Forty-eight years ago this month, a police raid on a gay nightclub in New York and the resulting resistance sparked a human rights revolution. What became known as the Stonewall riots (after the name of the club) began on June 28, 1969, and the six days of unrest that followed played a key role in launching the LGBT rights movement.
“We often hear people express shock that homosexuality was a crime,” says Ezekiel Christopoulos, executive director of Tranzmission. “But it’s true, and people lost everything. Their names were printed in the paper and they lost their jobs, their homes, everything.” For the 16th straight year, the Asheville-based nonprofit will commemorate the Stonewall riots with a series of events and activities beginning Saturday, June 24 (see box).
At the time of the uprising, homosexuality was illegal in almost every state. People could be sent to prison for loving someone of the same gender. Police could raid a nightclub and haul everyone inside off to jail, simply because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The unrest, notes Christopoulos, was initiated primarily by transfeminine people of color, a segment of the LGBT community that the mainstream gay rights movement has often ignored or left behind. Over the nearly half-century since the riots, LGBT people have gained a number of rights — most notably the right to marry — but society still has a way to go, says Christopoulos, whose organization conducts education and advocacy on transgender issues.
“We still don’t have job protections in North Carolina, and local governments still can’t pass nondiscrimination laws,” he points out. “You hear reports of trans kids being locked out of bathrooms in schools and forced to urinate on themselves. We are not there yet.”
State Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, agrees that more protections are needed. “We are not where we were when Amendment One was passed, and that was only a few years ago,” she says. “We have made progress, but our own General Assembly needs to catch up, culturally, to the majority of people in this state.”
The 2012 amendment to the state constitution defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. It was never repealed, but an October 2014 appeals court ruling voided the amendment, and a June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision made same-sex marriages legal under federal law.
Van Duyn wants North Carolina to pass strong anti-discrimination laws, though she doubts that this will happen under the current leadership in Raleigh. “Sometimes, progress is incremental,” she says. “That’s really frustrating. We need to get to a place where everyone is on equal footing, and we’re not there.”
The most hotly contested portions of House Bill 2, the law requiring people to use the public bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates, were repealed in March with the passage of House Bill 142. But critics point out that this still leaves in place a provision banning local governments from passing nondiscrimination ordinances before the end of 2020 at the earliest.
Supporters of the repeal say it was the most they could get from the current legislative leadership. “It stopped the boycotts” by businessses and sports organizations, notes Van Duyn. Other states were getting ready to pass similar laws, which would have made even a partial repeal harder to achieve, she explains. Still, Van Duyn says she’s tired of waiting and wants to see statewide nondiscrimination laws passed that will protect LGBT people on the job.
Christopoulos agrees, pointing out that it’s hard to remain patient when studies show that 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide at some point. “I do feel impatient sometimes,” he says, “especially when I see the hatred that the winning candidates for public office have allowed.”