The Real Roots of Stonewall and the Gay Liberation Movement

Throughout the 1960s and until peace was declared in 1975, the Vietnam War was the backdrop that defined everything that was happening in the United States. The Eisenhower administration had sent close to 900 advisors to South Vietnam to prevent what the U.S. saw as a potential communist takeover by the North Vietnamese. By 1963, President Kennedy had dispatched 16,000 American military personnel. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, notes: “From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country—and failed…. In the course of the war, there developed in the United States the greatest anti-war movement the nation had ever experienced.”


By the end of the war, the losses on all sides were tremendous. The United States suffered the least with 58,159 men dead, 303,635 wounded, and 1,719 reported missing. The South Vietnamese government reported 220,357 dead and 1,170,000 wounded. The National Liberation Front in North Vietnam reported 1,176,000 dead or missing and a minimum of 600,000 wounded. The civilian casualties were staggering: two million in North Vietnam and over a million and a half in South Vietnam.


The popular movement against the war started in the early 1960s with national faith-based peace groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, American Friends Service Committee, and the Catholic Worker Movement. It then quickly spread to youth-based political groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the founding groups of the New Left, organized in 1960 with the writing of its manifesto, the “Port Huron Statement.”


The United States soon saw the worst outbreaks of sustained public violence since the labor riots and strikes of the 1920s. The most shocking of these were the assassinations of Med- gar Evers, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. Between 1964 and 1969 there were close to 75 major urban race-related riots across the country in cities as large as Los Angeles and New York and as small as York, Pennsylvania and Plainfield, New Jersey. After the King assassination, there were riots in 60 cities. In total there were close to 120 deaths, by a conservative count over 3,000 injured, over 50,000 arrested, and billions in damage. Almost all of the people killed, injured, or arrested were African American.


In 1966, the Black Panther Party formed in order to pursue more militant and aggressive tactics in the name of the Black Power movement. Private and police assassinations of civil rights workers, both Black and white, and of members of Black Power groups, were somewhat frequent.


Beginning in the 1960s—with the approval of the birth control pill by the Federal Drug Administration—the second wave of the feminist movement began. For nearly half a century, feminists had identified lack of reproductive control as a central impediment to women’s personal, sexual, and economic independence and freedom. The pill separated sex from reproduction, marriage, and the family. In 1961 doctors wrote 400,000 prescriptions. A year later, 1.2 million women were taking it. Three years later that number jumped to 3.6 million women.


By the end of the 1960s, radical feminism added an analysis of heterosexuality—an analysis often implicit in the writings of the homophile groups—to the understanding of women’s oppression. Groups such as the Redstockings and Cell 16 often drew on a Marxist analysis of women as a distinct cultural group and as an oppressed class of people. Like the anarchists and radical labor activists in the early part of the century and the more recent Black Power advocates, radical feminists were not interested in reforming a system they considered essentially corrupt, but in replacing it with one that was more just and equitable. Under the umbrella of the Women’s Liberation Front (WLF), radical feminist groups began staging high-profile demonstrations, including the September 1968 “No More Miss America!” protest in Atlantic City, New Jersey.


The progressive politics of the late 1960s included the principle that people had complete autonomy and control over their body. This included freedom from violence, control of reproduction, the ability to engage in consensual sexual behavior, and the freedom to take drugs. Like much of the counterculture, political messages were framed in sexual contexts. To promote draft resistance, folk singers Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina posed for a poster that read “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No.”


At the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, conservative Democratic mayor Richard Daley deployed 23,000 police to manage 10,000 anti-war demonstrators. Violent chaos ensued as police tear-gassed and beat the mostly peaceful demonstrators. The official government investigation of Convention violence called it a “police riot.” Captured on film, the violence was so extreme that it received worldwide condemnation, even as U.S. polls showed widespread support for the police. In October 1968, SDS passed a resolution titled “The Elections Don’t Mean Shit, Vote Where the Power Is, Our Power Is In The Street.”

  Demonstrators on NYC street in 1969—photo by Diana Davies

Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969—photo from the NY Daily News

GLF students and supporters demonstrate and occupy NYU’s Weinstein Hall in 1970—photo by Diana Davies

Following these models, homosexual liberation became predominantly a political question. In early 1969, Carl Wittman, the son of Communist Party members and a contributor to the “Port Huron Statement,” wrote “A Gay Manifesto.” It became the defining document for a new movement. In the conclusion, Wittman lists “An Outline of Imperatives for Gay Liberation”:


1. Free ourselves: come out everywhere; initiate self defense and political activity; initiate counter community institutions


2. Turn other gay people on: talk all the time; understand, forgive, accept


3. Free the homosexual in everyone: we’ll be getting a good bit of shit from threatened latents: be gentle, and keep talking & acting free


4. We’ve been playing an act for a long time, so we’re consummate actors. Now we can begin to be, and it’ll be a good show


Wittman’s combination of community building, constructive dialogue, good will, trust, and fun was a mixture of New Left organizing, homosexual playfulness, and the important directive: to come out. For gay liberationists, coming out—a term not commonly used before then—was a radical, public act and a decisive break with the past. While homophile groups argued that homosexuals could find safety by promoting privacy, Gay Liberation argued that safety and liberation could only be found by living in, challenging, and changing the public sphere.


Physical resistance was the logical course of action in this context. In August 1968, transvestites and street people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District fought with police over two days at the Compton Cafeteria after management called in the police to eject some rowdy customers. A year later, in the early hours of Saturday, June 28, the police conducted a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. They evicted patrons and arrested some of the staff. A crowd gathered and clashes with the police ensued. Even though the bar had been closed, crowds gathered again and the scene was repeated, with less violence, on Saturday evening. After some calm, there was more protesting and violence the following Wednesday night. The events at Stonewall were not riots, but sustained street altercations of raucous, sometimes violent, resistance. The culture of political militance was evident in the slogans such as “Gay Power” and “They Want Us To Fight For Our Country [But] They Invade Our Rights.”


The only viable gay political organization in New York at that time was Mattachine. They viewed Stonewall and the political activities that ensued as a disruptive departure from their political process. According to David Carter, on June 28, Mattachine was already working with the police to stop further protests. They even posted a sign on the closed bar: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the village.” According to Donn Teal, at one of the last Mattachine meetings before the break, Jim Fouratt, a younger member, insisted that “All the oppressed have to unite. The system keeps us all weak by keeping us separate.”


Following Stonewall, a coalition of disgruntled Mattachine members who identified with the antiwar, pro-Black Power, New Left called for a meeting on July 24, 1969 with a flyer that read: “Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are.”


This radical change in rhetoric was indicative of fiercely anti-hierarchical, free-for-all, consensus-driven discussion. Out of it emerged the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which took its name from the Women’s Liberation Front, which in turn had taken its name from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. More traditionally anarchist than leftist, GLF’s lack of structure and clash of ideas was indicative of the intellectual, social, sexual, and political excitement of the time. Teal quotes one member as stating “GLF is more of a process than an organization.” But it was a powerful process that produced results. Within a year, Teal notes, GLF had 19 cells or action groups, 12 consciousness raising groups, an ongoing radical study group, an all men’s meeting, a women’s caucus, 3 communal living groups, a series of successful community dances, and the newspaper Come Out! The publication became a model for numerous influential LGBT community newspapers, including Michigan’s Gay Liberator, Philadelphia’s Gay Alternative, San Francisco’s Gay Sunshine, and Boston’s Fag Rag and Gay Community News. Hundreds of independent GLF groups were organized on college campuses and in cities across the country.


Michael Bronski is a senior lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. His books include A Queer History of the United States (excerpted here), the first volume in the ReVisioning American History series from Beacon Press.