50 years on from Stonewall and Pride as a revolutionary movement
28th June 2019 signified 50 years since the Stonewall Riots that totally changed the LGBT rights movement. But what is Stonewall? What happened 50 years ago that made such a big impact? And why do we still talk about it today?
What is Stonewall?
In the early hours on the 28th June 1969 – a time where simply congregating in a gay bar was still illegal in New York – police attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan. These raids often involved harassing the patrons for ‘payoffs’ to not arrest them or publicise their names, and taking anyone dressed as a woman to the bathrooms and arresting those who were assigned male at birth.
On this occasion though, the patrons resisted. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – trans women of colour – were reportedly the first to stand up against the harassment, throwing bottles at the police. Their resistance gathered momentum as one woman was hit over the head simply for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. The crowd erupted and rioting spread as supporters and demonstrators continued to join the fray. The police were forced to take refuge inside the bar as the crowd flocked into the street, and one officer was quoted as saying that he had never felt more scared.
The police tried and failed to disperse the crowd, and the rioting went on for more than 3 nights. This was the starting point for the organised LGBT rights movement – organisations like Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and the Gay Liberation Front were formed in the wake of the riots and similar movements were established across the world (in Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand).
Why was this such a turning point?
The 60s were heralded by historians as a period of significant social change, with the civil rights movement gaining ground, French student strikes in 1968, and many young men returning from the Vietnam War having found themselves in same gender relationships. This all fed into the volatile political feeling among young people, which boiled over at the Stonewall Inn.
After the riots, those who were brave enough marched from the Stonewall Inn through New York to protest against discrimination against LGBT people. The following June the first pride parade took place in New York to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots which developed into the annual pride events we see today.
Looking back we can see that the general revolutionary feeling of the time helped the events at Stonewall to spark off the LGBT rights movement that we know and recognise today, but we all know especially with the high profile public attacks on LGBT+ people in recent weeks that we’ve got a long way to go before we gain full equality as a community.
Before the riots, and the mass liberation movement, police raids and arrests in LGBT bars was commonplace, as were attacks and murders that were rarely prosecuted. After Stonewall the LGBT community demanded the same rights, safety, and freedom from harassment and violence that everyone else enjoys. We should reclaim our history.
Failure to make the necessary conclusions
Ultimately though, the LGBT movement of the 1970s failed to make the necessary conclusions that class society, where a tiny elite hoard wealth at the expense of the rest, will always be one of divide and rule.
Because of this, young people kicked out of their homes by homophobic or transphobic parents often have nowhere to go, and end up homeless. Asylum seekers are often deported to their home countries, back to persecution. LGBT people are disproportionately more likely to suffer mental health problems. The working class majority are left to keep suffering capitalism’s devastating effects.
The issues haven’t stopped
The recent controversy over the “No Outsiders” program in Birmingham schools shows us how the capitalist media and system, along with right-wing populist groups, will whip up a frenzy pushing either homophobic or Islamophobic views. We discussed this in-depth at a recent regional LGBT+ caucus meeting and a comrade from Birmingham shared how some parents’ do hold homophobic views, but also that some original concerns came from genuine confusion and concern, and since this they had been taken over by right-wing elements to stir and peddle more anger towards the LGBT+ community.
As socialists, we want to try to unite all layers of the working class and to cut through the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of the capitalist class – things such as homophobia, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. And while the main narrative of the protests are anti LGBT+ there are some parents who were trying to express their concerns at not being aware of what their children are learning and this is being used by the right-wing to attack the LGBT+ community – and this, in turn, this has been used by anti-Muslim groups to whip up Islamophobia.
We completely defend the schools decision to implement the ‘no outsider’s’ programme – children have every right to learn about diversity on our society, and it is to the benefit of our entire class that they do learn this, but what has been the crucial thing here which has played into the hands of the right-wing is this has not been a compulsory national curriculum. This should be a national school education program and if it were then all parents would be consulted on the program, what it involves and how it will benefit the children.
The years of privatisation of our schools have meant academies can set their own programs and parents are not always aware of what is being taught. It is this lack of understanding which was expressed in some original concerns of the parents but now it has been completely high jacked by outside reactionary forces – fundamental religious groups, including an American Christian group who also peddle anti-abortion rhetoric, and self-appointed ‘community leaders’ who have no connection with the school.
As socialists we aim to find a point of unity – how can we bring the parents and the school together so the children are able to have access to education in a safe environment and to ensure they receive a high standard of education? It is the vital role that the trade unions can play in this to not only support the staff in these schools but to also to spearhead LGBT+ campaigns in other workplaces in the area – places where the parents themselves may work – and link up the class issues which both the LGBT+ and Muslim communities face together: the need for a living wage, access to affordable housing, safe and free access to healthcare etc. More than this, it is the trade unions which would fill the role of bringing the community together and this would prevent business owners or religious groups to appoint themselves as these community leaders without the wider community itself being democratically involved in these discussions.
A way forward from here would be for the unions to help open up a dialogue with the school and parents with legitimate questions – be it inviting them to take part in the program themselves, or to hold parent and teacher meetings so the parents can ask how they can prepare themselves in case their children ask questions about the program which they may feel under-prepared to answer.
Helping educate people on the issues facing LGBT+ people is still necessary and should be made a workplace issue – just as the campaign against domestic violence was made a workplace issue in the 90s which helped change the law to protect women. The recent headlines stating that LGBT people experience more discrimination than any other group show us that despite companies plastering rainbows everywhere during pride month, and claiming to support the LGBT community, we still don’t have equality – and never will under capitalism. We’ve seen throughout the history of various movements that whatever gains we win from the ruling class they slowly clawback – and the LGBT movement is no different. The ruling class will do whatever benefits them the most.
It’s now commonplace for large corporations to sponsor pride events as an attempt to attract the “pink pound”, despite the fact that these same corporations routinely discriminate against members of the LGBT community – Homophobic and transphobic families make it far more likely that LGBT people will be homeless, victims of domestic violence, and suffer mental health problems as a result; this, in turn, makes us more likely to be discriminated against by banks, employers, and the government.
Although it’s illegal under the 2010 equality act, LGBT people are still much more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace – whether this is because they are refused employment because of disclosing their identity or because they suffer direct discrimination once they are employed. [For example some concerns about my performance at work magically came up shortly after it came up in conversation with the colleague that raised the concerns that I’m bi – and obviously there’s no way to prove that that’s why the concerns were raised so there’s no way to act against it, which is something that LGBT people often find in the workplace.] A report from the TUC recently found that 68% of LGBT+ people have faced sexual harassment at work, a large proportion of whom did not report it for fear of being outed and the harassment that often comes with this.
Trans and non-binary people particularly are still a long way behind the rest of the LGBT community in terms of equality – Social prejudice and insufficient training make it near impossible to access gender identity or reassignment services through the NHS, and this is still necessary for trans people to have their gender legally recognised and there is still no provision for non-binary people to have their gender legally recognised (this was the subject of the consultation on reform of the GRA at the end of last year).
LGBT people are twice as likely to have a negative experience with a GP, which is what makes specialist services so necessary. But the destructive effect of cuts means they are less and less accessible. It’s currently a one to three-year wait to access a gender identity clinic, and trans people often have to travel a long way (which many can’t afford) to access them due to how few clinics are available.
What needs to be done?
Part of our role in intervening in LGBT rights campaigns is to raise the class consciousness of the people involved and show them that the ruling class will never allow us full equality. This is where our use of the transitional method sets us apart from other broadly left-wing groups who either capitulate to mainstream identity politics or shout slogans that seemingly have nothing to do with the current campaign. Our campaigns carefully draw links between working-class issues and LGBT issues and bring everyone onto the same page. For example, our main point of campaigning that we discussed at the regional caucus meeting this year was healthcare – with the GRA reform consultation still relatively fresh in people’s memories it isn’t hard to show people how wider NHS cuts are affecting LGBT specific services such as access to GICs.
We’ve seen throughout the history of various movements, the struggles of workers and of specific oppressed groups, that our limited gains towards rights and equality under capitalism are all too easily taken back. The capitalist class and its representatives in government will do whatever benefits them the most; when LGBT rights are popular even Tories will express some support for the demands of the community. As soon as reactionary views rise or the next inevitable financial crisis hits, all provisions and rights for LGBT people and all oppressed groups are at risk under capitalism
We need to rebuild an active movement, demanding whatever steps towards equality we can win under capitalism, but ultimately fighting for a democratic socialist society.