Stonewall riots — 50 years later, has anything changed?

Stonewall riots — 50 years later, has anything changed?
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The Stonewall Riots of 1969 heralded a new era in the lives of LGBTQ+ people in the United States and in many parts of the world. Despite the advances of the last decade highlighted by the recognition of marriage equality as the law of the land under Obergefell v. Hodges, hate crimes targeting sexual and gender minority individuals rose by 17 percent in the first year of the Trump-Pence administration. 

Put simply, there continues to be a substantial portion of Americans who demean, ridicule, victimize and kill LGBTQ people. The proportion of Americans with accepting attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people has declined recently — stabilizing at 49 percent over the last two years after, and is accompanied by higher levels of intolerance among 18-34 year-olds. You see it has gotten better, but it’s still not great. 

While these facts are troubling, they also can be viewed with a different perspective. These emergent social conditions are simply another in the series of crises that LGBTQ+ people have faced. 

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These crises — whether the pathologizing of our identities that led to LGBTQ+ people being beaten and criminalized; or the AIDS virus which fueled the vilification of our population and led many to neglect us — functioned also to energize our population and to create unison in our voices as we continue to demand that society bestow on us the same rights as any other citizen. 

The Stonewall riots and the activism that emerged in response to the AIDS epidemic were critical in paving the way for the emergence of marriage equality and for the greater and more respectful representation of our population in film, television, and other media formats. These crises were essential as the combustion of the conditions led to a realignment in the social conditions which shaped our lives.

Now a new type of crisis has emerged — one seemingly promulgated by a federal government that slowly but surely has chipped away the rights of LGBTQ+ people including the ban on transgender soldiers serving in our military or the permission of health-care providers to deny us service under the false guise of religious freedom. 

These aggressions — more subtle and underhanded — seek to undermine the advances that have been made, and slowly but surely erode the social conditions that shape the lives of LGBTQ+ people — the very social conditions that undermine our health and wellbeing as has been so effectively documented by the National Academies. These situations indeed create a new crisis.

This crisis is also informed by micro-aggressions LGBTQ+ face on a daily basis — attacks on our persons in the forms of micro-assaults, micro-insults, and micro-invalidation —which, like a thousand cuts, undermine who we are and our place in society. Sadly, this seems to give people license to treat us poorly. I offer two examples: one from my own experience as an academic in higher education, and one from my husband Bobby, a middle school teacher — both of us immersed in the bastion of blue of the Northeast. 

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In the last year, the Rutgers School of Public Health, where I serve as dean, developed the world’s first public health MPH degree in LGBT health. This is an enormous accomplishment and one that has been in need for decades. The development of the domain of study by the faculty of my school has been a source of excitement and pride for all of us, especially given that the degree emerged in this, the 50th year of the Stonewall riots. 

A short time ago, a colleague — a heterosexual male, fully aware of this is accomplishment and of my very open and proud identity as a gay man — repeated to me that he had been told by another colleague that there was “too much LGBT” at the school. While he purported not to actually espouse this thinking nor to believe the veracity of this accusation of the homophobic colleague who uttered this nonsense, his words in fact were nothing more than a perpetuation of the aggression. How do I know the person who originally made the statement is homophobic? Because simply making the statement is homophobic.

It is because of such micro-aggressions that we encounter daily that my husband, Bobby, responded so powerfully when a clearly misinformed and misguided white heterosexual female guidance counselor sought to start a gay-straight alliance at his junior high school, the Wagner School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The guidance counselor chose to proceed with this effort, using an insulting symbol of unicorn to advertise the club (yet another micro-aggression) without the input my husband — an openly gay men who understands much more deeply the difficulties we face — than the guidance counselor — whose personal experiences of LGBTQ+ discrimination amounts to zero. 

In fact, she went out of her way to exclude Bobby from the formation of the gay-straight alliance, and in turn causing him to relive every rejection he had experienced as a gay man throughout his life from his father, schoolmates and others.

Both of our experiences functioned to diminish, dismiss, and demean us. And the unintentional and unconscious aggressions associated with these actions make them even more insidious. In fact, they demonstrate how deeply embedded homophobia is within our society. 

Our society claims to embrace us and accept us, but only to a point. When we are too loud and open; when we demand that we have a seat at the table; when we ask our rightful place in society, we are reminded that we would rather be seen and not heard. 

I ask all LGBTQ+ people to join me in this fight. We haven’t backed down before; we won’t back down now. 

Perry N. Halkitis is a dean, professor, and the Director of the Center for Health, Identity Behavior & Prevention Studies (CHIBPS), School of Public Health, Rutgers University. His is the author of "Out in Time: From Stonewall to Queer, How Gay Men Came of Age Across the Generations."