Gay rights movement: 40 years since Stonewall riots
By Luis Torres de la Llosa
NEW YORK (AFP) Forty years ago, a New York City bar called the
Stonewall Inn shot to global attention when its gay clientele staged
a revolt against police harassment, launching the US homosexual
The popular bar in the Greenwich Village community gave its name to
the spontaneous uprising that rocked the neighborhood for five
consecutive nights, as homosexuals fought back against police raids
targeting gay-friendly establishments.
"Stonewall was a surprise -- it was a surprise to everyone that
participated, as much as it was a surprise to the city," said Martin
Boyce, who back then was a 16 year-old participant in the riots.
Raids on gay bars were commonplace then, but by the time police
stormed the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969,
beleaguered members of New York's homosexual community had had enough.
"When the police tried to disperse us we came in on them -- and the
time had come for it," Boyce told AFP.
As the raid continued inside the bar, a crowd gathered on the street
outside and tensions -- already at a near boiling point between the
city's gay community and police -- overflowed.
"This was our street, it was the street where we were safe on," Boyce told AFP.
"This was never a riot against straight people, this was a riot
against the police, which caused us so much sorrow, but led to this movement."
Observers and participants looking back said in hindsight the riots,
involving about 200 mostly young gays, among them drag queens and
lesbians, should have been no surprise, given the anti-authoritarian
mood of the era.
At the time, they note, revolution was all the rage, including the
1968 student protests, the Black Power Movement, demonstrations
against the Vietnam War and the hippie counter-culture movement.
"There was a general dislike of the police -- even in the straight
world," said Robert Bryan, 63, another veteran of the uprising.
"Hippies and Black Panthers hated the police, so we were sort of
joining this feeling.
"It was a revolutionary feeling against the establishment and against
the police -- looking for more freedom to be whoever we were," said
Bryan, who at the time worked for a bank, before finding work in the
He said the raid quickly evolved into a pitched battle between police
inside the bar and scores of protesters who gathered outside of it.
"It was Friday night so everybody was out, and one thing led to
another. Things just got out of control," Bryan told AFP.
"I arrived not long before things started to get violent that night.
People were in a very festive mood, there were laughing and making
fun of the police and one thing led into another," he said.
Before long, Bryan continued, "I was digging up stones from around
the parking meters and hurling them at Stonewall. Someone tried to
set The Stonewall on fire at some point and the police who were
inside came out and dragged in people from the crowd and beat them."
In the end, 13 people were arrested and four police injured that
night, according to press accounts. Police battled gay demonstrators
over the four ensuing nights with equal ferocity.
But the uprising gave rise to the gay pride movement that still marks
the anniversary every year with a parade down Fifth Avenue, on what
has come to be known as Gay Pride Day.
This Sunday's parade, on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall
uprising, is one of several events planned to mark the Stonewall anniversary.
Among other events -- an recent exhibition about the riots was held
at the New York Public Library, and a documentary film is scheduled
to air next year on public television stations.
David Carter, author of one of the definitive works about the
uprising, "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparkled the Gay Revolution,"
said America's gay pride movement advanced only in fits and starts
until Stonewall, which helped forge a sense of gay outrage and identity.
"Here in the United States there were organized, ongoing political
movements since 1950. But the movement did not have much success,
mainly because it never became a mass movement," he said.
"Stonewall changed a small movement into a mass movement and
therefore put it forever on the map of American politics."
Bryan said many things have changed since then, not least the atmosphere.
"Now there are gay bars all over the place and people can go anywhere
and do anything, but still it is not as crazy, as it was then," he told AFP.
"Down there in Christopher Street there were trucks that were parked
under the west side highway, and hundreds and hundreds of people
would go down to these trucks that were left open, and it was a wild
orgy. There is nothing like that now."
Our lost gay radicalism
The Stonewall riots of 40 years ago led to demands for liberation.
Now we meekly hope for equality
26 June 2009
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New
York when, for the first time in history, lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender (LGBT) people fought back against decades of police harassment.
Previously, LGBT people worldwide had largely complied with arrest
and criminalisation. But not in New York on the nights of 27 and 28
June 1969. What began as a routine police raid on a gay bar, the
Stonewall Inn, turned into sporadic street battles. In the aftermath
of this history-making queer resistance, the Gay Liberation Front
(GLF) was formed in New York and similar groups sprang up across the
US and the world. The modern LGBT rights movement was born.
There had been earlier homosexual law reform and welfare
organisations in the US, Britain and the Netherlands. But these were
small, discreet lobby groups. Their members were brave trailblazers
but very defensive and mostly closeted.
The global GLF movement was radically different. It was a watershed
in queer consciousness the moment LGBT people discarded victimhood
and stopped apologising. Instead of pleas for tolerance, the demand
was unconditional acceptance. Thousands came out. This had never
I joined London GLF, aged 19. Our slogan: Gay is Good. These three
simple words were revolutionary. Until then, nearly everyone
including many LGBTs believed that gay was bad, mad and sad.
Whereas mainstream society saw homosexuality as a problem, we said
the problem was homophobia. Straight supremacism was, to us, the
equivalent of white supremacism.
Our vision was a new sexual democracy, without homophobia and
misogyny. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with
socially enforced monogamy and male and female gender roles. There
would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone queer and
straight. Our message was "innovate, don't assimilate".
GLF never called for equality. The demand was liberation. We wanted
to change society, not conform to it. Equal rights within a flawed,
unjust system struck us as idiotic. It would mean parity on straight
terms, within a pre-existing framework of institutions and laws
devised by and for the heterosexual majority. Equality within their
system would involve conformity to their values and rules a
formula for gay submission and incorporation, not liberation.
We argued then, and I still argue now, that accepting mere equality
involves the abandonment of any critical perspective on straight
culture. In place of a healthy scepticism, it substitutes naive
acquiescence with the hetero mainstream. Discernment is surrendered
in favour of compliance. While heterosexuality has its good points,
it also has its downsides, like the machismo of many hetero men,
which is linked to gang culture and violence against women.
In the 40 years since Stonewall and GLF, there has been a massive
retreat from that radical vision. Most LGBT people no longer
question the values, laws and institutions of society. They are
content to settle for equal rights within the status quo. On the age
of consent, the LGBT movement accepted equality at 16, ignoring the
criminalisation of younger gay and straight people. Don't the
under-16s have sexual human rights too? Equality has not helped them.
All they got was equal injustice.
Whereas GLF saw marriage and the family as a patriarchal prison for
women, gay people and children, today the LGBT movement uncritically
champions same-sex marriage and families. It has embraced traditional
heterosexual aspirations lock stock and barrel. How ironic. While
straight couples are deserting marriage, same-sexers are rushing to
embrace it: witness the current legal fight in California for the
right to marry. Are queers the new conservatives, the 21st-century
Don't get me wrong. Despite my critique of marriage and my advocacy
of a more democratic, flexible model of relationship recognition and
rights, I oppose the ban on same-sex marriage. It is homophobic
discrimination. Sadly, most of the LGBT movement in Britain is now
too feeble to demand marriage equality. It meekly accepts civil
partnerships instead of civil marriage. This is not equality.
Separate laws are not equal laws. There would be riots if the
government banned black people from getting married and offered them
civil partnerships instead. It would be denounced as apartheid. Well,
that's what civil partnerships are: sexual apartheid. Same-sex
couples are banned from civil marriage (homophobia) and opposite sex
couples are banned from civil partnerships (heterophobia). Two wrongs
don't make a right.
The LGBT community's retreat from radicalism signifies a huge loss of
confidence and optimism. It has succumbed to the politics of
conformism, respectability and moderation. What a shame. GLF dared to
imagine what society could be, rather than accepting society as it is
and so should we.
A Truly Queer History
Tommi Avicolli Mecca draws together witnesses from an age of liberation
BY DOUG IRELAND
June 26, 2009
SMASH THE CHURCH, SMASH THE STATE!
THE EARLY YEARS OF GAY LIBERATION
Edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
City Lights Books
303 pages; $18.95
Myth has it that the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich
Village were the first open queer rebellion against discrimination.
Not so. In 1965, the first queer sit-ins on record took place at a
late-night Philadelphia coffee shop and lunch counter called Dewey's,
which was a popular hangout for young gays and lesbians, and
particularly drag queens and others with gender-variant attire. The
establishment had begun refusing service to this LGBT clientele.
As an April 25 protest rally took place outside Dewey's, more than
150 patrons were turned away by management. But four teens resisted
efforts to force them out and were arrested, later convicted on
charges of disorderly conduct. In the ensuing weeks, Dewey's patrons
and others from Philadelphia's gay community set up an informational
picket line protesting the lunch counter's treatment of
gender-variant youth. On May 2, activists staged another sit-in, and
the police were again called, but this time made no arrests. The
restaurant backed down, and promised "an immediate cessation of all
indiscriminate denials of service."
In August 1966, there was a riot at Compton's Cafeteria, a 24-hour
San Francisco eatery popular with drag queens and other
gender-benders (this was long before the word "transgendered" was in
use), hustlers (many of them members of Vanguard, the first
organization for queer youth on record, founded some months earlier),
runaway teens, and cruising gays. The Compton's management had begun
calling police to roust this non-conformist clientele, and one night
a drag queen precipitated the riot by throwing a cup of coffee into
the face of a cop who was trying to drag her away. Plates, trays,
cups, and silverware were soon hurtling through the air, police paddy
wagons arrived, and street fighting broke out. Some of the 60 or so
rioting drag queens hit the cops with their heavy purses, a police
car was vandalized, and a newspaper stand was burned down. The
Compton's Riot eventually led to the appointment of the first police
liaison to the gay community, and the establishment of the first
known transsexual support group in the US.
These are just two of the many nuggets of little-known or forgotten
queer history to be found in "Smash the Church, Smash the State: The
Early Years of Gay Liberation," the new anthology edited by Tommi
Avicolli Mecca, himself a veteran of the earliest gay liberation
struggles, and today an activist, gender-bending performance artist,
and writer well-known to San Francisco queers.
By the time of the Stonewall riots in June 1969, rebellion and
radicalism were in the air. The country had been riven in two by the
mass agitation against the war in Vietnam. The multiracial civil
rights movement was being replaced by the Black Power movement, the
Black Panthers had been born four years earlier, and America's cities
had exploded in urban riots by the black underclass. Feminists had
begun to articulate their own liberationist ideology and burn their
bras. Stonewall and the militant gay liberation movement to which it
gave birth arose out of this '60s turbulence, and cannot be properly
understood separated from this context.
If the first night of the Stonewall riots was spontaneous, and led
principally by drag queens like the legendary Sylvia Rivera, a street
hustler who always claimed she'd thrown the first beer bottle at the
cops, the ensuing nights of protest benefited from some more
consciously activist participation. As Mark Segal, who for 32 years
has been the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, puts it in his
contribution to this anthology, "Marty Robinson recruited me into the
'activist group,' a subgroup of Mattachine New York. If there were
organizers of the demonstrations on the nights following the [first]
Stonewall riot, it was us. After the first incident in which cops
raided the bar, Marty had the brilliant idea to have us write in
chalk on Christopher Street, 'Stonewall Tomorrow Night.' For three
more nights, we gathered and protested."
What made Stonewall the much-evoked milestone in queer activist
history that it's become was that it was followed in the ensuing
weeks by the launch of a concrete and militant political
organization, the Gay Liberation Front, into which Robinson and his
Mattachine action group merged. Many of the 37 men and women who
participated in the founding meeting of GLF, and others who later
joined, were youthful veterans of other '60s struggles, and GLF's
radical politics were multi-issue. Within two years, imitators of the
New York GLF had launched some 300 independent Gay Liberation Front
cells across the country. At GLF demonstrations, one frequently heard
the chant "2-4-6-8, Smash the Church, Smash the State!" hence the
title of Avicolli Mecca's collection of articles, largely
first-person reminiscences of the earliest and most radical wave of
gay liberation struggles, the bulk of them specifically written for
As Nick Benton, a founder of the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front and of
its offshoot, the seminal queer newspaper Gay Sunshine, writes, for
him and his fellow GLF activists "gay liberation was part of the
larger struggle of human beings for liberation, in solidarity with
the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, and Third World liberation
struggles." The first editorial of Gay Sunshine proclaimed that gay
liberation would represent "those who understand themselves as
oppressed politically oppressed by an oppressor that not only is
down on homosexuality, but equally down on all things that are not
white, straight, middle class, pro-establishment… It should harken to
a greater cause the cause of human liberation, of which homosexual
liberation is just one aspect and on that level take its stand."
GLF supported the Black Panthers and were rewarded with a
much-publicized "Open Letter to the Revolutionary Brothers and
Sisters" by the Panthers' charismatic theoretician, Huey Newton,
reproduced in this anthology, proclaiming that homosexuals "might be
the most oppressed people in the world," and adding that "we should
be careful about using those terms that might turn our friends off.
The terms 'faggot' and 'punk' should be deleted from our vocabulary,
and especially we should not attach names normally designed for
homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, like Nixon."
Early gay liberation saw itself as a cultural paradigm shift from the
stultifying atmosphere of the Nixon years. As the first editorial in
the New York GLF's newspaper, ComeOut!, proclaimed, "We will not be
gay bourgeoisie, searching for the sterile 'American dream' of the
ivy-covered cottage and the good corporation job, but neither will we
tolerate the exclusion of homosexuals from any area of American life."
The personal testimonies collected for "Smash the Church, Smash the
State!", augmented by manifestos and documents of that early period
and biographical sketches of important movement figures, help
recreate those heady, joyously rambunctious days of "sex, drugs, and
rock 'n roll" as queers, influenced by the hippies, Yippies, and
Zippies, built their own radical wing of the prevailing youth
counterculture, and created their own influential publications like
Boston's Fag Rag, in which a notorious Charlie Shively article
proclaimed "Cocksucking As an Act of Revolution."
There are numerous contributions by women who tired of the male
domination of GLF and founded groups like RadicalLesbians,
RedStockings, and Dyketactics. There are also accounts both of
radical gay liberation's earliest and often campy direct actions and
of the factional fights that eventually destroyed GLF and led to its
replacement by the much larger and single-issue Gay Activists
Alliance, which emerged just six months after Stonewall.
Avicolli Mecca has not abandoned the anarchic radicalism of those
early days. He writes in his introduction, "In many ways, the new
millennium gay movement is the antithesis of the early '70s gay
liberation. It cavorts with politicians who may be good on gay
issues, but not on concerns affecting other disenfranchised
communities. It is in bed with the Democratic Party establishment
that gave carte blanche to George Bush to wage two illegal and
immoral wars in the Middle East. It courts corporate support for its
gala events, even its pride parades, which used to be protest marches
and celebrations of the Stonewall Riots. Now those marches seem more
of a market than a movement."
On this 40th anniversary of Stonewall, that's a critique that
deserves to be heard.
A complete collection of the Gay Liberation Front's newspaper,
ComeOut!, has just been posted on the excellent OutHistory website,
founded by pioneering gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz, at
outhistory.org/wiki/Come_Out%21_Magazine%2C_1969-1972 along with a
collection of the original police reports on the Stonewall riot.
Tommy Avicolli Mecca's web site is at avicollimecca.com/. Doug
Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at
40 Years Later, Still Second-Class Americans
By FRANK RICH
Published: June 27, 2009
LIKE all students caught up in the civil rights and antiwar movements
of the 1960s, I was riveted by the violent confrontations between the
police and protestors in Selma, 1965, and Chicago, 1968. But I never
heard about the several days of riots that rocked Greenwich Village
after the police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in the wee
hours of June 28, 1969 40 years ago today.
Then again, I didn't know a single person, student or teacher, male
or female, in my entire Ivy League university who was openly
identified as gay. And though my friends and I were obsessed with
every iteration of the era's political tumult, we somehow missed the
Stonewall story. Not hard to do, really. The Times which would not
even permit the use of the word gay until 1987 covered the riots in
tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long,
buried successively on pages 33, 22 and 19.
But if we had read them, would we have cared? It was typical of my
generation, like others before and after, that the issue of gay civil
rights wasn't on our radar screen. Not least because gay people,
fearful of harassment, violence and arrest, were often forced into
the shadows. As David Carter writes in his book "Stonewall," at the
end of the 1960s homosexual sex was still illegal in every state but
Illinois. It was a crime punishable by castration in seven states. No
laws federal, state or local protected gay people from being
denied jobs or housing. If a homosexual character appeared in a
movie, his life ended with either murder or suicide.
The younger gay men and scattered women who acted up at the
Stonewall on those early summer nights in 1969 had little in common
with their contemporaries in the front-page political movements of
the time. They often lived on the streets, having been thrown out of
their blue-collar homes by their families before they finished high
school. They migrated to the Village because they'd heard it was one
American neighborhood where it was safe to be who they were.
Stonewall "wasn't a 1960s student riot," wrote one of them, Thomas
Lanigan-Schmidt, in a poignant handwritten flier on display at the
New York Public Library in the exhibition "1969: The Year of Gay
Liberation." They had "no nice dorms for sleeping," "no school
cafeteria for certain food" and "no affluent parents" to send checks.
They had no powerful allies of any kind, no rights, no future. But
they were brave. They risked their necks to prove, as Lanigan-Schmidt
put it, that "the mystery of history" could happen "in the least
likely of places."
After the gay liberation movement was born at Stonewall, this strand
of history advanced haltingly until the 1980s. It took AIDS and the
new wave of gay activism it engendered to fully awaken many,
including me, to the gay people all around them. But that tardy and
still embryonic national awareness did not save the lives of those
whose abridged rights made them even more vulnerable during a rampaging plague.
On Monday, President Obama will commemorate Stonewall with an East
Room reception for gay leaders. Some of the invitees have been
fiercely critical of what they see as his failure, thus far, to
redeem his promise to be a "fierce advocate" for their still
unfulfilled cause. The rancor increased this month, after the
Department of Justice filed a brief defending the Defense of Marriage
Act (DOMA), the most ignominious civil rights betrayal under the last
Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
The Obama White House has said that the Justice Department action was
merely a bureaucratic speed bump on the way to repealing DOMA which
hardly mitigates the brief's denigration of same-sex marriage, now
legal in six states after many hard-fought battles. The White House
has also asserted that its Stonewall ceremony was "long planned"
even though it sure looks like damage control. News of the event
trickled out publicly only last Monday, after dozens of aggrieved,
heavy-hitting gay donors dropped out of a Democratic National
Committee fund-raiser with a top ticket of $30,400.
In conversations with gay activists on both coasts last week, I heard
several theories as to why Obama has seemed alternately clumsy and
foot-dragging in honoring his campaign commitments to dismantle DOMA
and Don't Ask Don't Tell. The most charitable take had it that he was
following a deliberate strategy, given his habit of pursuing his
goals through long-term game plans. After all, he's only five months
into his term and must first juggle two wars, the cratered economy,
health care and Iran. Some speculated that the president is fearful
of crossing preachers, especially black preachers, who are adamantly
opposed to same-sex marriage. Still others said that the president
was tone-deaf on the issue because his inner White House circle lacks
any known gay people.
But the most prevalent theory is that Obama, surrounded by Clinton
White House alumni with painful memories, doesn't want to risk gay
issues upending his presidency, as they did his predecessor's in
1993. After having promised to lift the ban on gays in the military,
Clinton beat a hasty retreat into Don't Ask once Congress and the
Pentagon rebelled. This early pratfall became a lasting symbol of his
chaotic management style and a precursor to another fiasco,
Hillarycare, that Obama is also working hard not to emulate.
But 2009 is not then, and if the current administration really is
worried that it could repeat Clinton's history on Don't Ask, that's
ludicrous. Clinton failed less because of the policy's substance than
his fumbling of the politics. Even in 1992 a majority of the country
(57 percent) supported an end to the military ban on gays. But
Clinton blundered into the issue with no strategy at all and little
or no advance consultation with the Joint Chiefs and Congress. That's
never been Obama's way.
The cultural climate is far different today, besides. Now, roughly 75
percent of Americans support an end to Don't Ask, and gay issues are
no longer a third rail in American politics. Gay civil rights history
is moving faster in the country, including on the once-theoretical
front of same-sex marriage, than it is in Washington. If the country
needs any Defense of Marriage Act at this point, it would be to
defend heterosexual marriage from the right-wing "family values"
trinity of Sanford, Ensign and Vitter.
But full gay citizenship is far from complete. "There's a perception
in Washington that you can throw little bits of partial equality to
gay people and that gay people will be satisfied with that," said
Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for "Milk,"
last year's movie about Harvey Milk, the pioneering gay civil rights
politician of the 1970s. Such "crumbs," Black added, cannot
substitute for "full and equal rights in all matters of civil law in
all 50 states."
As anger at White House missteps boiled over this month, the
president abruptly staged a ceremony to offer some crumbs. The
pretext was the signing of an executive memorandum bestowing benefits
to the domestic partners of federal employees. But some of those
benefits were already in force, and the most important of them all,
health care, was not included because it is forbidden by DOMA.
One gay leader invited to the Oval Office that day was Jennifer
Chrisler of the Family Equality Council, an advocacy organization for
gay families based in Massachusetts. She showed a photo of her
7-year-old twin sons, Tom and Tim, to Obama. The president cooed. "I
told him they're following in Sasha's footsteps, entering the second
grade," she recounted to me last week. "It was a very human exchange
between two parents."
Chrisler seized the moment to appeal to the president on behalf of
her boys. "The worst thing you can experience as parents is to feel
your children are discriminated against," she told him. "Imagine if
you have to explain every day who your parents are and that they're
as real as every family is." Chrisler said that she and her children
"want a president who will make that go away," adding, "I believe in
his heart he wants that to happen, his political mistakes notwithstanding."
No president possesses that magic wand, but Obama's inaction on gay
civil rights is striking. So is his utterly uncharacteristic
inarticulateness. The Justice Department brief defending DOMA has
spoken louder for this president than any of his own words on the
subject. Chrisler noted that he has given major speeches on race, on
abortion and to the Muslim world. "People are waiting for that
passionate speech from him on equal rights," she said, "and the time is now."
Action would be even better. It's a press cliché that "gay
supporters" are disappointed with Obama, but we should all be. Gay
Americans aren't just another political special interest group. They
are Americans who are actively discriminated against by federal laws.
If the president is to properly honor the memory of Stonewall, he
should get up to speed on what happened there 40 years ago, when
courageous kids who had nothing, not even a public acknowledgment of
their existence, stood up to make history happen in the least likely of places.
'The hairpin drop heard around the world'
Civil rights turning point began with routine raid on Mafia-run gay bar
Jun 26, 2009
By: LAURA DOUGLAS-BROWN
The sultry night of June 27, 1969, began routinely enough. Gay men,
"flame queens" and lesbians headed out for a night at the Stonewall
Inn, a popular Mafia-run gay bar on Christopher Street in New York
City's Greenwich Village.
There, they would suffer the indignities of waiting in line to pass
muster with the bouncer and drinking watered-down, illegal alcohol
for a chance to escape for a few hours the more serious indignities
that many faced the rest of the week. Most gay men and lesbians lived
deeply in the closet, and people could be arrested simply for dressing in drag.
The night began routinely for the New York Police Department's First
Division of Public Morals, too. Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, a
military veteran known for his straight-laced demeanor, met with his
officers to go over their planned raid on the Stonewall Inn.
After two undercover female officers cased the club to see who was
serving the illegal liquor, officers would storm in to confiscate the
alcohol, bust up the bar, arrest the staff, and round up a few
"transvestites" while they were at it.
They expected the rest of the Stonewall's patrons to behave as they
typically did at gay bar raids, which were far from uncommon they
would slink off into the New York night, glad not to be arrested or
What happened, instead, is what activist Dick Leitsch quickly dubbed
"the hairpin drop heard around the world," a play on the then-common
slang of "dropping a hairpin" to refer to revealing yourself as gay.
The start of the 'gay revolution'
Forty years later, the rebellion that began that night at the
Stonewall Inn is widely considered the start of the modern gay rights
movement. Gay historian David Carter chronicles why in "Stonewall:
The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution," a meticulously researched
book published in 2004 that uses ten years of extensive interviews
and archival research to construct a comprehensive look at the riots
and their aftermath.
According to Carter, it isn't just what happened over those six
nights in June and July 1969 that makes the Stonewall Riots "the
critical turning point in the movement for the rights of gay men and
lesbians as well as for bisexual and transgender people," and a
worthy milestone in American history as well.
"What is important about the Stonewall Riots is what they led to,"
Carter, a Georgia native, said in an interview last week from his
Greenwich Village home. "In other words, the Stonewall Riots would
not be historically significant if they had not led to the gay
It's not that gay people had never organized before Stonewall. What
was then-known as the "homophile movement" was already underway in a
handful of cities around the country, through chapters of the
Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and largest of all, the
Society for Individual Rights in San Francisco.
Members of these groups, especially the Mattachine Society, had also
already begun holding polite, dignified protests for gay rights
including pickets in Philadelphia and the first-ever gay picket at
the White House, conducted by Mattachine in 1965.
Yet the Stonewall Riots launched not by seasoned activists, but by
a mixture of gay street youth, effeminate gay men, transgender
people, and lesbians marked a sea-change for the nascent efforts
for LGBT rights.
Within days, people began organizing under slogans like "Gay Power"
which forcefully demanded justice and equality. Groups like the Gay
Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance followed, holding
rallies, zaps and marches that drew on the tactics and energy of the
grassroots anti-war, black civil rights and women's liberation movements.
A year later, the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in New York
City sowed the seeds of the Gay Pride parades and rallies that
continue to this day.
"The true legacy of the Stonewall Riots is the ongoing struggle for
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality," Carter concludes at
the end of "Stonewall."
"While this fight is far from over, it is now a worldwide movement
that has won many significant victories, most of them flowing from
those six days in the summer of 1969 when gay people found the
courage to stand up for themselves on the streets of Greenwich Village."
But what really happened at Stonewall, and what caused this police
raid to turn out so differently from so many others?
From hundreds of hours of interviews with Stonewall patrons, those
who joined the riots outside the bar, journalists and even police,
Carter carefully constructs a narrative of what took place that first night.
Inspector Pine says he was told to shut down the Stonewall Inn due to
its Mafia connections not just the illegal, watered down alcohol,
but because the Mafia used the Stonewall Inn to identify gay Wall
Street businessmen who could then be blackmailed in financial crimes.
When the two undercover police women he sent in did not come out of
the Stonewall Inn quickly enough, Pine feared for their safety and
ordered cops to begin the raid.
Initially, all went basically according to plan, Carter recounts in
Police officers began rounding up the club's alcohol, and separated
those inside into groups: staff to be arrested, transgender people to
be arrested for violating laws against wearing opposite-sex clothing,
and other patrons who would be required to go through the humiliating
scare tactic of showing identification before being allowed to leave.
Perhaps angry in part because the Stonewall Inn had already been
raided earlier that week, patrons starting acting out and complaining
more than they usually would for such a raid. And once outside,
instead of disappearing into the night, they gathered in the street,
milling about to see what would happen to those still inside. There,
they were joined by others trying to see what was going on.
As transgender people were led out to paddy wagons, instead of acting
shamed, many camped it up for the onlookers, and the mood of the
crowd grew bolder.
Multiple sources interviewed by Carter credit a transgender woman who
hit a rough cop with her purse and a butch lesbian who fought
valiantly before being subdued by police for igniting the crowd's
simmering frustration into a full-fledged riot.
Soon, coins were being thrown, then bottles, then enough to force the
police to retreat into the Stonewall Inn, barricading themselves away
from the crowd. Someone pried loose a parking meter to use as a
battering ram to try to break down the bar's doors, and others threw
small, hastily made fire bombs into the Stonewall's windows in an
attempt to drive police out.
To Pine's credit, he kept police from opening fire, although he
acknowledged in later interviews that he feared bullets would not
stop the rioters, and his badly outnumbered officers would run out of
ammunition and be killed.
After police reinforcements arrived, the officers left the Stonewall
Inn and cops tried to clear the streets, but the growing crowd
refused to be subdued. Nelly street youth taunted police with a
chants and a Rockettes-style kick line, and the layout of the streets
around the bar gave the advantage to the rioters, who when driven by
police up one street, would circle back down side streets to taunt
them from the other side.
And while Pine had kept his officers from shooting, numerous
witnesses reported police brutality as the riots continued into the
wee hours of June 28. As the protesters teased police, blocked their
cars, threw debris, and other acts of resistance, some officers would
pluck someone from the crowd to rough-up, regardless of whether they
had the actual culprit.
The first night of riots ended, not due to the police, but when the
crowd basically grew tired and went home. But word of the riots
spread quickly through media and word of mouth, and protesters
returned in force on Saturday night, then finally waned down after
four more days.
Myths and misconceptions
For Carter, there are many, interrelated reasons for why the
Stonewall riots broke out that night, and why they resonated beyond
any other gay protest before.
"The way the story is usually told is that police raided a bar and
people decided to fight back and they won, and if you look at it like
that, it seems inexplicable," Carter told Southern Voice.
"People ask, why was that one different? Why that night?" he said.
"There are interlacing reasons that are very complex. Unless you know
all of that, it just seems like it came out of nowhere."
In the conclusion to "Stonewall," Carter cites many reasons why the
Stonewall Riots were different, ranging from geography to meteorology.
Among them: The raid occurred during prime partying hours on Friday
night, meaning the club would be packed and streets would be full.
The Stonewall Inn was New York's largest gay club and was located in
a huge "gay ghetto," so people quickly learned about what was happening.
Quick access to pay telephones and transportation made it easy for
people to spread word of the protest and for more people to get
there, and a large open space in front of the club gave them a place
to congregate. Oppressive heat and the fact that the bar had already
been raided once that week added to the crowd's frustration.
The Stonewall Inn was popular with many facets of New York's LGBT
residents, meaning everyone felt harassed. But the Stonewall's
special popularity with what Carter describes as "the most marginal
members of the gay community" gay homeless youth created a group
of people whose "anger, age and alienation" made them "ideal
candidates to fight in a riot."
The unusual layout of the streets around the Stonewall Inn helped the
protesters, making it almost impossible for police to clear the
protest. The fact that the riot occurred in New York City also gave
it access to media coverage it likely would not have received in
other cities, letting people outside Greenwich Village and
eventually around the country find out what happened.
But one commonly cited factor had nothing to do with the Stonewall
Riots, Carter said.
The idea that gay men were motivated to fight back in part because of
grief at the recent death of Judy Garland, whose funeral was held the
day of the riots, is just part of the myth that has grown up around
the historic event, he said.
As evidence, Carter notes that no accounts from gay people written in
1969 list Garland's death as a cause. Only one contemporaneous
account cites Garland as a reason for Stonewall, and it was a
sarcastic proposal from a straight writer who wanted "to ridicule gay
people and the riots."
Instead, writers in 1969 who were familiar with gay culture were more
likely to contrast Garland's death with the riots, rather than
consider her death as the cause. Judy Garland fans were viewed as
symbolic of the "Old Homosexual," contrasted with the open, more
forceful "New Homosexual" who emerged with the riots.
Finally, Carter notes, Garland's music was not the kind played in the
Stonewall Inn and not what the street youths who were the "main
fighters" in the riots liked, "their music being rock, soul or both."
Understanding what really happened at Stonewall is crucial to the
fight for LGBT rights today, he said.
"If we are going to survive and thrive as a community, we need some
cultural referents," he said. "How can you be a people if you don't
have some communal history? This is a narrative that is an essential
part of our community."