50 years of Stonewall: 50 LGBT+ people on what the Stonewall riots represent today

The stand that was taken in Greenwich Village half a century ago remains powerful for so many people. Louis Staples hears their testimony – one for each year that has passed

Louis Staples
Friday 28 June 2019 09:50
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Pride Month

On 28 June 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Tucked in the centre of Greenwich Village – the city’s gay district – the bar had become accustomed to hostility from law enforcement officers, who would often forcibly remove customers and seize cash. This time, around 200 customers were tossed out onto the street. But the tables turned when the crowd turned on the police officers.

At the time, sex acts between two men or two women were illegal in every US state apart from Illinois. If you were gay, you couldn’t work for the US government or the military. In New York, thousands were arrested each year in the city for “crimes against nature” and coming out as gay could cost a person their licence in law and medicine.

The Stonewall riots were not the beginning of the LGBT+ rights movement. But their impact was felt across the western world, galvanising a generation to fight for change. As that fight continues, 50 LGBT+ people tell us what Stonewall means to them.

Billie Jean King

Tennis player

I was not as closely in tune with the community, or myself, in 1969 as I am today. I was in England playing at Wimbledon and being geographically removed from the news was a factor. While there was some limited media coverage, in those days the news travelled faster by word of mouth in an underground manner. Eventually the Stonewall uprising evolved into the origin of the modern gay movement.

When I heard about Stonewall, I remember feeling just like the famous line in the movie Network – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Standing up for our community and advocating for ourselves was powerful then and it is powerful now. The Stonewall riots gave so many the courage to finally be their authentic selves.

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

Activist

There was so much that led up to that night, to those queer people fighting back, and so the legacy of the uprising, for me, is the people. What we’ve seen since then, as queer people of colour, is the erasure of our contributions, the minimising of our experiences and the silencing of our voices.

I think in asking us to look back, we may be wondering where it went wrong – the point of divergence from what mattered for all of us to what was beneficial for a few. In that spirit, I think what we can learn from the uprising is everything we’ve learned after it: until the most marginalised among us are free, none of us are free.

Courtney Act

Performer

Resist. That’s what the people at the Stonewall Inn did that fateful night in 1969. They resisted arrest and the status quo because they knew that their right to love and exist was equal to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. We must continue to resist what we know is wrong by speaking up with our voices, votes and dollars, and sometimes by acting up. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to those who can’t help themselves, and we owe it to those who paved the yellow brick road from 1969 to 2019.

Munroe Bergdorf

Activist

(Munroe Bergdorf

Growing up I just did not see myself reflected within the history books. But when I found out that it was Marsh P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women of colour, who kicked off the Stonewall riots which lead to the gay rights movement it filled me with pride. It made me realise the importance of being educated about what our communities have been through, to seek out information ourselves because the reality is that our stories are so often whitewashed, erased or appropriated. We have always been here and I’m so glad that the trans community are finally getting our dues, even if there is still so far left to go.

Stephen Fry

Actor

I think perhaps the most glorious fact of the Stonewall riots is that it was the queens, the camp, glitzy queens, who saw off the police that night in Greenwich Village. Years of mockery in the streets, being jostled, spat at, arrested and pushed off the sidewalk had toughened them up. They were the ones – stereotypes and cliches to the outside world and shamefully disowned by plenty of gay people back then too – who finally stood up and cried “ENOUGH”, and for that the whole world, not just the LGBT+ world, owes them a debt. Got it, girls!

Isis King

Model

Trans women of colour have always stood at the forefront of this movement. Some try to erase the legacies but it’s still apparent in today’s climate that trans women are as bold as ever. Stonewall to me represents courage, and the willingness to stand in our power for unity, and equality.

Matt Lucas

Actor

I am eternally grateful to those who fought for the recognition of gay identity at a time when society saw it only in crude sexual terms. Stonewall was about the freedom to love without fear. We can honour the bravery of those who fought tirelessly for our community by continuing their work, because it’s too easy to become complacent, to think that the job is done. It isn’t.

In many countries, any act that expresses or signals same-sex attraction will lead to your death. And whilst LGBT+ people have greater legal protection than ever in the UK, there are still battles to be won, views to be challenged. We can start by standing up to anyone who tries to reintroduce anything that remotely resembles Section 28. Recent comments made by Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey are cause for alarm.

Ruth Hunt

CEO, Stonewall

The Stonewall uprising was a watershed moment that changed the course of our history and sparked the modern LGBT+ rights movement. The diverse coalition of LGBT+ people that led the uprising showed the power that comes when we stand together and fight for the equality of every LGBT+ person. We named ourselves after this historic moment and we continue to honour those involved by naming the meeting rooms in our London office after some of the leaders, including a lesbian woman of colour called Storme DeLarverie and two trans women of colour, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson.

Many of those people at the uprising were part of groups who continue to exist at the margins of our community, and for whom Pride isn’t yet a celebration but an act of defiance. We owe it to those who came before us to take on Pride’s spirit of protest to redouble our efforts to make the world a better place for every LGBT+ person.

Rikki Beadle-Blair

Creator and performer

In 1978, when I was 17, I saw an incredible performance at the Ovalhouse theatre’s lesbian and gay cabaret evening. An actor strode centre-stage in full drag and in a broad New York accent started telling us how eight years before the queens, hustlers and street dykes of the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village had fought back against some violent, corrupt and abusive New York cops and launched the final civil rights rebellion of the Sixties. The crowd of radical queers were divided. Some cheered. And many, to my amazement and confusion, hissed and booed loudly.

Years later, I created a one-person show. I made it about someone who got caught up in the Stonewall riots. This got me the job writing the 1995 movie Stonewall. I put my heart and soul into the script for Stonewall. And they’re all there: the butches, the fems, the blacks and hispanics and whites. The middle-class activists. The street queens. The homeless queer kids. And they are still here, with us in every battle we still have to fight. And we must honour them repeatedly. Year after year. We must never betray or dismiss them. We must never forget how we got this far. We must never forget who we are.

Chris Smith

Britain’s first openly gay male MP

Stonewall was the moment when the gay community decided to fight back, not to take things lying down any longer, and to assert some pride in their identity. As a result, it was a completely decisive moment for all of us. It laid the foundation for all the campaigns for LGBT+ equality that followed: against Section 28, for an equal age of consent, for equal access to services, for equal marriage, for justice around the world in the face of hostility and violence and bigotry. We stand on Stonewall’s shoulders.

Mhairi Black

Politician

The Stonewall riots were the spark that galvanised the LGBT+ community to organise in support for our rights. From homosexuality being a criminal offence to a law requiring a person to be wearing at least three items of “gender appropriate” clothing, 1969 was a dangerous time to be queer. The truth is, the LGBT+ community has always been judged by the standards of a very heterosexual and binary world.

We have been treated as abnormal and dangerous purely because we do not conform to how society expects us to be. Where we have made progress, we see how much of a celebration Pride is. However, we must never forget it is a protest first and foremost. Our existence in this world is inherently political. We must never stop celebrating, or fighting for our rights.

Shon Faye

Writer and comedian

Stonewall functions as a kind of origin myth or oral history that gets retold, constantly, with different emphases. These varying accounts of the past always reveal a lot about the politics of the LGBT+ community retelling them. For example, 15 years ago it was very common to read that the riots were fuelled by gay men’s grief over the death of Judy Garland, now the role of trans people or the lesbian Storme Delarverie is more central. While important, I wish 28 June 1969 wasn’t held up as the single moment where LGBT+ history starts, particularly in Britain, where LGBT+ people’s political emergence has its own fascinating history.

Peter Tatchell

Activist

The most important thing about the Stonewall riots was that they sparked the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and prompted the first Pride marches. This LGBT+ revolution, which began in the US, quickly spread worldwide. I was part of London GLF. Instead of pleading for reform or seeking equality within the status quo, we demanded the transformation of straight society.

GLF set the agenda for all the gains of the last five decades in the UK. Since Stonewall, the LGBT+ movement has gone global; liberating hundreds of millions of people; though hundreds of millions more live in the 68 countries that still outlaw same-sex relations. The Stonewall revolution is not yet over.

Tamal Ray

Baker and doctor

I’m not a confrontational person by nature so I often think about the riots and what I would have done if I’d been around back then. Would I have had the bravery and the fury, to do what did they did that night? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m here today. And having grown up under the bullshit of Section 28 I’m so aware of how lucky I am to have the rights and protections I do. Remembering the riots is so important to me. Not just as a bit of history but as a constant reminder of the need to be brave. That doesn’t always feel easy, or even safe, but it’s still necessary.

Owen Jones

Writer

The Stonewall riots are a reminder that our rights and freedoms were not given to us as acts of charity and goodwill, but through struggle and sacrifice. The gay and trans people who led this iconic event are giants on whose shoulders we stand – but their spirit needs to be emulated. In the midst of a growing homophobic and transphobic backlash against victories won by LGBT+ people, we need to re-invigorate a radical queer movement with demands ranging from reforming the Gender Recognition Act to reversing cuts to LGBT+ services, to properly funding mental health services LGBT+ people disproportionately depend on to defending LGBT+ inclusive education. We have so far to go still.

Ruth Davidson

Leader, Scottish Conservative Party

Watching gay people assert themselves in the face of authority – and being supported and defended by straight friends and allies across Greenwich Village – was a real turning point in gay history. That’s why so many people cite the Stonewall riots as the start of the LGBT+ movement’s campaign for equal rights.

Every advance we have made in law and in public consciousness across the western world is built upon those foundations. But those rights and that acceptance, which have been hard won over the last 50 years, are still fragile. LGBT+ people are still subject to hate crimes. Bosses can still be unsure over points of employment law. Prejudice persists. The fight continues.

Shahmir Sanni

Whistleblower and digital strategist

Our community is inherently righteous, our community is inherently good. There is a reason LGBT+ people are 20 times more likely to be activists than their heterosexual counterparts – wanting to make the world a better place is in our blood. But conforming to a society built on social capital and influence in the age of the internet has led us down a path where our idea of liberation is being in an advert for a company that has consistently undermined people of colour or other marginalised communities, not in social justice.

In the UK, Stonewall collaborating with UKBlackPride and LGBT+ activists reaching out to marginalised communities with a significant focus on Bame sexual health is a giant leap forward for all of us. It’s been 50 years since a black trans woman made the first move in what would lead to one of the most defining moments in our history. I hope in the next 50 years our community reaffirms its intrinsically black, feminist values and responds with ever more passion to a growing climate of hate, homophobia and racism.

Travis Alabanza

Performer and activist

The riots remind me, especially in times of great uncertainty, that our community has always been resourceful, survivors and fighters. It reminds us that our change and progress will never be made in just books, or just on our screens, or just in theory – but always in practice, on the streets, together. For me, the riots remind me of the daily resilience queerness has in its history and presence, and I feel now more than ever – we need to remember that!

Ashley C Ford

Writer

What astounds me about the Stonewall riots is how rich the history of that moment is without the institutional support of well-funded organisations, or even the government for a long time. The stories of Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Riviera and others have been carried through time by some of our most marginalised communities, beautifully and with all the reverence they deserve. This moment was about human beings and their right to life, love and liberty. Stonewall doesn’t allow us to forget the humans behind the moment, and so we continue to progress.

Michael Cashman

Politician, actor and co-founder of Stonewall

I was 18 at the time and I don’t even remember it being reported in the British media. Certainly not as a riot started in a gay bar. But for me it signifies the moment of fighting back when the straw finally breaks the camel’s back. That happened here in the United Kingdom when the Thatcher government introduced Section 28 in the middle of the Aids and HIV crisis being faced by the gay community. When we should have been given support and succour right wing seized it as an opportunity to drive us underground. It was the moment we decided to fight back – and win. The fight continues.

Sarah McBride

Political activist

Today, the legacy of Stonewall is a community that fought across gender identity, sexual orientation, race and class. It is a legacy of solidarity across diversity and difference. It is a legacy of how a single act and a moment can have ripple effects for generations to come.

Francis Lee

Filmmaker

I was born in the year of the Stonewall Riots and through my lifetime so much has changed. It’s a time to thank and celebrate the working-class queer people of colour, the heroic trans people, the drag queens, the fem guys, the butch dykes who fought for their rights to be who they are. This is our queer history. But not only is the fight not yet won, but the small gains that we have made are also unevenly distributed. There may be spaces of celebration and expression in urban centres, but until every queer person in every rural community across this country can feel a valued part of society, we have to keep fighting. Together. For all of us.

Ben Hunte

Journalist

I am ashamed to say that before starting as the BBC’s first LGBT+ correspondent, I did not know the full story behind the Stonewall riots. Of course, I had seen the infamous film, but only after visiting New York last month, and soaking up the past, did I discover the truth. I am so sad that I grew up searching for queer role models who were also people of colour, and meanwhile I was missing out on some incredible legends... legends who actually kickstarted the modern LGBT+ rights movement through their actions 50 years ago.

Until we have queer history taught properly within our schools, and until media organisations report on our lives with care, I hope that we can come together as a community and share our knowledge so that our heroes are never forgotten.

Charlie Craggs

Activist

As we celebrate 50 years since Stonewall, I think it’s important we remember who was at the forefront of the Stonewall riots (and in turn at the forefront of the LGBT+ liberation movement) it was trans women of colour who fought for all of us. Google the trans murder epidemic (that predominantly affects trans women of colour) that is taking place right now, and it is worse than ever. Trans people, especially trans women of colour need you to fight for them they way they fought for your rights 50 years ago.

Lea DeLaria

Comedian

That riot, what I saw, my people fighting back, is the reason I have always been out and proud.

Ryan Atkin

First openly gay referee in the professional football leagues

The Stonewall riots’ legacy for me is that we should never give up or become complacent. Now, more than ever, we must stand firm as the tide of tolerance turns against us in many places, in an effort to undo the hard-won victories of the last few decades.

We are not done until everyone can live and love regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their gender, regardless of their race, colour or creed. For until we can all be who we are born to be, the fight for equality must continue and we will not be silenced.

Leo Kalyan

Musician

The Stonewall uprising was about LGBT+ people standing up for each other, together. We need that spirit of solidarity now more than ever, especially for trans people and queer people of colour – especially seeing what’s happening in places like Chechnya and Brunei. Working together is how we started to fight back, and it’s by working together that we will end this fight, too.

Phillip Picardi

Journalist, editor-in-chief of “Out” magazine

Stonewall, for me, is a reminder and a wake-up call. This year much has been said or done to retroactively honour our trans ancestors (like Marsha P Johnson or Sylvia Rivera) for their contributions to the movement and to that fateful night in 1969. But as recent events in America and the UK have shown, we are still so far from liberation for the trans community.

Whether that’s the coordinated, insidious attack on trans individuals like Munroe Bergdorf by the UK media, the cruel murders of black trans women like Ashanti Carmon and Zoe Spears or the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict trans folks from access to housing, healthcare, or public service, we’ve got a long way to go. This year, celebration may be a part of Pride – but what we really need is the rebirth of a movement, led by the very folks who have consistently been left behind.

Juno Dawson

Author

Stonewall has become a beacon or totem of LGBT+ emancipation. So much has been said and we can’t know precisely what happened. I think we can extrapolate that, on that date in New York, lesbians, gay men, trans people (although they wouldn’t have used that term) and all manner of queer people came together as a unified community and said “NO” to state-sanctioned police brutality. That sense of unity is needed as much today as it was in 1969 as our rights and freedoms are continually debated and challenged.

Rosanna Flamer-Caldera

Activist

I grew up in a country that inherited Victorian colonial laws criminalising consenting same-sex sexual relationships. Anachronistic as they are, they are in fact very dangerous and extremely cruel and inhumane. The Stonewall riot was a pivotal point in the global gay liberation movement. It galvanized the LGBT+ movement globally and many countries have moved positively forward. However, there are many countries such as mine, Sri Lanka, that seem to be sinking more into the abyss of homophobia and intolerance.

A global rise in extremism and nationalism makes our hard-fought victories vulnerable to attacks and setbacks. It serves to push back even harder and negate the strides we have already made. Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant and continue fighting to win our dignity and our liberation.

Jide Macaulay

Pastor and activist

Fifty years is a long time in any struggle. As the world celebrates the anniversary of Stonewall it’s incumbent to reflect on what it means for this and future generations. So much more needs to be done as many LGBT+ communities are still left behind without the protection of the law. Personally, as a black African British gay Christian living with HIV, it’s a reminder of the continuous fight for inclusion, liberation and diversity, to be respected for who I am and who I love.

Scottee

Performer

Since the first stiletto was thrown at Stonewall we’ve seen a slow assimilation politic led by an organisation of the same name in the UK. Gone are the days of yesteryear resistance, rebellion and difference – we now live in an age of rainbow washing, corporate gay-for-pay and the legacy of a largely depoliticised community, a community that is now facing daily aggression, abuse and violence in public space, online and across the media. We’re fighting for survival, again – will that sponsored float save the day? Will those corporations be aligned with us once the parade inevitably turns back to a protest?

Joleen Mataele

Activist

We have fought the fight and paved the way and Stonewall was the founding legend that we all learn from and we must stand tall as one community and one voice so we can pave the way for the new generation. At the same time we must remember those who fought the fight for us and let’s raise the rainbow flag and light a candle as their remembrance.

Lady Bunny

Performer

The Stonewall riots were a response to a physical attack from police. Fast forward to today. Nowadays we have many more rights, and police don’t openly harass our watering holes. So I wonder what we’re currently fighting for? On social media, I recently posted about the passage of an LGBT+ equality bill in the house. A few people liked my post but no one shared it.

Are we so bored with the quest for our own rights? Or do we need another attack like Stonewall or a tragedy like the Aids epidemic to bring back our fighting spirit? Trump and other emerging nationalists worldwide tend to hold a dim view of gay people. So we must fight back and fight less amongst ourselves on more minor issues.

Damian Barr

Author

News that there is to be a straight Pride parade made me feel like rioting like it’s 28 June 1969 all over again. But straight people don’t need Pride because they weren’t born into a culture that shames their very existence. What is now a party started as a riot. After two women were attacked on a London bus for refusing to kiss, we must never forget that we may need to riot again sooner than we think.

Mandu Reid

Leader, Women’s Equality Party

As a bisexual black woman, I owe many of the freedoms I enjoy today to those who stood up to injustice during the Stonewall riots in 1969. But we still live in a country where 68 per cent of LGBT+ people are afraid to hold hands in the street and anti-LGBT+ hate crime has more than doubled in the last five years.

Because of Stonewall, I will soon address UK Pride as the first “out” leader of a political party in England. And because of Stonewall, I know that if we continue to fight for better, we will get there.

Jake Graf

Actor and writer

As a writer who was a part of the London lesbian community pre-transition for over a decade, and who has always identified as queer, I have always been interested in our history as a global community. The Stonewall riots are almost folkloric for us. When I transitioned I wanted to understand more about our specific transgender history and felt great pride upon learning that the Stonewall riots happened as a result of courageous and outspoken trans women, mostly of colour, standing up to bigoted and hateful law enforcement officers, determined to hurt LGBT+ folk.

While there is still a long way to go, the significance of the events at the Stonewall Inn that day in 1969 still resonate powerfully today, and as recent media coverage sadly shows, the battle against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is not yet won.

Lisa Power

Co-founder of Stonewall

The important thing about Stonewall 50 years ago is not who threw the first brick. It’s who stayed to build the community of resistance to the injustices that LGBT+ people faced. Trans and bi people, lesbians, gay men and others rejected by society all got stuck in and changed their world. We named Stonewall here in the UK so that, no matter how “respectable” we became, we never forgot that we started with a riot. We need to keep fighting, for all the LGBT+ people still imprisoned, beaten, sacked, abused because of who they love. We are stronger together.

Matthew Todd

Author and journalist

Because of erasure of people of colour and trans people, Stonewall sometimes highlights the divisions in our community. But researching my book, Pride, what I found incredibly moving was that Stonewall was really about a community coming together. When a lesbian, we think Storme DeLarverie, a woman of colour, was being arrested, she yelled to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” Her brothers and sisters – white, black, gay, bi, lesbian, trans, butch, femme, did do something and came to her aid. That’s incredibly inspiring to me. That sense of unity is needed now more than ever.

Amrou Al-Kadhi

Performer

When I think about the Stonewall riots, and the history of heroic activism in the LGBT+ community, it reminds me never to get complacent. The pervasiveness of the glossy rainbow flag during Pride can lull us into a sense of inaction. But as we’ve seen over the past month of protests, attacks and media, violence and violations against gay and trans people has not gone away. Our community, more than ever before, needs to harness the political energy of our ancestors and keep fighting.

Joseph Galliano

CEO and co-founder, Queer Britain Museum

There have been many accounts about what started the riots: the hot summer; the recent death of Judy Garland; yet another raid. Truth is buried in myth. What is true is that the Stonewall Inn’s customers, a mixture of marginalised communities – transgender, gay and lesbian people, sex workers, people of colour – were heartily sick of the daily harassment they faced and finally snapped.

It wasn’t the start of LGBT+ campaigning, but the moment it angrily took to the streets. Who threw the first punch is not the most important question, it’s what activists did with that pent-up anger and frustration, over the long haul that made all the difference to so many lives.

George M Johnson

Writer

Stonewall is an important reminder of how integral black and brown queer folks have been in the fight for liberation. It’s important to remember the black and brown trans and queer people who led the riots on those six nights, and how our community is still fighting many of those same battles. As much as Stonewall has become a celebration, we still have a very long way to go and stand on the shoulders of all who fought so hard on those nights.

Glyn Fussell

Performer and creator

Fifty years is a very short amount of time and a lot has changed. But we’ve really only just begun to show the rest of the world what fundamental human rights are and how far we can come in such a short space of time. I’m more concerned about my brothers and sisters in other countries who don’t have the rights that we have. Every single day we should remember the fights that came before us. That’s why I’ll always be involved in as many Pride celebrations. Not because I want to, but because I have to. As long as I can live my life to the fullest, I have an obligation to fight for the people that don’t.

Liz Barker

Politician

Fifty years ago LGBT+ people fought back against police intimidation. It was the catalyst for LGBT+ people to gather publicly to demand equality and justice, and it resonated around the world. In small towns those of us who knew we were different learnt that we could go to cities and find a community. Fifty years on we are still marching. Pride in New York or London gives hope to those living in countries which criminalise homosexuality. Small towns now celebrate their LGBT+ citizens and the police are no longer hostile. That is progress of which we should all be proud.

CN Lester

Author

What matters most to me about Stonewall was that it was one protest of many, one moment in time across decades of rebellion, building community, making our mark.

Andrew Lumsden

Journalist and activist

I was 27, born in Surrey and living in London and working as a journalist for The Times newspaper when the Stonewall uprising staggered the cops of New York. I’d been late understanding I was queer, as so many of us LGBT+ people were in those days, only realising it for sure at 25. The uprising brought us the word “gay”. When it crossed the Atlantic to us in 1970 as the Gay Liberation Front, which I promptly joined, none of us had ever before used the word in the sense of sexual orientation. And I’m glad we did.

Jamie Windust

Writer

The Stonewall riots were not only a moment in time and history but a real signal that we are not a community that is to stay quiet and remain silenced. The power and strength trans women of colour, and queer people showed at that moment is something we should all carry with us through our lives as it’s got us to where we are now and will continue to move us forward.

Amelia Abraham

Author

To me, Stonewall is a great focal point and moment to be proud of in LGBT+ history, especially when so much of our history was not or could not be recorded, or if it was, sometimes destroyed. However, we should remember that there are so many stories of queer pain, struggle and victory out there to be discovered, if we take the time to look for them. Knowing where we came from helps us to work out where we’re going.

Henry Holland

Fashion designer

Pride is as important now as it was when the first brick was thrown at Stonewall. While many of us feel safe and accepted, Pride is about remembering that there are still people in the world who don’t. Until that day we need to keep pushing for total equality and acceptance for the whole of the LGBT+ community.

Carrie Lyell

Journalist, editor-in-chief of “DIVA” magazine

When I first came out, I knew very little about Stonewall. I knew very little about queer history generally. It was never on the curriculum, and certainly not discussed around the dinner table. What I know about Stonewall, I had to scrape together myself. So today, as editor of DIVA magazine, I feel I have a duty to keep the spirit and the stories of that night alive so those growing up don’t need to hunt as I did.

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