You may hear the word “Stonewall” a lot today. It will not refer to the Stonewall we’re most familiar with.
The Stonewall in this case is not the Confederate general but the 50th anniversary of the so-called “Stonewall riots” in New York in 1969.
If you don’t know what those are, then consider this more of the history we never learned, perhaps because this history concerns what one 19th century poet delicately called “the love that dare not speak its name.”
The Stonewall Inn was a famous gay bar in New York City. On June 28, 1969, police raided the establishment, and violence broke out. The details are complicated — the bar was run by the mob, which both blackmailed wealthy patrons and paid off police to look the other way because the club lacked a liquor license. Historians say the raid took place when police were no longer satisfied with the under-the-table financial arrangement. Ultimately, that’s not what matters, though. What matters is what happens next: The two days of street violence marked the beginning of a gay rights movement.
Some context for the times: Even the city’s most liberal newspaper, the legendary counter-cultural Village Voice, refused to print the word “gay” in advertisements. Within six months of the Stonewall riots, no fewer than three gay-related publications sprang up in New York. Within two years there were gay rights organizations in every major city in the western world.
Of course, the Stonewall riots weren’t really the starting point of the gay rights movement, just the modern one. France was the first country to legalize homosexuality — in 1791. There was a famous gay rights movement in Britain in the late 1800s —and also a backlash that resulted in the imprisonment of the celebrated playwright Oscar Wilde. However, the Stonewall riots served as an ignition spark that galvanized a movement, in much the same way that Rosa Parks getting arrested served to ignite a civil rights movement for African-American equality that had been going on for a long time.
Social movements do not always move in straight lines, and Virginia provides a good example. In the years following Stonewall, Virginia took one step after another to crack down on anything that resembled gay rights. Meanwhile, gay Virginians — who, of course, had been there all along — were becoming more and more visible.
In 1975, Virginia decided to ban same-sex marriages. The idea of such a thing had not crossed the public mind before then, but now it had and Virginia wanted to make sure such a thing didn’t happen here. That same year, Roanoke had at least three establishments catering to a gay clientele. The first had been quietly operating since 1953 — the Trade Winds, on what is now Elm Avenue and Franklin Road. Others opened in 1973 and 1975. By the time The Park opened in 1978, Roanoke counted six gay bars, although many people were unaware any of them existed. Such was the nature of Roanoke, and the nature of the times. Roanoke’s gay community first gathered for a “Pride in the Park” event in 1990; the organizers also made sure it attracted no media attention. They later described the event as “real scary” because the 300 to 400 attendees weren’t sure how the event would go.
Subsequent “Pride in the Park” events were publicized, but many in Roanoke were still unaware there was any gay community here at all until one tragic night in 2000. That September, a Florida drifter targeting the gay community walked into the Backstreet Café on Salem Avenue and opened fire — killing one man and wounding six others. Even in those pre-social media days, Roanoke was national news. And Roanoke’s response? Nearly 1,000 people marched through the streets to decry the shooting. The Roanoke Times reported the reaction to the shooting this way:
It has led untold numbers of gays to reveal their orientation publicly for the first time, produced Roanoke’s first gay political action committee in years, persuaded two lawmakers to reconsider their opposition to adding sexual orientation to hate crime laws, and brought international attention to Roanoke’s heretofore barely visible gay citizenry.
Until now, average straight Roanokers probably didn’t think they knew any gay people, said the Rev. Catherine Houchins, a lesbian minister. “Now they’re finding out we’re their neighbors, their customers ... their employers, their employees.”
In some ways, the Backstreet Café shooting was Roanoke’s Stonewall riot — except that no one died in New York. Someone here did. Yet six years later, Roanoke still voted against one major goal of the gay rights movement — the right to marry. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to fully legalize same-sex marriage. For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Here was Virginia’s reaction: A mere statue against same-sex marriage wasn’t considered strong enough. In 2006, the General Assembly passed and sent to voters a proposed constitutional amendment than would write the ban into the state’s fundamental law. Called the Marshall-Newman Amendment after its sponsors — Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, and state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg — the amendment passed by 57% to 43%. Only 13 localities voted against it — the only one west of the Blue Ridge was Lexington.
In 2014, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring declined to defend the amendment in federal court, calling it unconstitutional. The courts later agreed, striking down that provision of the state Constitution — a year before the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage everywhere. On Oct. 1, 2014, the first same-sex marriage in Virginia was recorded in Richmond. Through the end of 2018, Virginia has recorded 10,761 same-sex marriages. These have been solemnized in virtually every locality in the state, even in the one that voted strongest against same-sex marriage —Buchanan County, at just under 90%. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, though, the Marshall-Newman Amendment remains part of the state’s Constitution — unenforceable but still on the books in case some future U.S. Supreme Court changes its mind.
Today, there are openly-gay elected officials in Blacksburg, Roanoke and the General Assembly, something unthinkable at the time of the Stonewall riots. One of the top-tier candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination is gay and that’s not even the most interesting thing about Pete Buttigieg’s background. Yet in Virginia (and lots of other states), someone can still be fired simply for being gay. In some ways, Virginia still stands like a stone wall.