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Hello Equality, Goodbye Prohibition: The Origin of Gay Rights and Its Cannabis Parallels

June 28, 2014

On June 28th, 1969, a crowd of several hundred individuals acted together, demanding equal rights at the precise moment their rights were being violently infringed upon. For the first time in American history, the formerly underground gay community of New York City came out and aggressively demanded an end to unequal treatment.

A History of Oppression

That fateful day in June, over two hundred people found themselves barricaded inside a Greenwich Village bar, prohibited by police from leaving the building. The idea was that the bar inhabitants would form lines, show identification, and allow themselves to be searched. Of course, things didn’t exactly turn out the way the police had planned.

The bar was the Stonewall Inn, one of the many establishments that acted as a social hub for New York’s underground gay community. During the mid-20th century, it was illegal for gays to be served alcohol or dance with one another. It was not uncommon for police to crack down on known gay bars and arrest anyone who was transgendered, gay, or found engaging in homosexual activities. Frequent raids were even encouraged, as law enforcement favored what seemed like clean sweep policies when it came to keeping so-called “sexual deviants” out of their neighborhoods.

The Birth of Pride

While social movements such as the civil rights movement and the African American rights movement began to shine by the mid-60s, the catalyst for the gay rights movement didn’t occur until 1969, when the Stonewall Inn raid meant the last straw for a few hundred oppressed homosexual and transgendered persons.

When officers attempted to arrest innocent LGBT customers from Stonewall, the accused refused to cooperate. The group’s open defiance coupled with law enforcement’s need to maintain control of the situation ultimately caused the tension between New York police and the bar customers to erupt, sparking a three-day-long series of riots. The riots were the first major outcry against oppression that directly spurred the modern day gay rights movement. The anniversary of the riots is now celebrated each year through gay pride parades and festivals all around the world.

A Celebration of Personal Freedom

Now, over 40 years later, the gay rights movement is one of several that have gained the sociopolitical traction necessary to ignite meaningful legislative change. Another is the cannabis movement, which has recently shared the spotlight with issues like marriage equality and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Over the past year, numerous articles discussing the similarities between the cannabis and gay rights movements have bubbled up. In October 2013, New York Magazine even posted a graph comparing Gallup results for two polls: one measuring public approval of marijuana over time, the other measuring public approval of same-sex marriage.

As you may have guessed, the results are remarkably similar. Public support for the cannabis movement has been running neck-and-neck with support for marriage equality for the past two decades. Looking at a graph comparing trends in support of these two causes will not give you a clear-cut explanation of how these two movements are connected to each other, yet it’s safe to say that both have made monumental gains in social acceptance and support while drawing upon similar values.

Of course, the cannabis and gay rights movements are both made of much more than meets the eye. Both movements have faced some similar battles: cannabis consumers and sexual minorities alike have been targets for unjust arrests, both groups have been historically excluded from participation with the federal government, and both groups face the immense challenge of working against harsh and deeply rooted social stigma in order to enact change.

Though the movements draw upon similar themes, it’s important to note that both of these campaigns for social change have vastly different end goals. In a Huffington Post editorial comparing these two movements last year, one commenter posed the question, “why is [the cannabis] movement being lumped alongside the LGBT rights movement? You can’t compare substance use with the civil rights and protections of human beings, it’s just not the same thing.”

The cannabis movement is still often shrugged off as a simple ploy for access to legal drugs. However, the huge spike in support for legalized marijuana over the past few years is a sign that much larger cultural values such as personal freedom, equality, and the belief that individuals have a right to be true to themselves are driving the brunt of the support for legalized marijuana. This is especially apparent when paired with the same increase in support for other causes such as marriage equality.