In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, something perfectly ordinary happened: a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the cops. At the time, gay bars were illegal, Mafia-run, and frequently the subject of police violence.
What made this particular night extraordinary was that the patrons fought back. First bottles and beer cans were thrown at the police, then bricks and cobblestones. Burning rubbish was thrown into the Inn and police responded by turning a firehose on the crowd. 13 people were arrested, four police officers were injured, and at least two patrons were severely beaten by the police.
Several days of sporadic and spontaneous protest erupted, including two more nights of rioting, with police struggling to regain control.
The first Pride marches, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, took place on June 28, 1970, in commemoration of the riots.
Today, as queer Londoners take to the streets for the parade which forms the centrepiece of London’s WorldPride festival, Pride is an unrecognisably different affair: a three-week consumer-fest replete with corporate sponsors (including, incongruously, the Trades Union Congress side-by-side with viciously anti-union companies like Coca Cola).
It’s a spectacle indicative of an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) movement that is increasingly being assimilated into the mainstream, but at the cost of our radicalism and transformative potential.
We are becoming just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, obscuring the exploitation at the heart of their operation behind a veil of positive pink-PR. But hey, at least we can be “Out @ Tesco” while earning a pittance on workfare.
On Thursday, Pride London hosted a £250-a-plate gala dinner, at which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was presented with an award in recognition of her saying some nice platitudinous things about us on a global stage, while her administration continues to hide behind mealy-mouthed “State’s rights” excuses for their lack of concrete progress in improving the status of LGBT Americans. This is more or less the same State’s rights discourse that was historically used to stall the progress of Civil Rights for black Americans time and again.
Meanwhile US troops continue to destroy lives in Afghanistan (including those of LGBT Afghans) and Private Manning (who is commonly described as gay, but is actually a trans woman who identifies as Breanna) rots in her government’s prison for revealing details of US atrocities in Iraq.
This phenomenon, whereby LGBT concerns are co-opted by reactionary groups and institutions – big business, establishment politicians, the far-right, militarists, the police – in order to cast their agendas in a progressive light, is known as “pinkwashing”. (The term is borrowed from Breast Cancer Action, who used it to criticise companies who use their pink ribbon purely for PR purposes.) It’s a phenomenon that’s becoming increasingly prevalent and through our silence we are complicit: unless we speak out, we allow the Right to speak for us, to hijack our struggles and our history for their own purposes.
Often, the target of this process is Muslims, who are vilified as homophobic fanatics – a pre-modern barbarian threat to the status of LBGT people in the enlightened West. This framing of Muslims is then used to justify oppression. Far-right groups like the English Defence League have successfully employed this tactic in order to gain support for their racist politics beyond the traditional football hooligan base of far-right street movements, while the apartheid regime in Israel frequently refers to its relatively progressive position on LGBT rights to justify its continued suppression of Palestinians both within the state of Israel and in the Occupied Territories.
While the Gay Liberation Front – who were forged from the white-heat of the Stonewall Rebellion as the movement of organised queer militancy – actively sought to build links with groups such as the Black Panthers, on the understanding that our emancipation is inextricably bound up with the freedom of other oppressed groups, the contemporary LGBT movement increasingly sees itself as just another special interest group fighting its own corner. We have lost our understanding of solidarity.
To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, if we remain neutral towards injustice, in the hopes that it will lead to incremental progress on our concerns, we have chosen the side of the oppressor.
We should fight for a society that’s inclusive of LGBT people, but we must also fight for a society that’s worth being included in.