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Stonewall at 40

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William Crawley | 13:28 UK time, Saturday, 4 July 2009

lgstonewall.jpegThe Stonewall riots of 1969 have a mythic place in the history of modern gay culture in the West. A police raid on the Stonewall Inn was not unusual in 1969; it was illegal for bars to even serve drinks to "known homosexuals". But the raid on June 28, 1969, was different. For reasons historians are still trying to understand, Stonewall's gay clientele decided, that night, to fight back.

Today, Stonewall is often described as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement. This was the moment when gay people in New York said no to police harassment, and chose to stand against official oppression. Peter Tatchell, now the UK's most famous gay rights campaigner, heard news reports of the riots while living in Australia and was radicalized by what he heard. How the riots inspired liberationist responses within the gay community in Britain is more difficult to say.

stonewall.jpg On tomorrow's Sunday Sequence, we'll be talking about Stonewall, the riots and the birth of gay liberation. Peter Tatchell will be my guest, alongside Gregory Woods, the UK's first professor of gay and lesbian studies. When Professor Woods took up that appointment in 1998, at Nottingham Trent University, the Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe described it as "a phenomenal waste of public money". He's still the only professor of gay and lesbian studies in any UK university, even though there are many similar appointments in leading universities across the United States.

A sign of changed times, perhaps, is the fact that Prime Minister Gordon Brown hosted a reception for organisers ahead of today's annual gay Pride march through central London. Sarah Brown is expected to take part in the march. But Pride founder Peter Tatchell, who was controversially excluded from the reception, says Labour's legislation of civil partnerships is a form of "sexual apartheid". He is concerned that today's gay campaigners are settling for something less than full liberation. Earlier this week, David Cameron apologised on behalf of the Conservatives for his party's introduction of the Section 28 ban, which outlawed "the promotion of homosexuality". Labour's deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, said the apology was "25 years too late." Britain's major political parties are now in a battle for the gay vote.

See here for Columbia University's archive on the Stonewall riots.

Listen again on the iPlayer to Tom Robinson's Radio 2 documentary: Stonewall: The Riots That Triggered the Gay Revolution,which includes first-person accounts of the night in June that changed gay cultural politics.


  • Comment number 1.


    Even as we protect the gay community from dehumanisation and persecution...

    Should we also also press for equality and freedoms for people with ego dystonic homosexuality? ie unwanted same sex attraction?

    Should such people as Jim...


    ...... have their persecution highlighted and campaigned against?

    Should they have their rights to access whatever counselling they desire protected?

    Should we also recognise the persecution of people who move from gay to straight, and press to protect their dignity and respect their journeys?

    Should we look the other other way when others dispute their honesty and sanity as they tell of their personal journeys?

    Is this the one minority that it is permissable to persecute on grounds of their sexuality?


  • Comment number 2.

    #1 - OT -

    I know we've had our disagreements in the past on the issue of homosexuality, but I totally agree with your concerns expressed here.

    If the so-called "free thinkers" amongst us really were "free thinkers" they would allow people to make free decisions, and that must include respecting a person's wish to reject their own homosexuality. It's no good blustering on about the authoritarianism of "religion" (whatever "religion" is supposed to mean) if they then impose their "homosexuality is inborn" dogma on other people's personal lives. And respecting freedom means respecting the development of counselling services to those who wish to make the choice to leave homosexuality, and services which seek to give people that choice by presenting their arguments in a society undergirded by freedom of speech.

    I was impressed by Jim's testimony, and I can also testify that when I was at an all male boarding school I had certain experiences (which I don't really care to elaborate on too much), which some people could have used to convince me that I was, or am, gay. If I had come under the influence of a cunning counsellor at the time (with a particular philosophical agenda), who knows what ideas could have been put into my mind in the vulnerable and impressionable state I was in as a young teenager? I can certainly say that I am most definitely not gay, and I know full well why I had those particular experiences at the time. It really started with sexual abuse at the hands of an older boy, which did not seem like abuse at the time, as I was led to believe it was really "me". Nuff said about that.

    My concern about homosexuality is to do with the way some Christians are exploiting the issue to play a power game in the church - particularly in the Anglican Church. It is disturbing, and I do wrestle with the fact that the Bible says so little about an issue that some church people seem to think is the great defining issue of the time for Christianity.

    Whatever our differences of biblical interpretation, you have made a very good point here, and it behoves those who preach tolerance to address it honestly.

    All the best, Al

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks Al

    We certainly have had our differences, so i am surprised but welcome your comments.

    Yes, it is all too easy for traditional Christians to highlight the stories of people like JimS as case studies which support our ideologies, rather than people who can and are often caught between a rock and a hard place.

    I am sceptical that all people with SSA may fully change, but I respect their right to self determination.

    It would be feigned naivete to ignore how this could be used against the gay community, especially by Christians, but nonetheless, you make the point perhaps better than me.

    Does their need to be a new Stonewall for ego dystonic homosexuals to reclaim their self determination?


  • Comment number 4.

    sorry Al

    A bit of a drama going on behind me there, hence only half a post before.

    Thanks for sharing such a personal part of your life with us. wow. a big step there! respect.

    In NT terms I cant see how God views mental adultery any differently than homosexual practise.

    We cant scapegoat or dehumanise gay people, as John Sentamu says.

    Because gay people are no different to straight people in that we are all sinners, theologically speaking, and we all need grace and forgiveness. There is no gay or straight. there is just us.

    Regarding your defining issue comments, I think there is much to what you say in a sense, see Sentamu ref above.

    In another sense I do think it is a defining issue for our age in that imo the issue is being used to denude the church of its traditional ability to read and understand the bible in any real sense on ANY and ALL issues. This is not necessarily primarily the fault of gay activists!

    This lays an axe at the church's ability to retain any traditional thinking or teaching on any and all matters, because the new method of interpretation allows almost anything to be read into or out of any text etc.

    So in that sense perhaps it is a defining issue. But it will certainly not be solved or even biblically addressed by Anglican church politics and political or church legislation.

    It will be addressed by Christians living out their lives in love, grace, humility and holiness, imo.




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