On June 28, 1969, when the first brick was hurled outside of the Stonewall Inn in New York, there was very little thought that something bigger might come out of an angry riot outside a gay bar. In the 1950s and 1960s, the LGBT community faced an anti-gay legal system and police raids in gay-frequented establishments were frequent to the point of commonality.
That night, as people were unjustly arrested and carted off by the police, something snapped that brought a dispersed community together in a tight fist against their oppression. The Stonewall riots remain significant not just as an act of defiance at the community’s refusal to accept violence and discrimination at face value but are also widely considered to be the most important event in the lead up to the formation of the gay liberation movement.
One year after the riots, on June 28, 1970, activists took to the streets of New York to mark the occasion. The year after that, LGBT people marched in five other US states as well as in London, Paris, Berlin and Stockholm.
The marches, which now occur globally in most countries where it is safe to do so, and defiantly in ones where it is not, remain significant within gay communities not simply in remembrance of the birth of the movement of the more modern approach to campaigning for rights.
In Malta, LGBT rights are considered to be of the highest standards both on a European as well as a global level.
The question is often levelled, then, as to why Pride marches are still important in the present day.
“What’s written in law and what happens in reality are two different realities that co-exist,” said Clayton Mercieca, community manager at Allied Rainbow Communities (Arc).
“There was a huge improvement in terms of rights, of course, and once it had political backing, when the government endorsed it, it no longer felt ‘wrong’.”
Arc, an LBGT NGO created in 2015, came together to address the lack of social spaces in the rainbow community. While bars, clubs and parties targeting the LGBT are also a fixture on the island, Arc seeks to build on a more community-based approach and create spaces where LGBT people can simply hang out and socialise in a neutral space. Among its activities, Arc is the main organiser of Malta Pride.
“There seems to be a misconception on what Pride is,” Mercieca says.
“Some might say it’s about showing off and being flamboyant, but aside from being colourful, I would disagree. Some people might want to flaunt but that’s not the majority of Pride. For most people, it’s a space that they get once a year to express themselves colourfully and just be true to who they are.”
“Pride is a family event for anybody who wants to celebrate diversity.”
Pride is the best political tool you can have as a community
Despite the promise of acceptance on paper, there are those who still struggle to accept that a sizable portion of citizens do not identify as straight and have no intention of treading lightly about it.
“Unless the issue hits close to home, some people can be very desensitised about it,” Mercieca continues.
“Obviously prejudice still exists and when you start to hear from them, you do realise that there is a significant number of people who are extremely not okay with LGBT people being out and about their lives.”
“Then you’ll have instances when a parent, a child or a relative comes out, the bubble bursts and they have a personal crisis. This is why I think we need the visibility, because Pride is the best political tool you can have as a community.”
“It’s not something that you can just segregate and let people be because ultimately these attitudes dissipate into behaviour, into policies, you name it.”
For the community, Pride isn’t just an event that brings them together, but is also a space where sub-groups of the community can spotlight their issues. Rainbow families, LGBT refugees fleeing from persecution and the trans community are among those who are out to make their statements on a public platform.
“People change their minds and their hearts once they hear our stories,” Mercieca says.
“This Pride we’ve made an effort to put the real members of our community forward and feature them and their stories.”
For the young and the disenfranchised, Pride can also be a space to reach out to a community of your peers, especially for those struggling with their sexuality or facing difficulties coming out.
“I remember going to my first Pride at 18,” says Mercieca.
“There were about 50 people there and at the time I was still coming to terms with who I was. It was the first time I had actually seen that there was someone else out there. I realised that I could be part of something bigger, that there’s a community that might be able to support me.”
“So Pride is also important to people in the process of coming out or people struggling with the idea that someone they love might be gay. There’s a multidimensional aspect to it, when you see LGBT people simply living their life, it’s an affirmation that people turn out okay in the end, nothing bad happens just because gay persons accept themselves for who they are.”
This year’s Pride week has not disappointed in trying to meet the needs of its community. Events have included discussions on policy and politics, mental health, sports tournaments, as well as fundraising for the training of further personnel at the GU clinic. Arc has also handed out directives and initiatives in order to have a greener Pride, promoting the use of reusables and avoiding single-use plastics at the event.
“The moment we stop Pride or stop being visible, people take it for granted and go back to their heteronormative assumptions,” Mercieca says. “The bottom line is that the LGBT community is everywhere, and you can’t pigeonhole them in one sphere of occupation or lifestyle.”
“We’re everywhere, even in Church, in all sorts of family life. We just make life a little more colourful.”
The Malta Pride 2018 March & Concert is taking place tomorrow from 4.30pm in Valletta.
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