The streets around The Stonewall Inn are quiet now.
But 50 years ago in June 1969, this popular gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village was the site of violent confrontation when an unprovoked police raid triggered widespread outrage, resulting in several days of riots and demonstrations.
Many believe the uprising was the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement. Now, a groundbreaking new exhibit titled “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement” at the Newseum in Washington explores that tumultuous period in American history.
Exhibit writer Christy Wallover says the numerous displays focus on the courageous efforts of everyday Americans. “This big movement was spurred on by people who wanted to make a change, whether that’s fighting for the right to work and serve, whether that’s parading in the streets and celebrating who you are, or whether that’s winning the right to marry.”
Jim Obergefell was one of those people. He fought for marriage equality in the state of Ohio for him and his longtime partner, John Arthur. They had been together for 18 years when Arthur was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and within two years was in at-home hospice care.
“Because we lived in Ohio, we were not able to get married,” Obergefell explained. So, the two chartered a medical jet and flew to Baltimore, Maryland, where same-sex marriage had become legal Jan.1, 2013.
They were married that year inside the airplane on the tarmac at Baltimore Washington International Airport by Arthur’s aunt Paulette Roberts. Arthur died a few months later. But Ohio did not recognize their marriage. Upon Arthur’s death, Obergefell could not be listed as Arthur’s surviving spouse. Obergefell sued the state.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Obergefell won. On June 26, 2015, marriage equality became the law of the land.
Obergefell loaned some of his most prized possessions to the Newseum to illustrate his story: the couple’s wedding rings that he had fused together after Arthur’s death; the jacket Obergefell wore when they married; and the bowtie he wore when the Supreme Court decision was announced.
Fighting back tears, Obergefell explained why he did it. “Because it’s my marriage. It’s the love of my life. It’s the man I was willing to do anything for and to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to defend, and to protect, and to live up to my promises to him.”
Other items featured in the exhibit represent trailblazers such as Frank Kameny, who many consider the father of the LGBTQ rights movement. His portable typewriter — on view in a display case — was used to create memos, pamphlets, “and everything he used to petition and protest the government,” Wallover explained.
There are also items from several U.S. politicians.
A red suit from Tammy Baldwin, who in 1998 became the first openly gay woman elected to Congress, and artifacts from Congressman Barney Frank, who revealed he was gay in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1987 after having served for three terms.
Also prominently featured is Harvey Milk, a leading human rights activist who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, and who was assassinated in 1978 after only a year in office. There’s a letter of his that was in his jacket pocket when he was shot, according to Wallover.
For many, it’s personal
John Lake, who works for one of the sponsors of the exhibit, found it deeply personal. “The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is so important to me personally, because I look back and all of the progress that’s been made has really happened within the course of my lifetime,” he explained.
Walking through the exhibit, he says he saw things that impacted his life “in a very real way.” “Like seeing Jim Obergefell’s jacket that he was married in — that happened around the same time that I proposed to my husband,” he said. “So, to get that kind of grounding and to see those moments really coming to life for the community, it just really brings it home.”
While there have been great strides made in the gay rights movement over the past 50 years, many acknowledge there’s still much work to be done for the 4.5 percent of Americans — roughly 10 million people — who identify as LGBTQ, or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer or Questioning.
“In the exhibit, we highlight the strides and the setbacks,” Wallover explained, pointing out that challenges remain for members of the LGBTQ community who are still striving for equality, such as transgender people.
“We talk about the transgender ban that’s currently in effect that the Supreme Court just upheld, and we also talk about the violence against that group, primarily transgender women of color,” she added. “So, we still have work to do.”
The exhibit, which will travel nationally after its run at the Newseum, includes educational resources for students and teachers. (VOA)