Last June 24, the New York state legislature, voting 33-29, officially legalized same-sex marriages in the state of New York. While the United States national government does not recognize such unions (because the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriages as strictly between a man and a woman remains in place), each of its 50 states has the power (under the present federal system) to legalize or at least recognize same-sex marriages within its borders.
This legislative win makes New York only the 6th American state to authorize same-sex marriages. New York is nevertheless a big win for gay rights advocates because it is the biggest state to allow such marriages. Other states such as California allow domestic partnerships and civil unions, but not marriages. The victory in New York for gay rights advocates is also a symbolic one: first, New York is the state where the turning point in the history of gay rights activism, the Stonewall Riots of June 27-29 1969, happened.
This is also why the United States is marking its LGBT pride month every June, an annual tradition started by then US President Bill Clinton in 2000 and further expanded by current President Barack Obama under his term. The momentous event happened exactly 42 years ago yesterday. As a junior journalism student two years ago, I wrote a paper tracking the development of gay rights activism in the United States from 1950s-1980s. I titled it “The Stonewall’s Mark” in recognition of the event’s role in gay rights history. Here are some excerpts from that paper:
Agents of the NY Public Morals Squad entered the premises of the Stonewall at around 1:20 am and announced that they are taking over the place. However, the bar’s patrons botched the raid. The plan was to line up the people in the bar, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men caught cross-dressing would be nabbed.
In an act of defiance, males refused to produce their identities while those dressed as females disobeyed the officers’ orders. Those who were not arrested were released by the police from the bar premises – but instead of going home, they congregated outside the Inn where a crown of about 200 gathered within an hour after the raid. Suddenly, the police began dragging arrested bar patrons into their patrol wagon – apparently in a humiliating way. The gathered crown jeered at the policemen and upon seeing the blatant brutality, they began throwing anything they can (bricks, beer bottles and even pennies) towards the policemen.
The police responded to the worsening mob by engaging in more physical violence – a step that backfired since it only had infuriated the bar patrons further. The humiliated policemen tried to disperse the crowd, which in turn ran to a nearby construction site and hurled assorted debris towards the law enforcers. This marked the first time where homosexuals violently resisted state authorities who had oppressed them for years.
The Stonewall riots created the image of gays and lesbians retaliating against the police after many years of being passive to their harassment. What is more interesting to note is the fact that the Stonewall Riots happened spontaneously. There was no organizing group which would have told the crowd what to do. It seems that all the police harassment that had happened for many years had come to a head on that particular time and place – and that homosexuals had had enough of it. As mentioned earlier, red light districts are vital for homosexuals because these public spaces provide them with opportunities for free expression of sexual identity.