Sunday will mark the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City that are widely considered to be the catalyst of the modern American gay rights movement. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided the popular Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village — a regular occurrence, as gay bars were an easy target for police shakedowns. Many patrons of these bars were anxious to keep their sexuality secret and would risk arrest on indecency charges if they were present during a raid, hence ensuring regular payoffs for corrupt police officers. The Stonewall raid began like any other, and this time the official reason for the police action was the illegal sale of alcohol. (One of many smokescreens employed to facilitate the raids.) The ubiquity of these kinds of police actions were marvelously demonstrated in the opening montage of the film Milk, where news clips and newspaper articles detailing arrests for “deviant” behavior show just how real the threat was of being subjected to criminal punishment simply for being gay, even in that reputedly most liberal of cities, New York. But this time, the raid did not go as scheduled. This time, the LGBT community fought back.
The gay rights movement in America before the riots was very low-key. The only association with any kind of influence was the Mattachine Society formed in 1950; they staged a “sip-in” at New York City bars to protest refusal of service to homosexual patrons. However, Mattachine was dedicated almost exclusively to the rights of white, upper-middle class gay men, and, in contrast to later out-and-proud organizations, its members frequently conducted business under aliases. The San Francisco-based Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955, was the most organized group that worked on behalf of lesbians; DOB was founded by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin (Martin died last year, soon after marrying Lyon after decades spent together and before the passage of Proposition 8). Both Mattachine and DOB used conservative tactics and eschewed the more radical elements of the LGBT community that came to prominence following Stonewall.
The activist landscape changed irrevocably in 1969, when the Stonewall raid devolved into a riot. While patrons of the Stonewall Inn were being hauled out for arrest, ripples of resistance started to spread. The patrons targeted for arrest were frequently “butch” lesbians and drag queens, while the more “respectable” looking individuals were often left alone. None of this was new, but this raid was the final straw. There have been attempts of varying plausibility to explain why this one event tipped the balance, with one theory being that it was due to the fact Judy Garland died earlier that week. Seriously. Because apparently all queens go crazy when an icon dies. As Bob Kohler explains, “When people talk about Judy Garland’s death having anything much to do with the riot, that makes me crazy. The street kids faced death every day. They had nothing to lose. And they couldn’t have cared less about Judy. We’re talking about kids who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Judy Garland was the middle-aged darling of the middle-class gays. I get upset about this because it trivializes the whole thing.” Really, is it so difficult to find an explanation here? People being systematically persecuted don’t really enjoy it. The dam finally burst, and it was bound to happen sooner or later, especially given the other civil rights movements and general unrest that permeated late 1960s America.
Instead of going quietly during the Stonewall raid, women and men started yelling throwing objects at the officers. The police were entirely caught off guard by this, as was New York at large. The gay community was not “supposed to” fight back. The riot, while not extremely violent, still lasted for hours and forced officers to take refuge inside the very bar they raided. After a while, and with the assistance of reinforcements, the crowd was scattered. But the unrest did not end there. The night of June 28, less than 24 hours later, a larger crowd gathered and protested again. Riots and protests of varying intensity continued through the first week of July. It seemed unbelievable to the rest of the city and country, as it was an accepted matter of course for so many non-LGBT individuals that gays and lesbians would just accept the discrimination handed out to them. The newspaper coverage of the event is filled with headlines such as “Homo Nest Raided! Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad!” (courtesy of the Daily News) or “Police Again Rout ‘Village’ Youths” (courtesy of The New York Times with ‘Village’ a synonym for ‘homosexual’).
In the wake of Stonewall, the entire tenor of the gay rights movement changed. Places such as Greenwich Village, and the Castro district in San Francisco, became havens for open, out-and-proud activism on a scale that had been unimaginable just a few years earlier. The first ever gay pride parade was held on the one-year anniversary of the riots, and four decades later the exact date or the month of June is still used for the pride parades for New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and many more. The name “Stonewall” is a kind of shorthand for gay rights (and can be twisted, such as by an organization called Stonewall Revisited that urges gays and lesbians to choose Christianity over homosexuality). June was officially dubbed LGBT Pride Month by President Obama, following the earlier proclamation of it as Gay Pride Month by President Clinton.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much progress has been made in the past forty years. There have been innumerable setbacks and innumerable strides forward. For every Proposition 8 that breaks hearts, there are the actions of states such as Iowa and Massachusetts that do the right thing. Referenda in states such as Arkansas have banned gay couples from adopting. Gays are banned from serving openly in the military. Homosexuality is still a punch-line in mainstream entertainment. People can point to the fact that more public figures are “out” than could ever be imagined forty years ago (Ian McKellen, Rachel Maddow, Ellen DeGeneres, etc.), but a better barometer in my mind is the fact that there are still millions of people who think LGBT relationships, to say nothing of gay marriage, is immoral. There is still endless work to be done. Forty years out from Stonewall, there has been progress and there have been setbacks. Here’s hoping that when we reach the fifty-year mark in 2019, there will be even more progress to celebrate.
These are some of the best books I’ve read on American/NYC LGBT life, both pre, and post, and during the Stonewall era.
Stonewall by Martin Bauml Duberman
The Columbia Reader on Lesbians & Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics
The Gay Metropolis by Charles Kaiser
Homophobia by Byrne Fone