of another historic moment for LGBT+ rights.

On 20th February 1988, 20,000 protesters took to the streets of Manchester to fight against the discriminating clause. “There was a sense that the whole community was under threat,” Paul Fairweather, who helped set up the North West Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Equality, told The Guardian.

Stonewall campaigning for the repeal of Section 28. (Photo credit: Stonewall)
Stonewall campaigning for the repeal of Section 28. (Photo credit: Stonewall)

“There were also lots of questions about section 28’s possible impact on gay bars and clubs, as well as concerns about the attitude of the police force.”

Lisa Power, co-editor of the Pink Paper, said to The Guardian that Manchester’s section 28 protests helped to “bring what we called the scene queens together with the political.”

While the battle was not won (the clause was passed through parliament and wasn’t repelled until 2003), Power believes the protests still had an impact. “This did make people think much more strategically about how we should go about getting lesbian and gay rights to win the war.”

The effects of Section 28 can still be felt today. Recent research by Anglia Ruskin University found that 88% of post-2003 teachers were public about their sexuality to all school colleagues, compared to 20% of those from the Section 28 era. 

Dr Catherine Lee of Anglia Ruskin University, author of the study, said that it was “clear that a lot of teachers remain scarred by their experiences during this period.

“While this legislation was not the only difficult aspect of being an LGBT+ individual in the 1980s and 1990s, it has helped leave a legacy of caution, self-censorship and complex identity management that harmfully lingers some 15 years after the repeal.”

The fact that many people who grew up in Section 28 era still feel unable to be their true selves highlights why it’s still important to fight for equal rights. Those who fought back against the Stonewall raids and the Section 28 clause show that change can happen.

Pride in London parade takes place in Westminster, London. (Photo: Dave Nash)

Today marks fifty years since the Stonewall uprising, which Laura Russell, Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research at charity Stonewall says was a “watershed moment in LGBT history that paved the way for today’s modern LGBT movement”.

“This historic occasion is an opportunity to reflect on the enormous progress we’ve made towards equality and look ahead to the future. It’s important to acknowledge that many of the people who led that uprising were part of groups who continue to exist at the margins of our community and in society, and for whom Pride isn’t yet a celebration but an act of defiance. 

“But while there is lots to be proud of, the fight for equality is far from over and we cannot be complacent. Already this month we’ve seen a UK politician suggest that science should find an ‘answer’ to LGBT identities, as well as a horrific homophobic, misogynist attack on a lesbian couple in London.

“Now more than ever, we need everyone who cares about equality to show their support and work together to build a world where all LGBT people are accepted without exception.”

The Stonewall uprising and Section 28 protests demonstrate how we can never rest on our laurels. Recent news of parents campaigning against the teaching of LGBT+ relationships in schools and the scarring misgendering and dehumanisation of transgender people in the media showcase how the fight for equality is far from complete.

As Michael Brown suggested in 1970, we’ll never have the rights we deserve if we stay complacent.

Written by Adam Maidment

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