Stonewall at 40
The 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.
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.