The word “Stonewall” may not necessarily be recognizable in context for heterosexual Americans, but those familiar with LGBT history may instantly recognize the term for its historical significance — and a mention of the event and place among other notable civil rights victories during President Obama’s Inauguration this week marks a massive victory for the gay rights movement.
Stonewall is the name of a gay bar in New York City on Christopher Street in the West Village, and the venue was also the site of a watershed event in the fight for gay equality. At the time, to be gay was not a thing one could really be “out” about, and police routinely would raid gay establishments simply due to the fact LGBT patrons gathered inside.
All that changed at Stonewall during riots that began at the end of June in 1969, and the gay men and women there fought back — galvanizing the movement that would see homosexuality increasingly accepted into the mainstream.
Like much in the realm of civil rights, the gay people who fought back at Stonewall were still seen as transgressive, sometimes as criminals — but their defiant act paved the way for a gay rights movement to gain steam. But it’s only now, 40 plus years later in 2013, that a sitting president acknowledged the struggle alongside that of other civil rights battles — and in an inaugural speech, no less.
What was most notable about Obama’s Stonewall mention was its casual nature — simply enshrined next to other historic civil rights protests as equally notable and brave. Per NPR, the President said:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Eighty-two-year-old Martin Duberman told the outlet about that night at Stonewall, saying that, at the time, history was not what folks present were considering. He recalls:
“It was really a howling mob, filled with the pent-up fury of years of oppression … It just all came out then for some reason. These things have a spontaneity to them that is never predictable.”
The New York Times‘ Paul Krugman connects the dots between Obama’s Stonewall mention and a new dawn of progressivism in America, explaining:
“Republicans pine for the glory days of Ronald Reagan — but that was a different country, a county with a lot more raw racism, a country in which only a minority of Americans found interracial marriage acceptable. And yes, that had a lot to do with GOP political strength.”
Many gay Americans say they were shocked to hear Obama cite Stonewall alongside Seneca and Selma but have reacted in a broadly positive way to the mention.