The Stonewall Rebellion marked the beginning of the modern LGBTQ movement. Keegan O’Brien—a gay socialist activist in Brooklyn, New York—takes a look back at this extraordinary event, and the political lessons for the movement today.
Fifty years ago this June, in the summer of 1969, patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City, fought back against abusive police, and in doing so launched the modern, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer movement.
With the US Supreme Court’s historic legalisation of same sex marriage in 2015 and increased acceptance and representation of LGBTQ people in popular culture, it’s undeniable that we have come a long way from a time when cops routinely raided gay bars, and being outed guaranteed a person would be labelled a sexual psychopath, black listed, ostracised by friends and family, and legally barred from employment in most occupations. It’s no exaggeration to say that many of the freedoms experienced by LGBTQ people today would have been inconceivable just a couple generations ago.
But with Trump’s election in 2016, all of that has come under threat. From the Administration’s attacks against trans people to support for so-called ‘Religious Liberties’ and ‘Bathroom Bill’ legislation, many of the gains won in previous years have come under attack from a well-organised, highly funded right-wing assault. The outcome has been disastrous, especially for the most vulnerable sections of the LGBTQ community—people of colour, trans people and queer youth.
In this context studying the Stonewall Rebellion and the gay liberation movement is more than just an interesting history lesson—it provides activists and radicals with lessons for confronting the political challenges we face today and rebuilding a movement that can win sexual liberation for everyone.
The Stonewall Rebellion
The Stonewall Inn was one of New York City’s most popular gay bars in the 1960s. Sitting at the crossroads of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village—a neighbourhood known for its bohemian lifestyle—and just steps away from the Village Voice office, the Stonewall was dark and had two bars, a jukebox and the only floor for dancing in the whole city. The Stonewall became an epicentre for the gay world of New York, especially its most marginal members, and regularly drew an electric crowd of cruising gay men, drag queens, street kids and some lesbians.
Due to the illegality of running a gay establishment, gay bars in New York, including the Stonewall, were owned by the mafia. The mob was certainly no friend to the community—who they viewed with contempt and disgust—but they paid off the police at the local Sixth Precinct to stave off raids on the Stonewall. When the police did go after the bar, they did it early in the night to cause minimal disruption.
For gay people in the 1960s, the contradiction was that at the same time freedom, openness and a demand for change were increasing throughout society, New York was simultaneously increasing its enforcement of anti-homosexual laws to such an extent that it was a near police state for gays and lesbians.
At the beginning of the decade, laws across the US were more repressive against homosexuals than any of the Soviet regimes the US criticised. A consenting adult who was caught having sex with another person of the same sex could face decades or even life in prison, or could be confined to an insane asylum and given electroshock therapy, castrated, or lobotomised. Adults who were charged with a sex offense could lose their professional license and were often terminated from their jobs and barred from future employment.
While bars provided a place for gay people to meet one another and socialise in a repressive society, it also made them a target for police. Late on a Friday night in June 1969, police busted into the Stonewall, demanding that all patrons line up and show their IDs and planning to arrest bar employees, cross-dressers and those without proper identification.
That night the police were more aggressive than normal. They tore apart the bar, smashed the furniture and were physically aggressive with patrons who talked back and mouthed off. Unlike previous raids that came early in the night, police shut the Stonewall during peak hours. Whereas normally patrons would disperse after being kicked out, knowing they could return later, this time they began to gather outside the bar. The crowd of a few dozen eventually swelled to hundreds. Thousands of gay residents poured into the streets.
The uprising was multiracial, diverse and reflected a broad spectrum of the LGBTQ community. Many eyewitnesses commented specifically on the important role played that night by the most marginalised sections of the community—street kids, trans women and queer youth of color.
As the patrons trapped inside were released one by one, a crowd started to gather on the street . . . initially a festive gathering, composed mostly of Stonewall boys who were waiting around for friends still inside or to see what was going to happen . . . Cheers would go up as favorites would emerge from the door, strike a pose, and swish by the detective with a “Hello there, fella.”
But when police vehicles arrived, the mood changed. Angry onlookers began throwing coins at police and then moved on to bottles, cobblestones and trash cans. A full-fledged riot soon broke out.
Later that night the riot squad arrived and a night-long chase between gay protesters and police ensued. Expecting to easily disperse the crowd of people society had labelled ‘sissies’ and ‘faggots’ and stereotypically viewed as weak, the police were completely caught off guard when the protesters fought back. Pioneering transgender activist Sylvia Rivera was part of Friday night’s uprising, which she would later describe as a turning point in her life. When a friend tried to convince her to leave, she said, “Are you nuts?! I’m not missing a minute of this—it’s the revolution!”
Fighting For Liberation
Stonewall marked a sharp break from the past and a qualitative turning point in the gay movement—not only because of the continuous rioting in the streets against police, but because activists were able to seize the moment and give an organised expression to the spontaneous uprising that encapsulated the militancy of the era. While the movement made steady, if limited, progress throughout the 1950s and ’60s and laid the basis for the gay liberation movement, Stonewall broke the dam of political and social isolation and catapulted the gay movement out from the margins and into the open.
Activists didn’t waste a minute. Before the riots even finished, gay militants Charles Pitts and Bill Katzenberg created a flyer and distributed it to thousands of Village residents. It read, “Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!” and described the Stonewall Rebellion as the “The hairpin drop heard around the world.”
Michael Brown, a gay socialist involved in the New Left who was at Stonewall and helped Pitts and Katzenberg pass out their flyers, reached out to the Mattachine Society—the first gay political organisation in the United States, formed in 1951—after the first night of rioting in the hopes of calling for an organising meeting to tap into the new momentum.
Brown’s proposal wasn’t viewed warmly by everyone in Mattachine. Older activists like Dick Leitsch were critical of the riots and didn’t want to disrupt the group’s relationship with the political establishment. After talking with the mayor’s office, some members of Mattachine went so far as to put up a sign at Stonewall that read:
WE HOMOSEXUALS PLEAD WITH
OUR PEOPLE TO PLEASE HELP
MAINTAIN PEACEFUL AND QUIET
CONDUCT ON THE STREETS OF
THE VILLAGE — MATTACHINE.”
But younger militants like Jack O’Brien, an antiwar activist and former Socialist Workers Party member, were ecstatic. After some debate Mattachine finally agreed to form an Action Committee and called for an open organising meeting.
Brown put together a flyer with the heading ‘GAY POWER’ that called for a ‘Homosexual Liberation Meeting’ and concluded by saying ‘No one is free until everyone is free!’ The first meeting was held two weeks after the riots and drew forty people. It was here that activists first chose the name the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), modeled on Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, the guerrilla communist movement fighting against the United States.
The GLF, however, was still a committee under the thumb of Mattachine. After a couple of organising meetings, a one-month commemoration march (the city’s first gay rights protest), and a lot of sharp political debate, the differences between gay militants and the old guard finally came to a head. The group split and militants established the GLF as an independent organisation.
Looking back years later, one prominent militant, Jim Fourrat, summarised the tensions this way:
We wanted them to join us in making the gay revolution. We were a nightmare to them. They were committed to being nice, acceptable status quo Americans, and we were not: we had no interest at all in being acceptable.”
In a statement for a radical newspaper called The Rat, GLF defined their mission this way:
We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realisation that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature . . . Babylon has forced us to commit ourselves to one thing . . . revolution.”
When asked what made them revolutionaries, they replied:
We identify ourselves with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers . . . all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked up capitalist conspiracy.”
The GLF got to work. One of the first protests the GLF organised was at the offices of the Village Voice, demanding that the paper stop using the terms ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’ and start referring to homosexuals as ‘gays’ and ‘lesbians.’ They won.
GLF chapters quickly spread across the country, organising dances to raise money and create spaces for gay people to meet one another outside of mafia-controlled bars. In the fall of 1969, the GLF created its own newspaper, Come Out!, which became a key way to disseminate ideas and movement information. Gay Power and Gay also premiered that year and each sold over 25,000 copies per issue.
The GLF also organised protests and direct actions to pressure politicians to support gay rights and established community service programmes to provide food and social services to LGBTQ street youth. GLF members took their political education seriously and sought to develop a Marxist analysis of gay oppression. Arthur Evens, a student activist who threw himself into the gay liberation movement, formed the Radical Study Group within GLF. The first book they studied and discussed was Frederick Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
From the beginning, GLF members debated whether the group should focus exclusively on gay issues or connect itself with other struggles on the Left. This led to a split, with some activists leaving to establish a single-issue organisation called the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which defined itself as a group ‘exclusively devoted to the liberation of homosexuals and avoids involvement in any program of action not obviously relevant to homosexuals.’
The GLF and GAA collaborated on many projects, including the first annual march commemorating the Stonewall Rebellion, which took place in New York City and drew ten thousand people. The march quickly expanded to dozens of cities across the country and involved over five hundred thousand people.
This passage from Martin Duberman’s classic Stonewall conveys the elation organisers felt after their historic accomplishment:
It took only a little more than an hour to reach Central Park. Foster, forty-five years old and overweight, staggered in, huffing and puffing, but elated. Craig was so excited he could hardly stop smiling—at the size of the crowd, the good feeling and courage everywhere manifest. Karla, in LA, let out a whoop when she crossed the finish line, her back killing her, her spirit soaring. Sylvia arrived yelling, Yvonne in exhausted tears. Jim, too, had tears pouring down his face as he stood on a rise in the ground and looked back at the line of people stretching some fifteen blocks into the distance, “I saw what we had done. It was remarkable. There we were in all of our diversity.”
Another significant accomplishment of the gay liberation movement was the protest organized by the GLF and GAA against the American Psychiatric Association’s designation of homosexuality as a mental illness. Gay militants disrupted an annual convention of the association and forced themselves onto a panel, where they discussed the damage psychiatric therapies were doing to the lives of gays and lesbians. One gay therapist even made a plea for an alteration to the body’s policy, but had to hide behind a mask and disguise his voice.
By 1973 the group’s board of trustees gave in to pressure and removed homosexuality from its list of mental illness, and five years later a caucus of gay psychiatrists was formed. As Sherry Wolf puts it, “never again would a gay psychiatrist have to hide from his colleagues behind a grotesque mask.”
However, like all movements, gay liberation contained political contradictions and internal problems. Even though transgender people played an important role in the riots and the movement that proceeded it, their treatment in the movement was mixed, ranging from supportive to hostile.
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, active in both the GAA and GLF, became the movement’s most prominent trans activists. They formed a short-lived organisation dedicated specifically to providing services to trans people and street youth—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Although often rejected and only occasionally welcomed, they stuck it out and refused to leave.
As Rivera described it, she was never going to let anyone prevent her from fighting for her own cause. Even in the face of jeers and insults, she worked to convince her gay comrades of their shared interests with trans people and street youth who were brutalized by the same police and rejected by the same society as gays and lesbians. Although trans people found support from a significant number of activists in the gay movement, it would take another twenty years before gay organisations officially took on the transgender cause.
The GLF attracted many radicals from far-left socialist organisations, who were deeply supportive of the movement, with the civil libertarian approach to questions of sexuality taken by Trotskyists and democratic socialists leading them to stand in solidarity with the movement or to politically evolve in a positive direction.
But there were also those who brought with them a legacy of Stalinist homophobia. A dominant leftist influence in the GLF—as with much of the far left during this period—was Maoism, a current with many organisations that formally barred gay people from membership at the time.
Further complicating this dynamic was the fact that the Stalinist countries some socialists uncritically defended and looked to—China, Cuba and the Soviet Union—opposed homosexuality and criminalised LGBTQ people.
This led to many challenging debates, such as whether the GLF should provide the Black Panthers with bail funds even though some of their most prominent members held anti-gay positions. It was a major step forward, then, when Huey P. Newton came out in support of gay rights and called for solidarity between black and gay liberation movements—the first prominent New Left figure to do so.
The GLF also lacked any formal structure or elected leadership and operated using a consensus decision-making process. This led to long meetings in which moralism and character assassinations often took the place of real political discussions and debates. Decisions that had been voted on one week could be reopened the following meeting, limiting the group’s ability to move forward. Many good activists left in frustration.
Despite these limitations, in the context of political, social and economic upheaval of the sixties and seventies, large numbers of LGBTQ people were drawing radical conclusions about society and being drawn to liberatory politics and struggle. But as the social movements of the period began to wane, so did gay liberation. As Sherry Wolff explains in Sexuality and Socialism:
Many groups did not last long in the absence of ongoing mass struggle, a unifying goal, and the political maturity to sort out disagreements in tactics from disagreements in principle. A fractured far left . . . and revolutionary groups that often defended homophobic, pseudo-socialist states abroad could not win leadership. Some gays and lesbians went in different directions—toward separatism, toward rejection of revolution, or toward the pull of bourgeois party politics.”
Politics and Organisation
So what should activists make of this history?
The first point is simple, but the most important: every inch of progress LGBTQ people have been able to make has been through struggle. Politicians have never been the motor force of social change—it has always been collective struggle by ordinary people from below that has taken history forward.
Secondly, when people get organised and fight for what they actually want, not what the political establishment tells them is realistic, they can win. Thirdly, our power is in our numbers. What distinguished gay liberation from the homophile movement, and what allowed it to win significant reforms that had been unimaginable just a decade before, was its mass character.
Fourthly, struggle is contagious. Stonewall was a direct result of the radicalisation and militancy of the 1960s. As one segment of society began to break free from its chains and challenge the status quo, others became inspired and started to move. Sixties radicals never viewed this as an act of ‘appropriation,’ but as central to how people rejected ruling-class ideas and became politically engaged.
Fifth, solidarity is key. What made the Stonewall Rebellion powerful was the fact that it brought together mostly working-class and poor queers across racial, gender and sexual lines. While there were obviously differences between LGBTQ people, what gave them a basis to unite and struggle together was a shared experience of oppression at the hands of a common enemy.
Finally, spontaneity and organisation aren’t mutually exclusive—they are two aspects of the same process, existing in a dialectical relationship. Spontaneous uprisings like the Stonewall Rebellion are inevitable under a system where people are beaten down and oppressed. However, the trajectory of these struggles is not linear. Nothing in history is automatic. Movements face political questions about how to move forward, there are debates over ideas, and organised political forces play a critical role in determining what direction they will go in.
Some of these organisations and fighters will rise to the occasion, seize the moment, and play important roles in channeling spontaneous upheavals into organised channels that can take the struggle forward.
Stonewall and the gay liberation movement weren’t able to win a world free from sexual oppression and social constraints. But activists did change the course of history, transform social conditions for LGBTQ people and gave birth to the modern queer movement. In doing so, they’ve provided future generations of radicals and revolutionaries with critical lessons for the challenges we face today.
Uncovering this history reveals that we stand on the shoulders of countless giants, many whose names we’ll never know. Pride was a riot and it’s time that we continue that resistance, by fighting for it ourselves and demanding the full equality, justice and ultimately, liberation, that we deserve.
This piece is an adapted version of an article that originally appeared in the Rainbow Times.