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The Birth of the Modern Gay Rights Movement

After finding a slightly sexist but hilarious meme that we posted on Facebook (which was approved by our gay and straight friends), it dawned on me that I knew very little about gay culture. And the gay rights movement for that matter. We care about and support gay marriage. So we should know the history of the gay rights struggle. In the United States, as well as other countries, the LGBTQ movement has come a long way. Luckily, GetLusty's Mary-Margaret Sweene is here to review some of the milestones that have led us to where we are within the American gay rights movement.

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When politicians and pundits talk about the modern gay rights movement, it is often in a way that obscures the long and lumbering, laborious and lovely, struggle for equal rights. It's easy to forget that groups of gay activists have been making noise for quite some time.

Homosexuality has, indeed, been observed as far back into history as we can reach, across cultures and continents. The Greeks are often called to mind. But when did an activity become an identity, a census check box, a political movement? Historian John D'Emilio begins his book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities in November 1950, in a Los Angeles living room. Five men met at the home of Harry Hay to discuss "the heroic objective of liberating one of our largest minorities." This gathering eventually led to an organization called The Mattachine Society, the first established gay rights group in history.

Of course, this didn't just pop out of history at random. As the nuclear family changed, the mandate of procreation curbed. WWII scattered young people of marrying age. Men hunkered down together in fox holes; women donned pants and operated factory equipment. People moved away from their families to big cities. For the first time, men and women had a real choice in who they would pursue. The Kinsey Report, published first in 1948, disrupted long-held assumptions about sex.

For years, people with same-sex attractions found refuge in big cities, and in underground clubs and bars. Police raids often shut the establishments down, and photos of patrons arrested were published to humiliate. Yet despite the terror of being revealed to friends and family in the morning paper, those who longed for a community continued to flock to these bars.

The Stonewall Inn was one such place.

On June 28th 1969, gay and transgender patrons gathered at The Stonewall Inn. The evening had a somber tone, as a gay community icon, Judy Garland, had just passed away. And during their evening of mourning, celebrating, and fellowship, the police conducted a raid. The usual routine of violence against patrons while a paddy wagon idled outside began to unfold. But this time, the bar patrons fought back.

The NYPD quickly lost all control of the situation and a riot ensued. The cries from the bar drew the attention of surrounding Greenwich Village gay residents and the riot grew into the streets. It continued into the next day.

It reignited several days later. This was the start of something big. Within months of the riots, multiple gay rights organizations had formed and began jockeying for political visibility. Several newspapers and magazines catering to a gay community came into circulation. In June of 1970, the first parades were held in New York, LA, and Chicago. We still celebrate Pride at the end of June to mark the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Why is this important? Because it's estimated that between 30-40% of gay teens have attempted suicide.   They yearn for acceptance in a world too slow to change. Knowledge, as they say, is power. I will never forget my first Women's Studies course in college. I sat with tears in my eyes, realizing that while I had grown up learning that men had built our world, in reality many women had a hand in the undertaking as well. The next semester I took an African American history course and felt embarrassed that my experience as a white female had precluded my knowledge of the Africans Americans who built our nation. But then I looked around the room and I saw black students experiencing what I had felt in that Women's Studies course. We were people with rich histories. And we didn't even know it.

Earlier this year, a family member of mine came out. He said that when I'd taken him to the Chicago Pride Parade, he overheard me mention "the riot 40 years ago." "I didn't know what you meant," he said. "It's my history, and I didn't know it."

Here's to knowing. Here's to pride.

For further reading and to get the full, inspiring story of the gay rights struggle, check out the following sources:
John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970

George Chauncy, Why Marriage?: The History Shaping Today's Debate Over Gay Equality
Films: Before Stonewall (released 1985); After Stonewall (released 2005)

Mary-Margaret McSweene is a writer and graduate student in Chicago. Her undergraduate degrees are in Social Justice Studies and Feminist Theory which basically means she knows how to ruin a dinner party by calling bullshit on another guest.

She spends inordinate amounts of time thinking, reading and writing about feminist issues, punctuated by brief respites to enjoy good tea and good beer. Contact her at or follow her on her brand new shiny Twitter, @MMMcSweene.
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