Nearly every state had laws regulating the sexual practices of consenting adults five decades ago.
For many of us, it’s unimaginable that people who cherish the principles of freedom and personal responsibility would approve of government oppression based on private behavior. Individuals labeled as homosexuals lost their jobs and were imprisoned.
Patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City had become accustomed to having police periodically raid their preferred gathering space. It was well known as a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, so it made for an easy target.
But on June 28, 1969, those who frequented the Stonewall Inn concluded that enough was enough. There were numerous customers when officers raided the establishment that particular night, and members of the gay community decided to fight back.
Violence between police and gay people broke out several times over the next few days. Activists formed groups to challenge a society that viewed them as moral deviants.
This was not the beginning of the gay rights movement. The Society for Human Rights was formed in Chicago in 1924, and the Mattachine Society was formed in Los Angeles in 1950. Both groups promoted legal protections for gay people.
Franklin Kameny organized demonstrations in front of the White House in 1965 to bring awareness to the issue of gay rights. He earned a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University in 1956 and landed a job with the U.S. Army Map Service a year later.
But Kameny was fired after a few months due to suspicions that he was gay. Executive Order 10450, signed in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower, allowed the U.S. Civil Service Commission to investigate and fire those who had criminal records, substance abuse problems or engaged in “sexual perversion.” While he never regained a position with the government, Kameny dedicated the rest of his life to advocating for gay people.
The work that gay rights activists in New York City conducted following the raid at the Stonewall Inn produced results. On June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of their clash with police, they held a gay pride parade — the first in the nation. They proclaimed it Christopher Street Liberation Day.
Similar events declaring the dignity of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, have continued across the country from that point on. Officials in Watertown held a ceremony Saturday by raising a rainbow flag in front of City Hall. Several hundred people joined the celebration.
We applaud organizers for putting on this flag-raising event, the first one in the city’s history. And it was heartening to see so many people show up for the ceremony. They publicly demonstrated their commitment to stand with all those in the LGBTQ community who still face discrimination, intimidation and violence.
The confrontation 50 years ago between activists and police at the Stonewall Inn carried on decades of advocacy for people who had long been marginalized. Extensive research since then has debunked baseless claims that gay people are more prone to be child molesters and sexual predators.
It’s astounding to see how attitudes have changed so dramatically toward gay and lesbian individuals. This civil rights campaign has emboldened members of the LGBTQ community to step out of the shadows and live as they were created.
In the process, many more people have abandoned their biases because they realized they have loved ones who are gay and deserve to be treated with respect. The quest for full equality goes on, but the good news is that it’s come a long way over the past 50 years.