Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Government, Public Health

Remembering Stonewall Rebellion

June 11, 2019 |4:54 min read

50 years ago this month

Fifty years may seem like an eternity to many readers whose parents hadn’t even been born then. It was a time when homosexuality was illegal, and discrimination was an inherent part of social structures. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people were subjected to slurs, intimidation and violence. It makes me sick just to think about it.

Stonewall Inn, 1969, by Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library [creativecommons.org] The message in the window reads: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.—Mattachine.”

On June 28, 1969, police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, assaulting patrons and arresting 13 people in the process. It was not the first such incident, but this time, patrons and area residents were no longer willing to tolerate the abuse and reacted by rioting. Demonstrations ensued for days, sometimes with thousands participating. Those events changed the way many people in LGBTQIA+ thought about themselves, paving the way for progress. It was the beginning of a movement.

At the time, I knew about Stonewall vaguely but was too caught up in my schoolwork and protesting the Vietnam War to really understand what was happening. That was a time when, even at places like the University of Michigan, our struggles were more about Vietnam and racial equity than about equity for all. The next year, we struck for the Black Action Movement on campus.

A year after the Stonewall uprising, as college campuses continued to erupt with anti-war protests, the first Gay Pride march was held in NYC, with about 500 people participating, according to estimates. As various historians and observers recount, the initial focus of what would become an annual Gay Pride event was homosexual rights, but later it became about equity for all. AIDS made a large, tragic impact, because it brought sexual preferences out of the darkness. All over the country and around the world, people began to listen and learn.

Close-up photo of rainbow flag, by Sharon McCutcheon on unsplash.com.

Our School’s diversity statement and our University’s notice of non-discrimination explicitly refer to sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, among other protected characteristics. We aim to be welcoming for all. We talk openly, as we should, about intersectionality.

We talk about non-binary identities in a way many of us might not even have considered just a few years ago. Many of our students use this language as a matter of course and without judgment.

On Sunday, the New Yorker Radio Hour on NPR featured a compelling look back at Stonewall and how it influenced where we are today with LGBTQIA+ rights, how far we’ve come, how far we still must go, and how much is at risk with the current administration and polarized environment of the country.

In a remarkable example of progress and how attitudes still are shifting, during a June 6 event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the riots, N.Y.P.D. Commissioner James P. O’Neill issued a public apology on behalf of the New York Police Department. “The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong, plain and simple,” O’Neill said. “The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive,” he added, “and for that, I apologize.”

To safeguard the present, we must learn from the past. There are many good resources to learn more about Stonewall and the issues surrounding it and following in its wake. Here are just a couple:

With the LGBT Community Center of New York City (The Center), Google created Stonewall Forever, an interactive “living monument,” including a gripping, 2-minute historical documentary video that some may find quite raw.

History.com and Wikipedia articles cover what happened at Stonewall Inn and the environment in the U.S. surrounding homosexuality. For example, in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association added homosexuality to their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), calling it a mental disorder. It was cause for someone to lose their job, housing and reputation, and be arrested and incarcerated.

History is a good teacher. It’s time to remind ourselves in public health that we stand for equity for all, and that our work is part of a larger effort and campaign for human rights. We’re all in it together.

To that end, many Gillings School faculty members and students study and intervene on critical issues related to gender identity and sexual orientation, related health behaviors and health outcomes, HIV/AIDS and other concerns for LGBTQIA+ populations:

  • Carolyn Halpern, PhD, professor and chair of maternal and child health, uses large-scale, longitudinal data to understand patterns of adolescent sexual initiation, preferences and health outcomes.
  • Derrick Matthews, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior, studies the numerous health inequities experienced by LGBTQ populations.
  • Benjamin Meier, JD, LLM, PhD, associate professor of global health policy and adjunct associate professor of health policy and management, has written thoughtful, incisive reviews on human rights and HIV/AIDS
  • Brian Pence, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology, focuses on the links between mental health and HIV-related behaviors and health outcomes in the Southeastern U.S. and in Africa.
  • Audrey Pettifor, PhD, professor of epidemiology, examines sexual behavior and determinants of HIV/STI infection in sub-Saharan Africa. Her goal is to identify modifiable risk factors and develop novel interventions to prevent new HIV infections, particularly among adolescents and young women.

These are just a few examples of the excellent work UNC Gillings faculty members are doing to understand gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual behaviors and health outcomes; prevent AIDS; and address the links between HIV-related behaviors and mental health.

Being part of something larger than ourselves… Celebrating and supporting people for exactly who they are… Understanding how sexual behaviors and gender identity affect health outcomes so we can reduce inequities and improve health and well-being for all… We’re on it!

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.