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Stonewall and the gay rights revolution

We take a look back at the Stonewall riots and what they meant for the LGBT+ community.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. This monumental event is well remembered, with several books, a number of films, radio documentaries, and more dedicated to its historical importance.

But, even though we commemorate it each year during Pride Month, with gay pride marches throughout June serving as a direct call-back to the event, I’ve found that many Gen Zers have never actually learned about Stonewall. Considering that a defining tenant of our generation is to uplift the LGBT+ members of our community, it’s important to remember the ancestors who fought for their right to not only speak out but come out back when oppression was rife.

So, buckle in people, this is a history lesson.


Some context

The perception that queer people ‘had it hard’ before Stonewall is often accompanied by the belief that the further one goes back in time, the worse the oppression was. If it was bad in the 1960s, imagine the 20s, or the 1600s! But historians have shown that this is far from the case. Whilst the prevalence of sodomy laws during colonial times is often thought to have been aimed at gay people, in fact more often charges were filed against those who had sex with animals or forced themselves on women.

It’s widely reported that a thriving gay community existed in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, with gay visibility in plays, films, and subculture in general being common. It even had a name (albeit politically incorrect by today’s standards): ‘the pansy craze’. However, a backlash against queer people began during the depression era that worsened in the wake of WWII. After so much social turmoil there was a call for a return to ‘traditional’ values in the US. The hysteria aimed at gay people was fed by the Cold War in the 50s, with the fear of communist infiltration engendering a corresponding desire for American men to be ‘tougher’ in defence of western values.

Sex offender laws were revised in the 40s and 50s to stiffen penalties against homosexuals and to allow their involuntary commitment to mental asylums. Once these laws were institutionalised, it became common to subject gay communities to ‘cures’ and ‘conversion’ operations including chemical and electric shock treatments, castration, and lobotomy.

In sum, it really sucked to be a member of the LGBT+ community in the mid-20th century. This was a reality for most of the West; however, it was particularly prevalent in the US where Stonewall occurred.


Build up to the Riots

In the NYC of the 60s it was generally illegal for known homosexuals to congregate in large groups, dance with members of the same sex, or dress in clothing that didn’t match their assigned gender. These activities were driven underground into bars and nightclubs.

Greenwich village became known as a hotspot for Mafia owned bars that permitted ‘gay activity’ purely based on its profitability. Whilst police raids on such institutions were common, these crime families were often tipped off regarding upcoming raids by corrupt officers and kept relations sweet by paying off the police heftily. Knowing that these gay bars would be lucrative for them, the NYPD unofficially allowed the practice of crime funded LGBT+ establishments to continue.

Stonewall, operated by the Genovese crime family, was one of the largest of these venues. It existed in corrupt symbiosis with the NYPD for many years until the latter caught wind that the bar owners were blackmailing prominent figures who frequented the bar, extending their profits. In one of the pettiest moves in history, officers decided to shut the bar down after seeing none of the bribe profits being directed toward them. This is where things get interesting.


The Riots

At around 1:30am on June 28th, 1969, police raided the Stonewall bar. The mafia hadn’t been tipped off about the raid, which turned out to be a particularly venomous one. Standard procedure for a raid was to order patrons to line up and present ID, however this time officers were allegedly rough in their handling of partygoers and touched female clients inappropriately.

Despite numerous first-person accounts, it’s hard to find a specific catalyst for what happened next. Tension had been building so long in the community that a tipping point had clearly been reached, even if it wasn’t detectable to the police. The law had condemned LGBT+ people as criminals, medicine had declared them insane, and the church had branded them sinners. The constant assault on lesbians and gay men during the 50s and 60s meant that it was impossible to imagine a positive gay identity, let along a gay culture. The kicker? Any and all attempts at combatting this oppression by members of the community had only succeeded in relegating them further into the shadows.

On June 28th, something snapped. People in the line-up refused to produce identification. Transvestites refused to take off their female clothing. The police began shepherding partygoers outside and making public arrests. Instead of disbanding, however, the patrons milled about outside, amassing even more onlookers.

Attendee Michael Fader explains ‘it wasn’t anything tangible anybody said… it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place… It was like the last straw.’

According to onlookers, the crowd turned violent. The news that the police were there to collect bribe money spread through the throng, and they began throwing coins at the police cars. They grabbed bricks from a nearby construction site and commenced trashing the Stonewall itself. Garbage cans, garbage, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows. Witnesses attest that ‘flame queens’, hustlers, and gay ‘street kids’—the most outcast people in the gay community—were responsible for the first volley of projectiles, as well as the uprooting of a parking meter used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn.

When the situation escalated, police called in the Tactical Patrol Force (essentially the riot squad), however the LGBT+ mob had grown to overwhelming proportions. Bob Kohler, who was walking his dog on the night of Stonewall, recalled ‘the cops were humiliated. They never, ever happened. They were angrier that I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted… but the fairies were not supposed to riot…’


Aftermath

There had been significant LGBT+ protests in the US before, and these had their own importance. But Stonewall was of a different order for four reasons: it was the only sustained uprising; it was the only one that involved thousands of people; it was the only one that got much media coverage; and it was unique in engendering a new kind of militant organisation (first the Gay Liberation Front and later the Gay Activists Alliance) as well as a new political ideology.

Previously, gay protests and lobbying had conformed to a heteronormative framework. Significant ‘homophile’ groups pre-Stonewall, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, deliberately kept the word ‘gay’ from their names.

They protested peacefully outside parliament and court houses in suits and ties, attempting inclusion through appearing as inoffensive as possible. Stonewall proved that it was possible for gays to protest through the rebellious act of embracing themselves. During the riots transvestite protesters faced down police lines with go-go dancing formations, yelled showtunes as they threw bricks at their oppressors, and essentially weaponised their queer identities.

Within six months of the Stonewall riots, activists started a citywide newspaper called Gay. Two other newspapers were initiated within a six-week period: Come Out! and Gay Power; the readership of these three periodicals quickly climbed to between 20,000 and 25,000.

Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with an assembly on Christopher Street; with simultaneous Gay Pride marches in Los Angeles and Chicago. These were the first Gay Pride marches in U.S. history. The next year, Gay Pride marches took place in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm. The march in New York covered 51 blocks, from Christopher Street to Central Park.

These commemoration events soon took on international appeal as Stonewall’s legacy was cemented. Each June more and more queer people would take to the streets to remember the first time the LGBT+ community fought back against the identity of meekness that had been assigned to them.


How we remember it today

The sum total of the changes brought about by the Stonewall Riots transformed the small homophile movement into a mass movement. In David Carter’s book about the riots, Stonewall : the riots that sparked the gay revolution, Frank Kameny, an activist in Washington, D.C states that, ‘By the time of Stonewall, we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there were at least 1,500. Two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was 2,500.’

To understand why Stonewall had such an astounding impact, you must consider the bystander effect. Immanuel Kant famously wrote of the French Revolution that ‘The occurrence in question does not involve any of those momentous deeds … We are here concerned only with the attitude of the onlookers as it reveals itself in public while the drama of great political changes is taking place.’

In other words, the fall of the Bastille and the French Revolution had the impact they did because of their effect, not on those who participated in these events, but instead on those who witnessed them. It was the same with Stonewall: the event derived its power from the emotional shock it created in those who heard about it.

Members of the LGBT+ community, particularly trans people, still face staggering rates of discrimination, depression, and suicide. A trans person of colour is nine times more likely to end their life than a heterosexual cisgender member of society.

Each pride month it’s important to look back at where we’ve come from, but also look forward to what there is still to accomplish. It’s vital that we remember how effective communal action against oppression and discrimination can be. Stonewall reminds us that tectonic shifts are possible in public discourse, if we’re willing to fight for it. And, mostly importantly, it reminds us that a few brave acts can inspire tolerance throughout the world.

 

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