June is Pride Month for the LGBQTIA+ community. When you picture gay people celebrating, you probably imagine crop tops, glitter and rainbows. While all these things can be found at your typical celebration, there is also a political undercurrent to our festivities.

Pride month commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots

Holding hands, kissing, dancing, and the gathering of homosexual people were behaviours considered illegal in New York. Gay bars owned by the mafia seeking a profit were one of the few places gay people could safely congregate. It was a refuge for trans people, drag queens, sex workers and homeless gay youth who were especially at risk.

On June 28 police raided the Stonewall Inn. Police raids were frequent, but this night was to be the tipping point. Suspected cross dressers were taken to the toilets to have their sex verified through invasive inspections. Lesbian women were sexually harassed by officers who were frisking them.

When a woman was hit on the head with a baton after complaining that her handcuffs were too tight, she shouted to crowd outside the Inn to do something. Frustrated with constantly being harassed by the police and demonised by wider society, this act of police brutality was the final straw. People began tossing flaming garbage and whatever objects they had with them on the streets at the Stonewall Inn the police occupied.

‘You've been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it's our turn!... It was one of the greatest moments in my life.’ - Sylvia Rivera, transgender activist and self identified drag queen.

How is this related to Australia?

The Stonewall Riots set a new precedent, the LGBTQIA+ community no longer had to tolerate police harassment. The LGBTQIA+ could actively oppose society to defend their humanity. It was what some consider to be the birth of the modern gay liberation movement.

The impact of the Stonewall Riots rippled across the seas and reached Australia’s shores, contributing to the establishment of LGBQTIA+ right groups in Australia.

What was it like for LGBQTIA+ people in Australia?

It wasn’t the lucky country it was said to be. Homosexuality was criminalised and men convicted of same-sex relations were often subjected to conversion therapy such as electric shock treatment or apomorphine injections. No scientific or medical evidence supports the use of conversation therapy but it was supported by public figures who pathologised homosexuality as a disease in need of curing.

In 1978, Australia had our own version of the Stonewall Riots.

To show our solidarity with US gay activist and demand civil rights, Sydney’s LGBTQIA+ community took to the streets. What began as a celebration become violent when police suddenly withdrew the crowd's marching permit and ambushed them on Darlinghurst road.

From behind and in front, Police forces closed in, attacking the crowd with batons and throwing people into paddy wagons. 53 people were arrested and taken back to the police station were some were further beaten by officers. Later they would have their names, addresses and occupations published in The Sydney Morning Herald. As a result, people lost their jobs or housing.

Despite the violence, the night is characterised by the courage and resistance of the ’78 marchers. The efforts to raise bail money for the arrested began a legal movement that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in NSW.

So next time someone asks why gay people are celebrating pride, remember that it's not just a superficial celebration of being gay. LGBQTIA+ folk march forward following the footsteps of the Stonewall rioters and 1978 marchers, making the same demands for civil rights. Rainbow coloured flags are waved in the air in defiance of those who would shame other on the basis of their sexuality.

For the LGBTQIA+ community, it is also a time for reflection on the progress made and what still needs to be done. Who else in our LGBTQIA+ community is need of support? Trans people? Sex Workers? Homeless youth? People of Colour? Asylum Seekers? These are questions further explored during pride month conversations.

It is ultimately a month devoted to building a more accepting future.

 

Further readings:

Friday essay: on the Sydney Mardi Gras march of 1978

Police violence against Mardi Gras revellers reminds us of an intolerant history

1978: Our Stonewall

Stonewall Riots History Channel

'Treatments' as torture: gay conversion therapy's deep roots in Australia



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