Stonewall at 50
Celebrating the Road to Greater Inclusion
LGBTQ Pride takes on a special significance this year as we also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the date in June 1969, when drag queens in a New York bar fought back for the first time—refusing to be victimized by New York City Police because of who they loved.
This has special significance for me because in 1994, while I was serving as the Project Director for National Coming Out Day, I was in New York city attending both the Gay Games and the 25th Anniversary of Stonewall.
Instead of being a celebration, it was a march with the specific purpose of raising awareness of the injustice LGBTQ Americans faced at the time. The year before, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell became law and most states lacked non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fast forward to 2019 and it is easy to feel like not much has changed, considering efforts by the current administration to strip LGBTQ Americans of their equal rights. Actions include barring transgender Americans from serving in the military (executive order), to pushing legislation allowing medical professionals and others to deny care because it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
As we start the season of LGBTQ Pride, it’s important to keep all of this in perspective, recognizing that the fight for equality is a marathon and not a sprint. Sure, we have had our share of setbacks and there are good reasons for feeling fearful about the future. At the same time, it’s important to remember we have much to celebrate and for good reason. Like the famous tagline for Virginia Slims cigarettes says, “[We’ve] come a long way, baby.”
I know what you’re thinking. How can I be so optimistic, given the current state of LGBTQ affairs in our nation today? It’s because I, along with many of those reading this column, was witness to history as our community overcame one obstacle at a time. That’s why, if I feel defeated and on the verge of losing hope, I stop, take a breath, and reflect on the bigger picture to help provide context.
More importantly, this helps to remind me of the wins along the way too...giving me the courage and energy to keep up the good fight. So, come with me as I look back on the past 25 years to see what has transpired to make the US a better place for LGBTQ Americans:
1997—Ellen DeGeneres comes out: I often credit Ellen’s coming out as a pivotal moment in the fight for LGBTQ equality. That’s because the public dialogue in the months leading up to and after that episode aired boosted the visibility of who LGBTQ people were more than ever before in history. This opened the door for the media to increase coverage of LGBTQ issues and also paved the way for other notable people to come out.
2003—Lawrence v. Texas: This landmark Supreme Court ruling struck down the sodomy law in Texas, thus invalidating sodomy laws in 13 other states and making same-sex sexual activity legal in the US and its territories.
2004—Massachusetts legalizes same-sex marriage: For the first time in our nation’s history, same-sex couples could get legally married and begin to receive the same rights and benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia followed suit by 2009.
2009—Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act becomes law: Named in memory of two men who lost their lives because they were targeted simply for who they were (their sexual orientation and race, respectively), the new law increased the penalties for victims of crimes that were motivated on the basis of perceived or actual race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
2010—Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) overturned: This landmark federal statute allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to serve openly in the US military.
2013—Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) overturned: The US Supreme Court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, allowing same-sex couples who were legally married in states that allowed marriage equality to also receive Federal benefits.
2015—Supreme Court rules in favor of nationwide marriage equality: The historic ruling by the US Supreme Court in favor of Obergefell v. Hodges guaranteed same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry and required all 50 states, DC, and US territories to recognize them equally to heterosexual couples.
During the month of June, I encourage each of you to participate in one of the many Pride celebrations as a way to commemorate this momentous milestone in our community’s history. But remember, our work is not done until all LGBTQ people achieve full equality at home, at work, and in the community.▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality and opportunity in the workplace and the community.