Back in 1969, the New York State Liquor Authority refused to grant bars that catered to the LGBTQ crowd with liquor licenses, forcing them to operate illegally. These gay bars were somewhat of a haven for gays, lesbians and non-gender conforming individuals to socialise without the fear of harassment from the general public. However, they were not safe from the harassment at the hands of the police.
The Christopher Street bar in Manhattan’s West Village was one of the many gay bars that operated without a liquor license. In the early hours of 28 June 1969, nine policemen entered the Inn and arrested its employees, took several people into custody, citing the New York criminal statute that authorised the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing. It was the third such raid in a short period of time, and this time, the arrest of the 13 people met with unexpected resistance. A crowd gathered and one of the arrested women, cried out to the assembled bystanders as she was pushed into the police vehicle, “Why don’t you guys do something!” Thus, began the uprising that went on for six days, triggering an international gay rights movement in its wake.
The crowd began to jeer at and jolt at the police and threw bottles and debris at them. The policemen called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar while some 400 people rioted. The barricade was breached, and the bar was set on fire. Eventually, the fire was extinguished and the crowd was dispersed. But, that was not the end of it. Over the next five days, cries of “occupy–take over, take over,” “Fag power,” “Liberate the bar!”, “Gay Power”, “We Want Freedom”, and “We’re the pink panthers!”, resonated across the streets. They smashed windows, uprooted parking meters, and gay cheerleaders took to the streets, chanting risqué versions of New York City schoolgirl songs. The uprising eventually led to the formation of several gay rights organisations such as the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and Queer Nation. The riots came to be seen as a symbol of resistance to social and political discrimination against homosexuals. More radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) came into being and people continued to protest the lack of civil rights for gay individuals, through public confrontations with political officials and the disruption of public meetings. As people began demanding acceptance and respect from the establishment, leading to a more radical activism, there began a new, nondiscriminatory trend in government policies.
This year marks the forty-eighth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and it is time to contemplate whether the circumstances that gave rise to the rebellion that began the contemporary gay rights movement has changed for the LGBTQ members in the US. Taking into consideration that the current President of the United States, is far from being a champion of anything that does not adhere to the white, Christian, heterosexual norms, it is safe to assume that being a homosexual in the US is not easy. The US went from having a President who repealed the discriminatory “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy, which prohibited qualified gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the armed forces and sent a message that discrimination was acceptable to electing someone who refuses to even acknowledge the Pride Month. The fact that less than a year ago, the worst mass shooting in the history of America, targeted LGBTQ people is only a reflection of how important Pride is even today. It is also important to remember that the federal government and most state laws explicitly prohibit discrimination in the workplace, schools, housing, hotels and any place that serve the public, based on race, and sex. However, sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t explicitly included in these federal or state laws. This means that in most states, it is still legal (under the local and state law) to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, housing, public accommodations, and schools.
This brings us back to the question: Has there really been a lot of progress on the acceptance of sexual minorities since the Stonewall era? What if you are Queer and South Asian? Will Trump emerge to be a champion of LGBTQ rights ultimately, considering even Obama, who turned out to be the first president in American history to do so much for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights, was flaky on the issue at several points? I spoke to three South Asian Queer Persons residing in the US—Ani Maitra, Mayur Patel and Piali Mukherjee— on their experiences in the US, Pride, the Trump administration and more.
Ani Maitra, a 35-year-old male, who identifies as queer has been living in the US for almost ten years now. After studying English at Jadavpur University and working as a TV journalist in Delhi for a couple of years after, Maitri moved to the US in 2007 to join a PhD program in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. “I currently divide my time between NY, where I work, and Rhode Island, where my partner and I live,” shares Maitra. “I moved here to pursue a career in academia. I was interested in media studies as well as LGBTQ studies as fields of academic inquiry. Simultaneously, I chose a university and a department where I thought it would be easier to understand and explore my own sexual orientation. I was in my mid-twenties when I made the decision. I wouldn’t say my sexuality was the only reason, but it was definitely part of it. Currently, I teach Film and Media Studies and Queer Studies at a small liberal arts college in upstate NY.”
“It was a shock, but also a necessary wake-up call for me and many of my friends and colleagues. Trump’s victory signals not only a deep divide within the US–a divide that is not by any means new but just more visible now–but also a failure of the Democrats and liberal democracy that many (myself included) had come to cherish. Minority rights–including LGBTQ rights–won through the neoliberal notions of difference and diversity are precarious. I think this election and its aftermath have also brought that into view. Any movement to secure these rights will have to keep this precarity in mind,” explains Maitra, when asked about his opinion of the impact the Trump administration will have on the LGBTQ community.
What everyone seems to agree upon, is that there is an air of uncertainty with respect to government’s priorities revolving around sexual rights. With concerns growing about the executive order Trump signed on religious freedom recently and its potential discriminatory effects, the impending defunding of Planned Parenthood and the reopening of the Roe v. Wade case, most believe that it is important to be prepared to have the worried voices heard. “It is horrible. We brown immigrants have always carried a high level of anxiety, naturally, with people of colour, especially trans people of colour, being shot down on the streets every day. Being queer just adds another layer to the anxiety. Since January, however, this has escalated exponentially. Everyone I know even in my blue state is struggling to make sense of this everyday unmasking of an America that always existed, of course, but is suddenly being unleashed in awful ways—be it the Muslim ban, the wall, the deafening silence from Trump when it comes to Pride or any Queer issues, or pulling funding from health services that directly affect our community. While being in New York buffers us a little from some of it, it still affects us every day and it is scary,” explains Piali Mukherjee, a scientist, who was raised in Delhi and moved to the US in 1992 to pursue her college degree.
Since 1996, Piali has been allied with several organisations such as NQAPIA, a network of Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander LGBTQ organizations and SALGA, which caters to the South Asian Queer community; Q-Wave, which focuses on Queer women and transfolk and also started a foundation in India to support budding queer organisations across India, especially in non-metropolitan areas such as Orissa along with some of her friends in the late 90s. “It is sad how Pride had gone from being something that was started in Stonewall, essentially by two Black trans people, to being this commercial white privileged machinery. But, at the same time, especially now, there is this urgency to resist xenophobia, homophobia, this capitalism, and the silencing of the voices of Queer people of colour. That is why it feels important to show up year after year—to make sure we are visible,” explains Piali, when asked what Pride means to her.
Mayur Patel, on the other hand, believes that Pride means standing up for oneself even when others try to shame you, bring you down, or tell you that you are less for being gay. “I am proud to be gay and I wouldn’t have it any other way”, explains Patel, who describes himself as “a gay man, a husband, a son, a civil engineer by day and an Item Girl (haha, I mean a drag queen), by night. I go by the name Masala Sapphire.” Patel too agrees that 2017 US Pride calls them to stand up and have their voices heard, something that has become so much more important thanks to the new President, who is trying to turn back the clock on queer rights.
Mayur Patel (on the right)
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that the Trump administration also has LGBTQ supporters,” Maitri adds. “So it’s crucial to think through this Democrat/Republican divide within the LGBTQ community. Both liberals and (some) conservatives seem to be OK with some notion of sexual diversity, but clearly do not agree on other issues such as the economy, foreign policy, and immigration reform. Why/how are LGBTQ Trump supporters able to separate their political and economic identifications from their sexual and gender identifications? Under what kind of general socio-economic climate is this separation possible? What does LGBTQ “politics” mean for these voters? I don’t have all the answers. But I think we need to start asking these questions.”
But, despite all this, they all seem to agree that the US is the best place for them. While being South Asian and queer has played an immense role in shaping their lives in India, it has had its positives and negatives. “Being Indian has shaped me in a lot of ways. For one, it gives me a culture that many people around me don’t have, but it also makes me a minority and being gay makes me a double minority. There are values that my family has instilled in me which is not always found in American culture, and that makes very happy to be an Indian. On the other hand, it is difficult to be gay and Indian. My family doesn’t accept it because of our culture, whereas most American families have begun accepting homosexuality. I am grateful to be in a place where being gay is more accepted. I’m not even sure if coming out would have been a possibility in Gujarat where my family is from,” explains Mayur.
Piali, on the other hand, accepts that while it took her a while to make peace with the idea of staying back, there is definitely no going back now. “I barely lived in India as an adult, so I might not be the best person to make a comparison, I have to say that I found being a Queer, non-gender conforming female in the workspace, seemed a whole tougher in India.”
It seems like there is no simple way to know if there has been a advancement in the LGBTQ movement or if Trump’s position would change on the matters of LGBTQ, but one thing is definite – there is no going back! The South Asian LGBTQ community in the US is loud and clear, and resisting the silencing of their voices, and identities.