Stonewall, 50 years on

Savannah Pride commemorates historic uprising with block party

THIS FRIDAY marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important events in LGBTQ history.

The Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969, was the catalyst for the gay rights movement and the inspiration for Pride celebrations to occur.

Fifty years on, what has changed since Stonewall, and what’s still the same?

click to enlarge Stonewall, 50 years on
Geoff L. Johnson
From left: Emmett Hayes, Billy Wooten, Skylar Davis, William Hensley, Mads McDonough, and Jamie Maury.

IN 1969, the Stonewall Inn was a safe space for queer people of Greenwich Village.

At the time, being openly gay was illegal. The NYPD could search people for three articles of gender-appropriate clothing and, absent it, arrest them. Holding hands with or kissing someone of the same sex was also grounds for arrest.

Stonewall was one of the only few places for gay people to gather without judgment or fear.

“Stonewall evokes a lot of images—it was a gross bar where it was dimly lit and you got overpriced drinks—but it was ours,” shares Stonewall50 organizer Jesse Hall.

Because of its notoriety as a gay bar, Stonewall had been raided many times before June 28, but there had always been a tipoff. Not this time.

When police entered the bar after 1 a.m., Stonewall’s patrons were so used to raids that they didn’t fight back.

“The folks were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to spend the night in jail.’ It was just an accepted thing because our community felt so powerless,” says Hall. “If I fight back, then I’m just inviting the police to beat me worse. I’m not going to be able to get a lawyer to defend me.”

The police arrested 13 people and roughed up countless others. When the police hit one woman over the head, she yelled at onlookers to take action, setting off a riot that would last for six days. The police weren’t prepared for bar patrons to fight back and hid in the bar for shelter, but the mob attempted to set the bar on fire.

“The Stonewall uprising made national news, and all of a sudden you have a pride parade in D.C., you have one in L.A., you have all these major cities starting to march and come together to protest and demand civil rights,” says Hall.

Fifty years later, with as far as LGBTQ rights have come, it can be difficult to appreciate what previous generations went through.

“It’s really important that my generation and the generations after me know the struggle that the generations before us had to go through so we can be appreciative, but also that it empowers you for the fight we still continue,” says Hall.

For Billy Wooten, director of the LGBT Center, total visibility was not an option.

“In my generation, we held ourselves back. We didn’t go to places where something could happen,” he remembers. “We were very careful about where we went and who we told and how we approached people. That delayed us being who we really are.”

“A lot of that persists, too,” joins Hall.

“I was 40 before I dated because I wanted to be in a position in my job where they couldn’t fire me, that I would know too much and they wouldn’t be able to let me go,” says Wooten.

It’s the same story for Lane Cogdill, outreach coordinator for Savannah Pride and a middle school teacher in Hilton Head.

In both Georgia and South Carolina, the gay rights movement is not included in the U.S. history standards.

“There’s a whole part about the 1960s and one little sentence about, ‘It was an important time for women’s rights and gay rights.’ That’s all they say,” says Cogdill. “As an educator, you’re trying to make that decision: ‘Do I want to throw this in here and run the risk?’ Because it is a risk. It’s a risk that I’m taking as an educator, putting something in my lesson that isn’t supposed to be there. Is this the day an administrator comes in? And for me, personally, I’ll take that risk.”

click to enlarge Stonewall, 50 years on
Geoff L. Johnson
Skylar Davis.

SIXTEEN year-old Skylar Davis goes to Hilton Head Island High School.

“At our school, we have Safe Space stickers that all the teachers put on their doors,” she says. “Everyone is so supportive there.”

Savannah Arts Academy is the same, say Emmett Hayes and William Hensley.

“The kids there generally don’t care,” says Hayes. “There are a few assholes, but for the most part, they’re really protective of the trans kids, which I really appreciate.”

“They also have a GSA there, too,” says Hensley.

“That’s so nice that you guys have a GSA at your high school,” says Mads McDonough. “I wish I would’ve had a GSA at my high school. It’s so wonderful to hear that is now a thing.”

GSAs, or gay-straight alliances, are clubs that unite students of any gender identity or sexual orientation to build community.

“When I tell my students who come out to me that there’s a GSA [at the high school], that I go to a church that’s open and affirming, that I’m a part of Pride, so many of them don’t even know about these things in their community because it’s so isolated,” says Cogdill.

It’s clear, listening to several generations speak, that visibility has improved through the years, thanks in part to the designation of safe spaces or, even, people.

“It was like that in the 60s, and it’s still like that to some extent,” says Cogdill. “People always ask me, ‘Why do you wear rainbows?’ I’m not necessarily wearing all these rainbows for myself. I’m wearing these rainbows for the kid who isn’t even in my class who knows she can come in and say hi every day just because she’s gay, I’m gay, and she feels comfortable with me.”

For LGBTQ people, visibility all comes down to safety.

“There are two things that, as a trans person, and I could say this for every queer person too, go through your mind,” explains McDonough. “First and foremost is safety. Safety is always top priority. Where am I right now? Is it safe to be me here, or do I need to put on a mask in order to be in this place right now? If safety goes through and you feel supported, then it’s comfort level. Sometimes, yeah, you’re in a supportive environment, but you might just not feel comfortable about wearing a Pride pin or telling a stranger, ‘Oh, actually, it’s he/him.’”

While things are better, they aren’t perfect.

Hayes shares a story of hearing family members go on transphobic and homophobic rants so aggressive he was afraid for his own safety. Hensley tells of being at a sermon and hearing the pastor claim homosexuality is evil. Cogdill remembers, the day after coming out, their mother making a prayer request for them at church service.

“That’s one reason I am so visible. People talk to me and say, ‘I can’t put myself out there because of my family,’” says Cogdill. “My family already disowned me. What else are they going to do?”

Stonewall, 50 years on
Geoff L. Johnson
Billy Wooten.

WOOTEN shares a story of learning his friend had passed away of AIDS. This was just a few weeks ago.

“I said, ‘People don’t die of AIDS today!’” he says, incredulous. “They do when you don’t pick up your medicine because you’re ashamed of it and you haven’t told anyone. Here in 2019, he wouldn’t go for medicine because he was too ashamed.”

“That shows some of the stigma that still follows our community,” says Hall, “because HIV and STDs are still a huge problem for our nation, but especially for our community. We have incredible drugs that don’t cure you but make you undetectable. Those are really great resources, but if you still don’t feel like you have access because of societal expectations or monetary expectation or any of those barriers, then the greater good of keeping people alive, straight or gay, can be achieved.”

That’s where the LGBT Center comes in.

Celebrating its two year anniversary this month, the LGBT Center provides accessible healthcare options for its patrons.

The Center offers HIV testing three times a week and a mental health walk-in clinic four times a week.

“When we started this, we just said, ‘You know, economic issues are very difficult and we don’t want to charge,’” remembers Wooten. “We don’t want to charge because there’s such inequality. The people who come in for our walk-in mental health and that come in for our counseling sessions, 98% don’t have healthcare. They’d have to go stand in line somewhere and hope they got seen. It’s terrifying.”

The LGBT Center is so essential to the people who need it, but some people who aren’t involved in the community don’t fully understand its importance.

“This fella I know made a comment that he wasn’t sure why we needed an LGBT Center,” says Wooten. “And I said, he should come sit with me just one day. Answer the phone and emails, solve the problem. One day and he’d never say that again.”

The services the LGBT Center provides are crucial, particularly in considering the Center serves more than just Chatham County.

“It’s a whole other component that because we have a center, because we have resources, that people can reach out and find us, and many times they’re from rural areas,” shares Wooten. “More and more, it’s the parents. It’s parents sending emails like I got last week that said, ‘Can I come with my child to youth group? I’d like to see what’s going on.’”

“I think it’s really useful to have a voice that’s not your kid’s,” joins Hall. “Trying to explain something to my parents can be really difficult, even if I’m trying to do my best to help them understand using their language. There’s something totally different about talking to an expert—someone who helps people all the time, someone who has the legitimacy that a community center offers.”

Additionally, the LGBT Center has economically benefited the area. In just two years, the development of the corridor of Bull Street south of Forsyth has been incredibly swift.

“This little area has benefited so much from just the little hub that is here,” says Hall. “We weren’t the first to be here, but its continued growth is something the Center has 100% been a part of.”

“We were before Woof Gang, before Bull Street Taco, before Henny Penny—all that was vacant,” Wooten adds.

“We have an economic impact,” says Hall. “We’re helping to bring this area up.”

click to enlarge Stonewall, 50 years on
Geoff L. Johnson
Mads McDonough.

FRIDAY’S festivities will feature the best of the block. There will be a margarita bar at Bull Street Taco, a beer garden and free dog treats at Woof Gang, a protest poster-making station at Henny Penny, a makeover studio at Bell Barber Shop, and “So You Think You Can Drag,” where Savannah’s bartenders lip sync for local drag queens to judge.

There will also be a free screening of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a documentary of the trans activist.

In the midst of Pride month, where LGBTQ history is co-opted for flamboyant fun, an event like Stonewall50 paints a complete picture.

“It’s not like gay pride month and everything like that—it’s not what the media plays it up to be,” says McDonough. “There’s so much heart and history that’s behind it, so much loss.”

“They make it seem so fun,” adds Davis.

“This event is going to have a different vibe from the big Pride festival because it is about having fun, but also we’re focusing on bringing together different generations and different identities to honor our history, to know about our history,” says Cogdill. “[It’ll have] that vibe of preserving history and also moving forward knowing it.”

“[Stonewall] is what allows us to have a center here,” says Hall. “It’s the only reason Pride exists anywhere.”


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