Stonewall: 50 Years Later—gay rights and liberties are both celebrated and threatened in 2019
Sometimes, an event can ignite passions that have been simmering for generations. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, she was hardly the only African-American who was fed up with Jim Crow laws—but it was Parks who took a stand. Similarly, June 28, 1969 marked a major turning point in gay rights in the United States, setting off the Stonewall Rebellion. And 50 years after Stonewall, gay rights are being both celebrated and threatened in the United States.
The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar located on Christopher Street in New York City’s West Village, which was one of the most cutting-edge areas of Manhattan in those days. The West Village was where went to hear live jazz at the Village Vanguard and folk artists in coffee houses or shop for BDSM attire at the Leather Man. On June 28, 1969, the New York Police Department (NYPD) conducted a raid on the Stonewall Inn that was met with an angry response from the West Village’s gay community; it was hardly the first time the NYPD raided a gay establishment, but the Stonewall raid was the straw that broke the camel’s back—not unlike Rosa Parks reaching a point where she could tolerate Jim Crow laws no more and becoming an inspiration to countless other African-Americans in the Deep South who were also sick to death of “colored restrooms” and “whites only” establishments.
The West Village’s gay community refused to take the June 28, 1969 raid lying down, and the angry protests that followed did a lot to galvanize the gays rights movement not only in New York City, but also, everywhere from San Francisco to Philadelphia to Chicago. And 50 years later, the historic Stonewall Rebellion is being marked with an abundance of Stonewall 50 celebrations and events. The LGBTQ community has come a long way in the U.S. since 1969: same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, sodomy laws have been struck down as unconstitutional, and the fact that 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate Pete Buttigieg (the mayor of South Bend, Indiana) is openly gay is not controversial among Democratic voters. Buttigieg’s heterosexual supporters would have no problem with a gay married couple living in the White House.
President Donald Trump, however, has been a strident culture warrior, adding two far-right social conservatives—Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh—to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could determine whether or not the LGBTQ community continues to progress or loses ground. And with Trump having made the High Court more socially conservative, many decisions that have benefitted the gay community could be in jeopardy.
Many of the High Court rulings that have helped the LGBTQ community either directly or indirectly are what legal scholars call “right-to-privacy” decisions. Social conservatives like former Sen. Rick Santorum and far-right radio host Mark Levin have insisted that there is no such thing as a right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution, whereas supporters of the right-to-privacy ideology—from Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s to Justice Anthony Kennedy before his retirement in 2018—believe that it does.
Key right-to-privacy decisions have ranged from 1973’s Roe v. Wade (which, in effect, legalized abortion in all 50 states) to 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut (which struck down a Connecticut law that banned contraceptives for married couples). Those decisions weren’t gay-specific, but the language of Roe and Griswold was used in 2003 when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Lawrence v. Texas ruling, which struck down a Texas sodomy law as unconstitutional and by doing so, invalidated anti-gay sodomy laws all over the United States.
Although Kennedy is a right-wing libertarian and fiscal conservative who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, he was socially liberal and was vehemently attacked by the Christian Right for his support of Lawrence as well as for writing the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges—the 2015 ruling that made same-sex marriage the law of the land in all 50 states. Obergefell was a 5-4 decision, with Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and the late Justice Antonin Scalia being the four dissenters. And had Kavanaugh been on the Supreme Court in 2015 instead of Kennedy, Obergefell probably would have gone the other way.
With social conservatives now dominating the Supreme Court, it’s entirely possible that Kavanaugh, Thomas and others could rule that right-to-privacy decisions of the past—from Roe v. Wade to Lawrence v. Texas to Griswold v. Connecticut—were wrongly decided. Heterosexuals and the gay community have a mutual interest in the Supreme Court upholding its right-to-privacy decisions, as the Christian Right extremists who want to end abortion rights, outlaw birth control and deny heterosexual couples the right to family planning also hope to abolish same-sex marriage and bring back sodomy laws. And if Trump wins a second term in 2020, it’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court will become even more socially conservative.
Sex columnist Dan Savage, who is openly gay, is absolutely right when he asserts that heterosexuals have a major stake in gay rights. If the Christian Right gets away with assaulting protections for the LGBTQ community, it also gets away with telling heterosexuals they can’t use birth control.
Fifty years after the Stonewall Rebellion, the gay community and its heterosexual allies are celebrating the social progress that has taken place since 1969. But that progress could be in danger if the Christian Right is able to turn back the clock. And it is naïve and optimistic to say that the Christian Right wants to return to the 1950s—the Christian Right is seeking a return to the 1850s.