How Stonewall shaped the future for LGBTQ rights and other causes

The exhibit "Stonewall: 50 Years in the Fight for Equality" is currently on display at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Amanda M. Perez

The exhibit "Stonewall: 50 Years in the Fight for Equality" is currently on display at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

How Stonewall shaped the future for LGBTQ rights and other causes

By Amanda M. Perez
Members of the University of Miami community reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

It was a hot June night in New York City when the people hanging out inside the Stonewall Inn decided enough was enough. Scuffles broke out with police, riots ensued, and a revolution was born.

“This was one of several points in LGBTQ history that we reflect back upon as watershed moments. The community stood up against oppression and unfairness, taking a quantum leap forward,” said Anthony E. Varona, the recently appointed dean of the University of Miami School of Law who will start his tenure in August

This year marks the 50th anniversary since New York Police Department officers stormed into the Stonewall Inn bar, which was widely known as a safe haven for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, drag queens, and the transgender community, who were often ridiculed by society. Shortly after midnight in the early morning of June 28, 1969, the community made the choice to step out of the shadows they were hiding in for so long and lead the fight against injustice and inequality.

“Stonewall was one of the first moments in the community’s and movement’s history where we were not depicted as faceless people to be feared. The protestors at Stonewall literally came out of the shadows, faces to the world, and demanding respect and dignity,” said Varona. “To the LGBTQ movement, Stonewall represented an ‘enough is enough’ moment, which gave us confidence and urgency in our insistence that we would no longer tolerate marginalization.”

The uprising lasted several nights, but the impact was transformational.

“In the decades that followed, the Stonewall spirit catalyzed the LGBTQ movement but it also pervaded other overlapping movements, including the AIDS/HIV movement in the '80s, the disability rights movement, the women’s and gender justice movement, and others, which applied several lessons from Stonewall. Years later, it’s even seen as influencing the immigration rights movement,” Varona said.

As an openly gay man, Varona has reflected upon Stonewall as a symbol of liberation and freedom.

“I was born in 1967,” he said, “at a time when homosexuality was criminalized by the state, pathologized by the medical community, and condemned by most faiths. The progress that we have made, thanks in part to watershed moments like Stonewall, has been phenomenal.”

The Stonewall riots paved the way for Varona to live in a world where the LGBTQ community flourishes.

“Stonewall carries many lessons, including the power of image and the power of the media,” he added. “It was among the first historical incidents where LGBTQ Americans were unapologetic and bold in our demands for equality and freedom of oppression. We used our own faces, voices, and bodies to demand fairness and resist oppression.”

Varona has made one of his life’s missions to advocate for the community that has fought so hard for respect.  He served as the first general counsel and legal director to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, and now serves on the national board of directors for the Stonewall National Museum and Archives, which is housed just north of Miami in Wilton Manors and Fort Lauderdale.

“I think it is so important for us as a movement to capture our history and culture and reflect them back out to the broader world. We are a patchwork of diverse communities that stretch across the U.S. and our stories need to be heard, honored, and shared throughout the nation,” Varona said.

Larry Karnoff, interim executive director of the Stonewall National Museum and Archives, said Varona offers a unique asset to the museum.

“As a member of the board, Tony brings to us his expertise and his passion and commitment to the mission of the organization which is to collect, maintain, preserve, and share the proud history of the LGBTQ community,” he said.

For Gisela Vega, director of the LGBTQ Student Center, the 50th anniversary of Stonewall reminds her that while some strides have been made, there is still much work to be done. Remembering her own struggles on campus, she recalls “there was nowhere to go. I remember looking for a place to go on campus for LGBTQ support and all I found was a flyer that led me to an obscure room. I remember walking up to the door and hearing people inside crying and thinking to myself this is not for me.”  

Since then Vega has made it her life’s passion to help LGBTQ students on campus.

“I don’t want any student to ever feel like they don’t belong,” Vega said. “It’s important for our students to know they have a place to feel safe and included.”

Vanessa Kania, the newly appointed assistant director of the LGBTQ Student Center, shared that while it is nice to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we must remember the trans voices, who were critical to the movement but often times are forgotten. She hopes to expand student services at the LGBTQ Student Center, including revitalizing the mentorship program and developing a student leadership program.

Reflecting on 50 years, there have been many milestones for the LGBTQ community, including marriage equality. While various religious institutions have discriminated against the LGBTQ community, there are spiritual organizations that have become more welcoming and affirming.

But although there have been advances, both Varona and Vega believe more progress needs to be made.

“There still is no federal statute that protects LGBTQ Americans from employment and other forms of discrimination,” Varona said. “We also need to make sure that transgender Americans are able to serve openly in the armed forces.”

As time passes and more anniversaries are commemorated, Vega hopes future generations of LGBTQ members remember the struggle previous groups went through to help restore their rights and liberties. She has strong words she hopes they will live by.

“Be vigilant and be vocal,” Vega said. “Do not give up. Be present and proud.”