28TH JUNE 1969

Every year the month of June we celebrate Pride. It’s a time when we recognise, celebrate and promote dignity, visibility and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Pride marks one of the most pivotal moments in the history of human rights: the Stonewall Riots of 1969. This was when the struggle began in earnest for LGBTQ+ people to be recognised and allowed to be themselves, free of persecution and prosecution. It’s an incredible tale that’s as heartbreaking as it is uplifting and inspiring. Essentially a story of good prevailing over evil, it’s still a battle, as we’re about to find out, that’s a long way from being won. Back in 1969, just about everything about being gay, bisexual or transgender in America was illegal. These were dark times for the millions of Americans who identified as LGBTQ+.



Although the gay rights movement existed long before the 28th June 1969 – the Mattachine society was formed in 1950 –  events that night in Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn lit the touchpaper that began the movement known as Pride.

That hot summer night, which happened to be the day after Judy Garland’s funeral, emotions were running high in the Stonewall Inn. The popular gay bar had only been raided a few days before. In the early hours of the 28th, NYPD Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine decided to raid the inn again, but it didn’t go according to plan. Officers ordered people to line up and be counted, but patrons refused to show their ID, or undergo anatomical inspections. Then the officers decided to take everyone to the police station, causing an immense sense of unease to spread quickly among the crowd. Fighting spilt out into the street, where a large group of people had gathered and were watching events unfold. The police violently loaded one handcuffed woman into a police car, who cried out to the masses ‘why don’t you do something?’ As she was wrestled into the back of the car, the mood of the crowd reached boiling point and rioting began in earnest. The spontaneous mayhem attracted more and more people to the area, and the uprising went on for several days, with the atmosphere summed up succinctly by Stonewall Inn regular Michael Fader, who later said: “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this shit”. Also in the Inn that night was Marsha P Johnson, a prominent transgender character whose life story in many ways reflects the struggles of the movement. Her incredible story has its share of ups, downs and a few urban legends.

A year later when things still hadn’t improved for the community, the Stonewall Anniversary March – effectively the first LGBT Pride – was organised and a movement was born. Today Pride has grown into a month-long festival that takes place all over the world, and New York proudly sits at its epicentre. Draped from head to toe in the rainbow flag, the Big Apple has become one of the welcoming and inclusive cities in the world.



Fast forward 50 years and welcoming the world to NYC on behalf of Virgin Atlantic is Bob Wallace, one of our Duty Managers at JFK airport. He can’t remember the first Pride march that he took part in but suffice to say he’s been around the scene in New York long enough to have experienced the good times and the bad.

Bob joined Virgin Atlantic 28 years ago, initially as a telephone sales agent in the city, before looking after our Upper Class customers, then moving to a role at the airport. Today he’s a duty manager with responsibility for the whole operation. When Bob talks about how he had to hide who he really was at his previous employer – a conservative airline operating out of Texas –  you realise just how important this stuff is. It wasn’t until he switched to working at Virgin Atlantic that he felt he could come out and be his true self. We’re so glad you did, Bob.

Over the years Bob has spent many great nights at the Stonewall Inn, but to learn more about the history of the Pride movement, I joined him for the Stonewall Tour – a two hour narrated stroll through Greenwich Village to discover more about that fateful night and the characters involved.

We started at at the famous inn, where our guide Sara gave a moving account of that night, the events leading up to it and what happened on the following nights (more riots). Other highlights include Julius, the oldest gay bar in the city, where the Mattichine society held a gay ‘sip in’ to protest about the fact that it was illegal to serve homosexuals at the time, and The NYC AIDS Memorial Park, the memorial to all the people who died of AIDS and those who treated them. Back in New York at the peak of the epidemic, St Vincent’s Hospital was one of the only medical facilities that would admit and treat those dying of AIDS. Controversially, several of its buildings have been developed into upmarket apartments, but in its shadow, AIDS Park is an uplifting space and somewhere for quiet reflection. We ended up at the Stonewall National Monument, just opposite the inn. This vibrant space used to be called Christopher Park and was always a meeting place for the community. It was declared a New York City landmark in 2015 and, in one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama made it a National Monument, the first designated as an LGBT historic site. This means it is cared for by park rangers who’ve been doing a fantastic job creating a joyful space and decking it out for Pride in countless rainbow flags.


With all the love and the carnival atmosphere of a Pride march, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was nothing left to do. Not so. Homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries and punishable by death in several of those. The rise of populist politics has also seen an increase in LGBTQ+ hate crimes in usually tolerant countries like the UK and USA. “We’re still not where we should be, where equality is concerned,” said Bob. “Unless you’re in the Village or City couples still feel unable to hold hands”. And that’s in one of the most liberal cities on earth.  This is why it is so important to embrace and support the cause. At Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays, an inclusive environment in which everyone can thrive is at the heart of who we are. We want people to proudly be themselves; no matter their background, their gender, their beliefs, the colour of their skin, their physical ability, or who they choose to love. This is all supported by a company-wide ‘Be Yourself’ manifesto and training programmes in destinations we fly to.