From Stonewall to Pulse


A rainbow appeared over Pulse nighclub Tuesday night. Photo: Craig Lucie/WSB-TV.

In the first half of the twentieth century, homosexuality was seen as a mental illness and a religious transgression that needed legal sanctions to keep it in check. Those legal sanctions—no public displays of affection, no announcing or expressing your homosexuality (or bisexuality, which was largely unacknowledged)—were enforced by the state with often-violent police raids on gay businesses and bars. George Weinberg, a therapist who pushed back against his profession’s definition of homosexuality as illness, coined the term homophobia during the 1960s.[1] His contribution was one among many in the decades leading up to the riots at Stonewall Inn in 1969—an event now acknowledged as the birth of the LGBT rights movement.

In June of 1969, a group of gay customers at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village took a stand against police harassment:  their stand attracted many supporters and became a riot of resistance that lasted for hours, stretched into a second night, and sparked similar riots throughout the city. The riots marked a turning point:  on their one-year anniversary, the first gay pride parades took place throughout the nation.  In June of 2015, the Stonewall Inn was designated a historic landmark, as it is what public advocate Letitia James describes as a “sacred space.”

Like all gay bars, the Stonewall Inn is a sacred space because it represents a sanctuary, a safe haven where the LGBTQIA community can simply be themselves. But this place is particularly sacred, as it holds the memory of what happens when the oppressed rise in authenticity to say, Enough.  We are who we are—let us be.

Pulse—the gay bar in Orlando where 49 people were brutally murdered by a homophobic abuser with state-sanctioned access to a weapon made to kill many people in a brief time span—was also a sanctuary, a place where the LGBTQIA community could come together safely in love and joy. In Orlando, many within the this community also identify as Lantinx (many of the victims had Puerto Rican roots). Here were people who face multiple forms of discrimination, coming together in a place made sacred by their joyful authentic presence.

I have danced in two gay bars:  one in Lexington, KY, and one in Johnstown, PA. The bars are as different as the cities they serve, but they have one thing in common:  a sense of free being. If you haven’t been in a gay bar but you have been in a straight bar, you can imagine some of this sense:  most people at a club are feeling footloose and fancy free.  But in a gay bar, there is something else, a foundation of relief and release—not out of desperation or a hope to hook up, but out of being in a space that, for this moment, embraces you without question.

It is important to let that sink in:  this brutality happened in a space that embraces a vulnerable community of people without question. It happened within a historical context—during LGBT pride month, which honors Stonewall. It happened because of a weapon that has been used in several mass murders in the U.S., and is still easily and legally accessible in a country that still marginalizes and criminalizes the LGBTQIA community.

Where we go from here—whether Pulse becomes an honored sacred space that marked a turning point, at which not just the LGBTQIA community but the entire nation said Enough—remains to be seen. We have taken some important steps in the days since Orlando, both in terms of regulating our weapons of mass murder and in discussions about the dangers of using homophobia and Islamophobia to pit vulnerable communities against one another. These steps have the potential to be the seeds of a history that upholds the authenticity and sacredness of every human life.  But they will meet fierce resistance from those who wish to further both homophobia and Islamophobia—those who wish to keep weapons of mass murder on the market, so that those without power are pitted against one another.

Honoring Pulse means honoring Stonewall, and all of the activists who have resisted shame and violence and instead affirmed their humanity. It means prioritizing life over death, love over hate.  Again, and again, and again. Until we all understand that the words sacred and sexuality do not divide us, but unite us.


[1] Vern L. Bullough, RN, PhD, Ed., Before Stonewall:  Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (New York:  Haworth Press, 2002), 302.


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