It was a just another hot city night in late June. The streets of Greenwich Village were filled with cruising queens, displaced street youth, drug dealers, and musicians trying to gather a small audience and make a few bucks. Police raids on the city’s gay bars were an almost every-evening occurrence. But when New York’s "finest" raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, something extraordinary happened—people fought back. For the next two evenings, Christopher Street was filled with queers, as well as the motley denizens of Village street life, heckling, taunting, and at times engaging in physical interchanges with the police. It was the birth of a new era of queer life. But exactly what that new era was is up for debate.
Stonewall, rather the myth of Stonewall, looms so large in contemporary gay imagination that it has become, like pink triangles, a global symbol of same-sex community.
So where was I on the evening of June 28? I was 20 and a college student in Newark, New Jersey. On that fateful evening I was probably somewhere in New York seeing a double feature of art films at either the Elgin or the Thalia. I heard about the first riot the next day, but figured it was a one-shot deal and never thought the energy would be sustained. Even then the event seemed like small news and nobody ever called it a riot. It was slightly more than a minor skirmish with the police, the sort of thing that had been happening all the time on hot city streets.
At Dartmouth College where I teach queer courses, I found myself spending an entire class trying to get students to attach less importance to the Stonewall riots and to see them in perspective. Some students thought that Stonewall was the first gay pride parade with floats and a disco party. Others imagined full-scale street fighting. One student asked how many people died. The more informed understood the relatively small scale of the event, but presumed that its reverberations were heard around the world.
In trying to get a real understanding of Stonewall, we need to place those valiant acts of street power into a larger historical perspective. The first thing I impress upon my students is that for nearly 20 years prior to Stonewall, the U.S. had seen the growth of a vibrant homophile movement in many cities. Mattachine, which was founded by Harry Hay in 1950, was the first gay rights group in the U.S., followed five years later by the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Society of Individual Rights (SIR) was founded in 1964 and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO) in 1966. Without these homophile groups nothing that happened in 1969 and later would have been possible. Stonewall was a continuation of this work as well as a radical break from it as it brought the very idea of homosexuality to a wider public.
Another point is that without the prevalence of the Vietnam War protests, without women’s liberation, without the example of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the counterculture’s mantra of "drugs, sex, and rock and roll" there would have been no Stonewall riots or Gay Liberation. Queens—aided by the street people in the Village—rioted because everybody was rioting. They protested because everyone was protesting.
The Gay Liberation Movement was not comprised of non-profit groups that did fundraising and lobbying to change laws. It was a grassroots groundswell of women and men who had had enough. The first gay activist group after Stonewall was called the Gay Liberation Front—a name borrowed from the Woman’s Liberation Front, who had earlier borrowed it from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) who had claimed the spirit of the Algerian National Liberation Front that fought French domination in Northern Africa. The phrase "Gay is Good" was derived from "Black is Beautiful." Gay Power emerged from Black Power. It wasn’t that we were copying other movements, but that we saw ourselves as part of a broader struggle. Gay Liberation was possible because the whole society and culture was being transformed.
In July 1964, in response to an increasingly militant civil rights movement, Congress passed an omnibus Civil Rights Bill. In the fall, students demanding the right to speak out on political issues such as civil rights and the war in Vietnam, started the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley which led to massive sit-ins that paralyzed the university. In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, granted married couples right to birth control. Though Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which guaranteed Federal protection for voter registration, the beginning of August saw racial riots in Watts, Los Angeles in which almost 1,000 buildings were looted, burned, or destroyed. In September 1965, Filipino American farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike, which led to calls by Caesar Chavez and the farmworkers union for the first nationwide boycott of California grapes.
In 1966 racial riots in Chicago destroyed large sections of the city and three African American teenagers were killed by the National Guard. As the U.S. conducted massive bombing raids on Hanoi in June, antiwar protests escalated. By the end of the year, the U.S. had 385,000 troops in Vietnam, many of them African Americans from the inner cities. In 1967 race-based riots flared in eight U.S. cities with full-scale riots in Detroit and Newark as well as 33 "serious" incidents in smaller cities.
In 1968 the My Lai massacre of hundreds of women and children by U.S. troops in Vietnam caused more people to question our political leadership. In April the assassination of Martin Luther King led to riots across the country leaving 39 people killed and thousands hurt. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June.
Meanwhile, homosexuals became more visible. In 1967, "CBS Reports" ran a groundbreaking news show, "The Homosexuals," which was the first time self-identified homosexuals appeared on television, and Craig Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Bookshop on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village. In April 1968, Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened in New York. Women’s Liberation also became increasingly visible when feminists staged a mass demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in September and a frightened America elected Richard Nixon that November.
Two months after the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, the Weather Underground, a breakaway group from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), staged their "Days of Rage." On November 15 an unprecedented 250,000 protesters marched on Washington. Is it any surprise that by the middle of 1970 there were over 300 independent chapters of Gay Liberation Front across the country? In this context of multiple fights for social change it was inevitable.
What was incredible about the Gay Liberation Front—and what is sorely missing from our gay rights movements now—is that it saw itself as a multi-issue radical movement. It was as concerned with ending the war in Vietnam, fighting racism, and securing reproductive freedom for women as it was in fighting homophobia. The Gay Liberation Front understood that it needed to work in coalition with other movements as its vision linked freedom for queers to the freedom of all other oppressed groups.
All of which is to say that the importance of Stonewall resides not in a sentimental vision of a community coming out story, but in its unique place in the panoply of movements, events, riots, demonstrations, political actions, social revolts, bad behaviors, and bursts of anger that defined the second half of the 1960s.
By all means, let’s celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall this June, but let us also remember that it is not just about queer freedom, but about the broadest vision of social change and social justice this country has experienced in our lifetimes.