June 29, 2009, marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York. The riots were a spontaneous refusal of patrons at a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn to be cowed by police, who had raided the establishment as part of an ongoing series of humiliating arrests of gay men. The riots galvanized activists in the nascent gay rights movement and the word “Stonewall” became synonymous with self-respect among open homosexuals.
On the 40th anniversary of that event, police in Fort Worth, Texas, made an untimely raid of a recently opened gay bar called the Rainbow Lounge and arrested seven individuals for public intoxication. Though police insisted that they had been carrying out a routine inspection, patrons at the bar told reporters that they felt the officers had acted aggressively toward them and the event led to a protest of police conduct at the Tarrant County Courthouse on the following day. Protestors drew a straight line from the Stonewall Inn raid to the Rainbow Lounge raid that occurred exactly 40 years later.
Whether or not the arrests were justified, there was certainly a sexual dimension to the event. The police statement alleges that when the officers entered the bar, two patrons made “sexually explicit movements” toward the officers and that another patron reached out and grabbed the groin of an inspector from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Patrons who later talked to the media, on the other hand, said that the officers had acted aggressively and rudely toward the patrons and had entered with the intention of arresting people.
The raid in Fort Worth and the protests that followed it showed that Stonewall is a historical event that still resonates today. On the same day as the raid in Texas, President Obama gave a speech at the White House in honor of the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. Obama has often been criticized by supporters of gay rights because he has been slow to take action on the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy and because he does not support gay marriage (though he does support civil unions). In his speech, Obama acknowledged that the gay rights movement was a civil rights struggle that paralleled the struggles of African-Americans, saying, “It’s not for me to tell you to be patient anymore than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.”
And yet, counseling patience is exactly what Obama did. “We’ve been in office six months now,” he said, “I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.”
Stonewall was a radical moment for the gay rights movement but Obama’s commemoration of it was meek at best and condescending at worst (the vaguely belittling epithet “you guys” to refer to the national gay community comes across poorly and contradicts Obama’s generally “we”-rich vocabulary). Obama may want gay Americans to have “pretty good feelings” about his presidency, but gay Americans want something more: equality under the law and respect from their government. Until the president takes leadership on gay rights, the legacy of Stonewall will remained unfulfilled.