Remembering Stonewall: LGBT Resistance and Pride in Connecticut

48 years ago today, just after 3 a.m., New York City police raided a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan called the Stonewall Inn. In the landscape of late 1960s New York, where solicitation of homosexual sex was still officially outlawed, such raids were far from unusual. Gay bars in the city were regularly targeted by police for licensing violations, and many had already been forced to close down. Yet on this evening, patrons and employees of the Stonewall Inn fought back.

When resistance led by trans women of color caused the police to begin making arrests, outrage spilled out into the streets and across the city. For five days, members of the city’s gay, lesbian, and trans community—black, white, Hispanic, and predominantly working class folks—led spontaneous protests, paving the way for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front as well as other ‘les/bi/gay’ and transgender civil rights organizations. For many queer folks today, the Stonewall Riots serve as something of an origin story—a symbol we can call up in reminder of who we are, where we’ve been, and the work that remains unfinished. The struggle for LGBT equality here in Connecticut shares in this heritage.

Just over two weeks ago, hundreds gathered across Connecticut to celebrate LGBT Pride month, which is held in June in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. They joined hundreds of thousands of marchers in Washington D.C., New York, and other cities across the country and the world.

While Pride has known opposition from some religious conservatives on the Right since its inception, Pride celebrations in the last decade or so have also come under fire from many LGBT groups as well, who bemoan the loss of the event’s radical countercultural edge and its inundation with corporate sponsors. On June 11 outside the Capitol building in Hartford, however, the spirit was undeniably one of ‘unity in diversity.’ “There is no category of human identity that doesn’t include us,” community member Regina Dyton told the crowd that Sunday afternoon. “Race, ethnicity, gender, disability… I am you, you are me.” Ms. Dyton was honored at the Connecticut Latina/os Achieving Right and Opportunities’ (CLARO) Rainbow Ball last year.

The first Connecticut Gay Pride Festival was held at the Old State House in 1982. Organized by Nancy Buckwalter and Tony Norris of the Greater Hartford Lesbian and Gay Task Force, the event drew over 300 people (not including members of the ultraconservative “Blue Berets”, who picketed the event). While unprecedented, the festival was not the first demonstration of its kind in Hartford. It was made possible by over a decade of organizing by brave individuals inspired by the Stonewall Riots in New York.

From 1965 on, the Greater Hartford Council of Churches provided gay-friendly counseling through its ‘Project H’ initiative, supported by Hartford-based Episcopal Canon Clinton Jones. Advocacy during this time was largely limited to quiet lobbying efforts.

In the wake of Stonewall, Project H went public for the first time. At the same time, the Kalos Society, a local take on New York’s Gay Liberation Front committed to non-violent direct action advancing equality for the Hartford gay community, was born. The Kalos Society’s regular newsletter, The Griffin, distributed at gay bars and the stores of Hartford’s Union Place, connected readers to one another and to radical contemporary political movements across the country. The paper regularly quoted Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and sponsored a bus to the 1972 Vietnam war protest in Washington, D.C.

In September of 1971, 10 Kalos members were arrested outside the LaRosa Park West restaurant while protesting the bar’s harassment of lesbian patrons, whom management had asked to dress as “proper” women, or otherwise be forced to leave. Undeterred, the Society was back at the bar picketing the very next evening. The bar would eventually capitulate and end the biased dress code.

Less than a month later, on October 1, 1971, Connecticut became the second state in the nation to repeal its sodomy law, thereby decriminalizing private sexual relations between consenting adults. The effort was spearheaded by Hartford attorney Donald Cantor, who also worked to abolish abortion restrictions in the state. In July of 1978, the Hartford City Council approved an ordinance to forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the measure was vetoed by then-Mayor George Athanson. When a second approval by the City Council was again vetoed the following year, the Council was compelled to override the mayor’s veto following a wave of grassroots organizing by members of the community.

Historically, Connecticut has been at the forefront in securing equality before the law for LGBT-identified people. In 1991, Connecticut became the fourth state to provide protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression would be added later, in 2011). In a 2008 case, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the state, just the third state to do so. Finally, just this past May, the Connecticut House of Representatives passed a bill to ban health care providers from performing conversion therapy on minors—the specious practice of attempting to ‘correct’ one’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, often utilizing shame—which remains legal in a majority of states.

Yet if we may draw but one insight from the history of LGBT activism and organizing in Connecticut and across the country, it is that the purview of equality does not end with the law, nor has tended to start there. Undoubtedly, the legal victories afforded LGBT folks in the years since Stonewall are both crucial and inspiring. They are also incomplete, however—and necessarily so. As the poet and activist Audre Lorde once wrote, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” Identifying as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, or any other form of ‘non-straight’ has never taken place exclusive of all the other identifications which might shape our lives. LGBT Pride celebrations, then, in the proper spirit of the Stonewall Riots, are only as powerful as they are capable of speaking to the diversity of queer experiences today.

Works Cited

“Connecticut LGBT Community Joins National Call For Equality.” The Hartford Courant, June 11, 2017, http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-hartford-pride-rally-0612-20170611-story.html

“Gay Pride, Straight Prejudice.” The Shoeleather History Project, July 2, 2014, https://shoeleatherhistoryproject.com/2014/07/02/gay-pride-straight-prejudice/

“Gay Society Pickets Bar; 10 Arrested.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1991), Sep 05, 1971, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Hartford Courant, http://p2048-www.wesleyan.edu.ezproxy.wesleyan.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.wesleyan.edu/docview/550937609?accountid=14963.

“Stonewall riots.” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 12, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/Stonewall-riots

 

 

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