This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and Uprising, in New York City. For several days beginning on June 28, 1969 – police and gay rights activists clashed outside the Stonewall Inn – a popular gathering spot of the day for gay men, lesbians, and transgender people in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Those clashes are credited with helping to launch the modern gay rights movement. The Stonewall Riots will be commemorated on Saturday at a rally and celebration in Charlotte’s Romare Bearden Park.
The local LGBTQ advocacy group Charlotte Pride is organizing Stonewall 50: Charlotte. Matt Comer, communications director for Charlotte Pride joined WFAE All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey.
Mark Rumsey: Hi Matt.
Matt Comer: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Rumsey: What actually happened in the Stonewall riots and what sparked it?
Comer: Yeah. So at the time in New York City in the '60s it was actually illegal for bars to serve alcoholic beverages to people who were thought to be homosexual or were openly homosexual, and so what you had was this underground network of bars largely run by the mafia who took the risk of serving gay and transgender patrons in a very corrupt system.
The Mafia was able to occasionally keep the police from enforcing the anti-gay law on serving homosexual people alcoholic beverages, but every once in a while just to keep up appearances, the New York Police Department would raid one of these gay bars. And it happened on a semi regular occurrence.
Historians really don't know what was special about that particular night. What we know it was just one of those semi regular raids by NYPD on one of the gay bars. For whatever reason the people in that bar were just simply fed up with it. They were tired of it. And and they revolted.
Rumsey: And why is it important to remember this event now in 2019?
Comer: You know, like any other movement for human rights or equality in the United States or anywhere else in the world it's important for us to remember where we came from. It's important for us to take a look back on a landmark anniversary like a 50th anniversary to see where we once were to acknowledge where we've gone in a very short period of time. From a place where homosexuality was illegal...you could be imprisoned for decades in North Carolina for being gay all the way up until the 1960s. And to go from that to where we now have marriage equality, where some school districts are protecting LGBTQ youth. It's important to look at the progress we've made, but more importantly I'd say it's importan to look at the progress we still have to make.
And yes, we've had triumphs. We've also had defeats in our past and we're still fighting for recognition of black and brown trans people. We're still fighting for access for low-income queer people to have access to housing and education. So we can celebrate, we can commemorate, but we also see this as a reminder of our call to action. The reason why we advocate for equality in the first place.
Rumsey: Are there any other major challenges. You mentioned several that you see the LGBTQ community in Charlotte facing today?
Comer: I think you know certainly in Charlotte, North Carolina we're all familiar with the debate around HB 2 and the public accommodations ordinance debate that happened in Charlotte. That is still unresolved. It's still working itself through the courts. Just in the past few days we also heard of an instance very sadly where a transgender woman was found murdered in the woods near Lumberton, North Carolina. Especially for transgender women of color it's a very difficult world that they live in. And so we have to fight for a society that treats all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity with their inherent dignity and worth where they can be free from violence. I think that is the biggest issue. We need to continue fighting for transgender siblings within our movement and also for LGBTQ young people.
Rumsey: And this weekend at Romare Bearden Park with this Stonewall Riots 50th anniversary commemoration what will be happening?
Comer: You know, we have intentionally designed this to be a commemoration and celebration, but also very intentionally focused on the history of Stonewall, of our movement and where we go. So you know people are used to seeing the Charlotte Pride festival again with the glitter and the rainbows and the entertainment it won't be like that. We'll have a stripped down stage. The overwhelming majority of the people on the stage are going to be community leaders, community members, speaking about their experiences and how far we've come and where we need to go. And really we're going to have moments for people to take calls to action and get involved. They are reminders that we still have a lot of work to do in our community.
Rumsey: And finally the activities on Saturday, spill over into Saturday night too. Is that right?
Comer: They do. We want to commemorate Stonewall. But, you know, it really wouldn't be a fitting celebration of an anti-police riot that started at a gay bar unless we had a moment to party it up in a gay bar. So that evening we'll also have a moment. We'll have a serious moment in the afternoon. And a moment of levity and celebration in the evening at Bar Argon.
Rumsey: All right. Matt Comer with Charlotte Pride thanks for talking with us.
Comer: Thank you for having me.