“Stonewall was a riot” is a phrase that conveys a profound truth.
The three-day riot at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969 was not the first time LGBTQ+ people stood up for themselves against legal discrimination, police entrapment or organized violence. However, it encapsulates the spirit of a movement, a reminder of the “good trouble” the late Congressman John Lewis cited as necessary to stand against injustice.
This Pride Month is more than a time to reflect on Stonewall and the other protests that helped solidify the LGBTQ+ movement and push the world to rethink its prejudices against the community. It’s a time to look at the current threats and challenges to the movement.
Now, as then, LGBTQ+ people are under attack. Across the nation, conservative state legislators and governors have adopted draconian restrictions on speech, assembly, education, health care and other matters – all in an attempt to violently force LGBTQ+ people back into the closet.
In a throwback to the pre-Stonewall era, drag is again illegal in multiple states while doctors – and even parents – could be prosecuted for providing affirming health care to trans youth and others. Just as it was in 1969, it is still legal to fire LGBTQ+ people at will in 16 states, refuse to rent a house to them in 19 states and deny them a loan in 34 states. Fourteen states currently censor discussions of LGBTQ+ people or topics in schools.
Anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups have been happy to amplify rhetoric wrongly claiming that the United States’ hospitals, libraries, schools, universities, corporations and government institutions are part of a cabal “grooming” kids to become LGBTQ+. Within the last few months, we’ve seen this rhetoric target gender-affirming care, inclusive policies and even corporate marketing campaigns celebrating LGBTQ+ people and Pride Month.
These efforts sow mistrust in public institutions and undermine the overwhelming public support for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. The mistrust has even reached within the LGBTQ+ community as cisgender gay and lesbian people have voiced the irrational fear that gay and lesbian youth are being “transed,” which will somehow result in trans rights costing gay and lesbian people their rights.
The fallout from this anti-LGBTQ+ movement, however, touches everyone.
Despite claims that this hysteria is about protecting young people, it’s putting them in harm’s way. Children’s hospitals at the center of hateful and inaccurate information about gender-affirming care have been the target of harassment.
Sexual abuse survivors, who have experienced grooming by their abuser, are finding their experiences belittled and trivialized as elected officials and others lazily hurl the term “groomer” at LGBTQ+ people and any other person or institution they dislike. Elsewhere, the anti-LGBTQ+ movement has fueled proposals forcing teachers to betray their students’ trust by requiring them to “out” LGBTQ+ youth to their parents or guardians.
The endgame, according to some popular anti-LGBTQ+ extremist commentors, is to make pride “toxic.” However, it also creates a climate that encourages violence. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, for example, recently sent a memo to law enforcement warning of violence at Pride Month events and at health care facilities.
There is hope, which we must remember as we celebrate this month. The anti-LGBTQ+ movement cannot make pride more toxic than the closets from which innumerable people since Stonewall pledged never to return. What’s more, anti-LGBTQ+ extremists represent a small – and increasingly shrinking – proportion of the population.
We must encourage the free expression of pride this year as never before. A strong showing by LGBTQ+ people, allies, friends, neighbors and families will help repudiate these efforts targeting the community. And we cannot leave that energy behind at the end of the month. Once the parades have ended and the banners have been stored for another year, we must continue to show up. We must show up to our school boards and state legislatures – the places where these anti-LGBTQ+ laws are made and enforced – and call on them to truly reflect the needs and concerns of the community.
In addition, the Biden administration should build on its strong statements of support and vigorously enforce federal civil rights laws that protect all students, including LGBTQ+ students, from unlawful discrimination and harassment.
We must remember that the modern LGBTQ+ movement was born from a community dedicated to making the lives of future generations better by challenging anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions. We must persevere and continue the fight.
As we know, Stonewall was a riot.
R.G. Cravens is a senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.
Scott McCoy is the interim deputy legal director for LGBTQ+ rights and special litigation at the SPLC.
Photo at top: LGBTQ+ activists rally before passage of Minnesota’s “trans refuge” bill in April 2023 at the state Capitol in St. Paul. The legislation guarantees legal protection for trans people coming to Minnesota to access medical care. (Credit: Stephen Maturen/AFP via Getty Images)