In 1969 the Stonewall riots jump-started the modern gay rights movement, framing the dialogue around queer activism and the rights that LGBTQ people would fight for in the decades to come. Queer people of the Stonewall era were mobilized by a need for visibility, representation and change, and in the decades since the movement began, LGBTQ activists have used their voices to combat oppression and give queer people a seat at the table.
Douglas Kimmel, a founding member of SAGE, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ elders, moved to New York City in the fall of 1970. As a psychologist who took part in community organizing, he saw that the activists of the time were working toward being part of the power structure after solidifying their status as a minority group.
“The larger agenda I was involved in was building community. If we’re going to become this identified group that’s having some effect on the power structure and changing society, we had to also form a community and care for the more vulnerable members,” Kimmel told HuffPost. At the time, groups like Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign were just beginning to coalesce, with the aim of protecting this newly formed community. “It was a very fertile and exciting period of progressive developments.”
Chris Almvig, another of SAGE’s founders, moved to New York City in 1974. As a social worker and community organizer, she also remembers the city then as a breeding ground for activism. “It was a time when people were getting bold and willing to take risks,” she told HuffPost. “The time was ripe for people to organize.”
As the years went on, the concentrated efforts toward recognition began to splinter as segments of the community became concerned with their particular battles. “I saw the activism around people’s particular interest groups. What I saw were people taking an issue and becoming activists around that issue,” she said, citing groups like ACT UP, EDGE and what began as the National Gay Task Force.
“We were, before Stonewall, individuals with a socially defined pathology. After Stonewall, we became a group that had an identity that was broader than individuals and began seeking to change the world, and we each began changing our little segment in which we were most involved,” Kimmel said.
In the nearly 50 years since Stonewall, queer people have made huge strides in the fight for equality. LGBTQ people can get married and serve in the military. Many cities and states prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — though the federal government does not. For activists who have been with the movement since its infancy, these victories are all the more precious.
“My husband and I had a wedding ceremony in Colorado in 1969, but in those days nobody really thought about same-sex marriage as a potential legal option,” said Kimmel. “We had no sense that there would ever be a time when we could legally call each other husbands. The general shift from the focus of homosexuality being about sex to the current conception, which is really about family relationships and gender identity, less about sex partners and more about love and affection and community.”
The concept of queerness has evolved and expanded to encompass a sociopolitical identity, and this understanding of queerness varies greatly by generation. The young people whom SAGE works with through its intergenerational work have an entirely different perception of gender identity and sexual orientation from people of Kimmel’s and Almvig’s generation. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the movement’s focus on helping its members who are most marginalized — people of color, transgender people, those with disabilities, homeless youths, sex workers, immigrants, the elderly.
“We are still concerned about those people who are most vulnerable in our community, but our concept of community has broadened,” said Kimmel.
According to Almvig and Kimmel, there is much that the younger queer activists of today can learn from the activists of the Stonewall era. Most important: not to take anything for granted, especially in the current political climate. “It’s like we’re spinning our wheels. Not even spinning our wheels — we’re going backwards with this administration. We’re in real danger,” she said.
“Right at a time when the average person in America is understanding sexuality a little more broadly and their kids and relatives are coming out and they’re grasping it all, there is this other, knee-jerk reaction that wants to think of [queer people] as abhorrent. We can’t let our guard down. We’ve lost some headway.”
“Those people who are able to take the lead and stand up are those who need to, particularly now,” said Kimmel. “We can’t sit back and pretend it doesn’t matter. We have to be courageous and stand up and do what is right. If enough good people do nothing, evil can happen.”
“We have to get out the vote,” Almvig said of the future of the LGBTQ rights movement. “We have to keep working with gay youth so they understand what’s at stake. Young people tend to come out and think it’s a big party, and they don’t understand that all their freedoms are at stake. Our rights could be taken away in a heartbeat. Our history shows that.”
Despite the looming terror of the Trump administration, Almvig and Kimmel are still hopeful about the future and imagine how much farther the movement can progress in their lifetimes.
“I would love to see older people in safe and secure housing, whether it be in their own homes or in facilities where they can be openly who they are and valued and appreciated for their history and the richness of their lives,” said Kimmel. “I hope that people of color and various ethnic backgrounds are recognized, that this is a richness that is being brought to the country and just as sexual orientation and gender identity diversity enriches the community, so also these other factors enrich it. I hope that we can put hatred and greed to rest and become a benevolent and trusting and kind society.”
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.