Marking 50 years of liberation
By Chad Ingram
Two pivotal events in the gay rights movement in North America took place in 1969 – the Stonewall riots in New York City, and the decriminalization of homosexuality by the Canadian government.
Sinclair Russell was a young man in his mid-20s at the time.
The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent uprisings against the New York Police Department by members of LGBTQ community in retaliation for years of police raids on gay bars. They took place in late June and early July of 1969, and are considered to have essentially given birth to the Pride movement in North America. Named for the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village where the revolt began, the riots gave way to the creation of gay activist groups in New York City, as well as the founding of publications dedicated to gay rights.
Russell was on Fire Island, a gay enclave just off Long Island, during the riots.
“I lived in Toronto, but I happened to be in New York City,” Russell says, explaining he’d read about the riots in the newspapers in the days following their occurrence. While he recognizes the significance of the riots, Russell says he himself was half ambivalent to them.
“That really started the whole Pride thing in New York,” he says. “ . . . I was not all that interested in it, because I was proud all the time.”
Living in the gay village in Toronto and immersed in the world of design where he forged his career, Russell says he was sort of insulated from the more violent aspects of the gay rights movement, since he was living in a bit of a bubble.
“I was already surrounded by it,” he says.
“Between ’69 and ’78, the whole thing kept growing and spread to the west coast,” Russell continues. San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag in 1978, and Russell will be talking about the significance of the flag during Minden Pride flag-raising next week.
Another outcome of the Stonewall riots were gay rights marches, which started on Christopher Street, where the Stonewall is located.
Russell attended his first march on Christopher Street in 1971.
“At that point, it was a protest,” he says.
North of the border, 1969 was significant because it was the year the Canadian federal government decriminalized homosexuality, then-justice minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau making the famous remark, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
“That was quite a celebration,” Russell recalls. “I’m not sure we all knew exactly what that meant, just that it wasn’t illegal anymore.”
“I feel by that time, we did feel more free, more liberated, but it didn’t come overnight,” he says.
Pride Week in Canada began in 1973, with a number of cities holding celebrations. Pride Toronto, now the country’s largest Pride celebration, began as a protest in 1981, following a series of raids by police on bathhouses in the city.