June is Pride Month and this week we are going to examine the role of protest and riots as change making forces with regards to this defining moment in LGBTQ+ History!
This digital exhibition was part of our 2019 exhibit, “Power of Protest.”
pro·test | \ ˈprō-ˌtest \
1: a solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent
2: the act of objecting or a gesture of disapproval
3: a complaint, objection, or display of unwillingness usually to an idea or a course of action
1: to express an objection to what someone has said or done.
2: to declare (something) firmly and emphatically in the face of stated or implied doubt or in response to an accusation
The word protest was first seen in the 15th century as a legal term meaning to petition for or advance a claim. It did not have the modern association with “disagree” until the mid-1500s, when it began to be used to describe a formal declaration against a proposal or decision. Today, protest is most widely used to describe a group of people who express collective disapproval or dissent publicly, but it wasn’t until the 1850s, in the years leading up to the Civil War, that this use of the word appeared.
The modern meaning of protest has grown to encompass any action or thought in opposition to something, being lumped together with demonstrator, dissenter, resistor, activist, and more. Protester and demonstrator in particular are often used interchangeably. By strict definition, a protester is anyone who opposes a statement or policy while a demonstrator is someone who shows opposition through some sort of public display. Because so many people who protest something do go out and show their stance publicly, the word has taken on the meaning of demonstrator as well.The common usage of the word often stresses that a protest is in opposition to something. But successful protest movements are also always for something, as participants work to propose alternatives to the status quo.
“Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too.”
― Ulrike Meinhof, radical West German left-wing militant
Riots as Protest
“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Is a riot a form of protest? Does the introduction of violence to a protest fundamentally change its impact?
As a violent demonstration against societal repression, the Stonewall Riots ensured that the LGBTQ+ community’s voice would no longer go unheard.
The 1960s was a period of vast social changes, led by protest movements. Marginalized members of society began pushing for rights and some of the most well known protest movements came out of this period. One of these was the gay rights movement.
It was illegal to hold hands, kiss or dance with someone of the same sex, and there was even a criminal statute in NYC that allowed police to arrest people wearing less than three “gender-appropriate” articles of clothing. Because of society’s behavior towards LGBTQ+ people, they found refuge in gay bars and clubs where they could express themselves openly without fear.
The Stonewall Inn, owned by the Genovese crime family, did not have a liquor license, being registered as a “bottle bar” where patrons were supposed to bring their own alcohol. Although they did in fact serve alcohol, this classification let them avoid some police scrutiny. Because it welcomed the LGBTQ+ community, and because the owners bribed the police to leave them alone, the Stonewall Inn became an important Greenwich Village institution.
Mostly able to avoid raids by being tipped off by corrupt cops, the owners were surprised when New York City police entered the club and arrested thirteen people for bootlegged alcohol and for violating the state’s gender appropriate clothing statute. The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police hauled employees and patrons out of the bar. The police and a few of their prisoners barricaded themselves in the bar, while the mob attempted to set it on fire.
The raid led to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar and in nearby Christopher Park. The Stonewall Riots became a rallying cry for the LGBTQ+ community in the United States, sparking numerous movements for and against equal rights for the members of the community. As a violent demonstration against societal repression, the Stonewall Riots ensured that the LGBTQ+ community’s voice would no longer go unheard.
In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the site of the riots—Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks—a national monument in recognition of the area’s contribution to gay and human rights.
Pride Going Forward
This Sunday, June 28, marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march in NYC and, today, Pride is celebrated in cities across the globe, including right here in Auburn . As social distancing measures have eliminated most physical celebrations of this historic moment, we take this time to reflect on the progress that has been made in recognizing the equal status of LGBTQ+ individuals while realizing that there is still much more work to be done. For every step in the direction of equality, such as last week’s supreme court decision upholding LGBTQ+ worker rights, there is still active discrimination and violence exhibited upon individuals (for instance, the HRC keeps an ongoing list of violence against Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Communities).
Pride is an act of consolidation and power, an open stance against traditionally oppressive forces that continue to work against the community. Please take the time to learn more about the historical implications of this celebration by going here:
In the 2019 exhibit “Power of Protest” we invited visitors to make signs answering the question “What Matters to You?”
Take a look at some of their responses in solidarity!
If you are looking for resources to support your identity or looking for ways to engage further with your LGBTQ+ community, check out some of these local resources for LGBTQ+ Support:
Not in CNY or the Finger Lakes Region? Find an LGBTQ+ Center near you here: