Panel Looks at Gay Rights Progress 50 Years After Stonewall

By John Murph

June 11, 2019

This year many gay pride celebrations worldwide share a common theme: the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. On June 6 Nixon Peabody LLP looked back on the 1969 uprising that sparked a surge in LGBTQ activism with the panel discussion “50 Years of Progress.”

Moderated by Brian Whittaker, the discussion focused on the catalyzing impact of the riots, triggered when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the city’s Greenwich Village, on charges of selling alcohol without a liquor license.

The panel featured Drew Keller, global program director at Open for Business; Michael Lavers, international news editor at the Washington Blade; and Murray Scheel, senior staff attorney at Whitman-Walker Health.

“Stonewall was really one of the first examples of the gay community coming together in a public way saying, ‘We’re tired of this hell and we’re not taking it anymore.’ It was one of the catalysts to advance us to where we are today,” Lavers said.

Many of the protesters during the riots were also inspired by the civil rights movement, according to Scheel. “The [United States] had been through so much at that time. So many people who had been subordinate and, in some ways, colluded with their own subordination started saying, ‘I’m not doing that anymore,’” Scheel said. “All this sort of thinking was floating in the air at the time and transformed a mere riot into a movement.”


Stonewall Panel[1]

Brian Whittaker (left) of Nixon Peabody LLP moderated the panel discussion, featuring Michael Lavers of the Washington Blade, Drew Keller of Open for Business, and Murray Scheel of Whitman-Walker Health.

A Galvanizing Moment  

On June 28, 1969, nine police officers arrested Stonewall Inn employees as well as those who violated the state statute requiring at least three articles of conventional “gender-appropriate” clothing. Police also physically harassed many of the patrons, especially some of the drag queens and transgender people. When police attempted to take them into custody, angry onlookers began protesting. They threw bottles, debris, and coins at the police, shouting “gay power,” “We want freedom now,” and “equality for homosexuals.”

The number of protesters grew so large that police barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn and called for reinforcement. Soon after, the bar was set on fire while approximately 400 people protested the police’s harassment of the gay patrons.

The Stonewall riots ebbed and flowed for five days after the June 28 police raid, and the uprising ignited a new dawn for the gay rights movement in the United States. New York City’s first Gay Pride parade in 1970 — then called the Christopher Street Liberation Day — commemorated the first anniversary of that galvanizing incident.

Push for LGBTQ Rights Worldwide 

The panelists acknowledged the enormous strides the country has made since the Stonewall riots, including the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States beginning in 2004 with Massachusetts, and the 2011 repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy during the Clinton administration that prohibited openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the military. Gay celebrities like RuPaul and Ellen DeGeneres also helped destigmatize gay people in popular culture, and, this year, Peter Buttigieg became the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate.

Despite the monumental progress, however, the fight for lasting equality for the LGBTQ community is far from over, the panelists said. Housing, employment, and health care discrimination and violence against gay people persist both in the United States and abroad.

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act needs to be amended or contained,” Scheel said when asked about the next steps for the LGBTQ movement. “When the law was passed, it had the best of intentions, but it has been turned into essentially a method to undermine civil rights. The current [Trump] administration just came out with a rule allowing people working in health care to decline care to LGBTQ people just based on their own personal conscience. Whitman-Walker Health is challenging that with a lawsuit against the Department of Human and Health Services. The general trend toward using free speech and other First Amendment rights to externalize your beliefs onto other people to control their behaviors needs to be countered.”

Lavers believes that a long overdue conversation needs to happen about how the United States and the world should address problems such as poverty and lack of education, housing, and health care “that put many folks in our community who are often more marginalized — transgendered, women, people of color — more at risk for violence and discrimination.”

“Internationally, we need to do a lot more to challenge anti-LGBTQ religious groups that promote hatred, bigotry, and discrimination in places like Latin America and Uganda. We should also support activists in those countries to empower themselves. We shouldn’t just parachute into a country and tell people what they need to do; we should empower them to advance themselves and to demand equal rights,” Lavers said.

Lavers cited a recent LGBTQ uprising in Cuba that drew parallels to the Stonewall riots. “A few weeks [ago] in Cuba, there was an unauthorized LGBTQ march in Havana. It ended up with the police beating up some of the participants and arresting them,” Lavers said. “The [Washington Blade] has a media partner in Cuba that hosts an LGBTQ website; the headline of that story was ‘This Is Our Stonewall.’”

Keller noted, though, that despite reports about violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ communities in the United States and places such as Uganda, Kenya, and Chechnya, the movement has made great progress globally during the last 20 to 30 years.

“We see a lot of [negative] things that are happening in places like Kenya, where the courts upheld the criminalization of same-sex acts. So, it seems as if there’s a lot of doom. There are bumps on the road for sure,” Keller said. “But if you look over the last 30 years at the number of countries that passed marriage equality, classified hate crimes based upon sexual orientation or gender identity, and recognized gender identity rights in employment law, it’s all going upward. So, globally it’s a good story.”

Keller said there’s been a “global institutionalized shift,” with institutions like the United Nations and the Global Business Coalition making LGBTQ rights a part of their mandate.

“LGBTQ rights are not just improving in the Americas or Western Europe; some of the biggest, high-profile wins over the last year and a half have been in Taiwan, Angola, Trinidad and Tobago, and India.”