Over the last five decades, the LGBTQAI+ community has experienced an era of rapid progression toward acceptance and equality.
While there is still a long road ahead, Pride festivities, typically celebrated in the month of June, have become ubiquitous in our society as companies and organizations now openly celebrate LGBTQAI+ individuals and general equality. A Pew Research Study released in May of this year noted a majority of Americans (62%) favor gay marriage.
But Pride, while a celebration of queer life, began with a protest.
In the summer of 1969, the heavily ostracized gay community in New York City tired of constant police harassment centered around the The Stonewall Inn. The bar was a haven for the LGBTQAI+ community and for many the only place where they could be themselves.
On June 28 1969, as the police yet again raided the bar under the guise of an alcohol licensing issue and began arresting gay men and women, the community decided to fight back. A series of violent confrontations began between the police and the community outside the Greenwich Village bar.
Although not the first protest, The Stonewall Protest, which lasted on and off for five days and included around 400 people, sparked a movement in the U.S. Beginning with Stonewall, the LGBT community has fought for five decades to be recognized by organizing and uniting under one flag. Their continued fight has led to a multitude of breakthrough moments and setbacks.
The landmark 2015 civil rights case Obergefell v. Hodges where the Supreme Court ruled “the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples," legalized gay marriage in the U.S. marking a major triumph for the marginalized community. A victory made possible by the Stonewall Protest.
Locally, Savannah Pride and the LGBT Center will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Protest with a huge block party that will span three city blocks, between W. 31st and W. 33rd, in front of the LGBT Center on Bull Street.
The city of Savannah has provided financial support for the block party, and other cities have followed suit in their support of the gay community. This year, the New York City Police Department officially apologized for its part in The Stonewall Protest.
“We’re celebrating a lot,” Executive Director of Savannah Pride Dusty Church said. “It’s where we’ve come from and recognizing where we need to go. This started with a protest. The reason that Pride exists is it is a protest. While we celebrate our achievements, what we’re celebrating is the power of awareness. The power of visibility. We are in every community. We’re black, white, immigrant, Christian, Islam, Catholic and of all human experience we exist.
“The most powerful tool we have is coming out. The most powerful tool we have is forcing people to see us for who we are. That’s what pride is, it’s using that tool—the most powerful one we have—to create visibility that creates change for us as a community. It all started with Stonewall.”
The LGBT Center in Savannah opened two years ago, and the block party will act as a celebration of that anniversary as well.
“It’s an interesting community here in Savannah,” Church said. “We have an older community that is more established and to a large extent retired. We have a large college-aged community that is reasonably much more grounded in their college institution than they are in queer community of Savannah. That’s pretty typical. College students are much more attached to their college environment than they are to the bigger city. What we have lacked is a unifying force that can bring the senior community, as well as our working professionals and everyone in between together. The Center has helped with that, and Pride has taken it on as our mission to not just have one event each year, but to have community throughout the year.
“It becomes that collectively, we have to bring the community together," Church continued. "That’s the work that’s really important. So that we can work together as one and show ourselves that we’re not just a smattering of gays here and there, but that we’re really a community and there’s a lot of us. And we have the ability to influence things in this community if we act together.”
To that end, the block party has been designed to include something for everyone. There will be music, a beer garden, art display, free HIV testing, educational information, a video recording booth for individuals to share stories and drag queens.
“We’re going to have lots of activities for all ages and all ability levels,” organizer Jesse Hall said. “Hopefully, we can bring the community together in a way that hasn’t always been available in Savannah. Everything is free to the public.
“We’re going to be showing 'The death and life of Marsha P. Johnson' who was a very influential member of the early LGBTQ movement. We’re going to have a trans, non-binary makeover studio to invite our trans members who often feel excluded from events. The LGBTQ youth group who meets at the Center will be operating a protest poster station at Henny Penny. All of the businesses on the footprint are involved.”
StoryCorps, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit out of New York that preserves the stories of humanity through audio interviews, will also be visiting Savannah. They’ve partnered with NPR for the Stonewall Outloud project, which is currently recording the stories of those persons who participated in the original protest. The recordings will be added to the Library of Congress and aired on NPR.
“Specifically with LGBT communities, we’re not born into, short of in vitro, we’re not born into gay families,” Church said. “We’re not taught the history of our community. With the exception of a couple of states like California that now have LGBT history curriculum in public schools, for the most part, our communities history is told through spoken word, through stories that are passed from generation to generation of adults.
“We’ve partnered with them to help record stories here in Savannah. We will be recording a handful of stories over the next few months. Starting with Robert ‘Bobby’ Soletto who is a local resident who was actually at Stonewall. I’ll be interviewing him for that piece.”
For the LGBTQ community in Savannah, events like these and others hosted by the Center and Savannah Pride are a way to strengthen not only the gay community, but the entire Savannah community by showing inclusion and acceptance.
“What excites me is seeing a diverse group of people coming together and feeling a sense of community together where they may never rub shoulders together outside of an event like this,” Hall said. “I love to see people of every letter of our spectrum, including allies. I want to see an event that embraces the community at large and begins to weave the LGBT community into the community at large.”
ALL THE LETTERS
The LGBT abbreviation has recently expanded to LGBTQAI+ which now includes, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (Questioning), Ally or Asexual, Intersex and a plus sign to cover any other identity.