27 June 2009

Stonewall Was a Riot : Gay Liberation and the Struggle for Social Change

The Stonewall Rebellion, June 28, 1969. Top photo © Fred McDarrah.

The Stonewall Rebellion, the fight for gay liberation and the Sixties movement for social change

By Michael Bronski / The Rag Blog / June 27, 2009
[With a response by Allen Young]

[The launching of the modern gay movement is usually associated with the Stonewall Rebellion (sometimes called the Stonewall Riots), which was sparked on a hot June night in 1969 by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run bar in New York City's Greenwich Village. That event was 40 years ago, and to mark the anniversary, many gay writers have recently been busy trying to assess the historic importance of Stonewall and the evolution of the gay movement over four decades.

As with any movement for social change, the gay movement ranges across the political spectrum. Some writers with a more radical vision of social change look back at the politics of the first post-Stonewall organization -- the New York Gay Liberation Front (GLF) -- and feel that GLF's revolutionary impetus has been lost as the contemporary movement focuses on such issues as same-sex marriage and the expulsion of openly gay and lesbian people from the military.

One such writer, a veteran gay commentator on culture and politics, is Michael Bronski of Cambridge Mass., author of
Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility and The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom and a part-time teacher at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The Rag Blog offers Bronski's recent piece, originally published in The Guide, one of the few gay periodicals that has welcomed a more radical perspective.

A response to Bronski's comment, written especially for The Rag Blog, is offered by Allen Young, who worked for three years at Liberation News Service (LNS) before becoming involved in 1970 with GLF in New York City. Young collaborated in the 1970s with lesbian GLFer Karla Jay on three anthologies, including the ground-breaking
Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Libeartion (still in print) as well as on the comprehensive survey entited The Gay Report. Bronski's Culture Clash, noted in the previous paragraph, was in some ways an expansion of an article he wrote that was published in another of the Young-Jay anthologies, entitled Lavender Culture (also still in print). Young is also the author of Gay Sunshine Interview with Allen Ginsberg and Gays Under the Cuban Revolution. He has lived in a gay-centered community in north central Massachusetts since 1973, where he continues to be a writer and activist focusing on gay and environmental issues.]

Stonewall was a riot
By Michael Bronski
/ The Rag Blog / June 29, 2009

It was a just another hot, sticky night toward the end of June.

The streets of Greenwich Village were filled with cruising men, displaced street youth, drug dealers and random musicians trying to make a few bucks from small audiences. But when New York City's Finest raided the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969, something extraordinary happened.

Police raids on the city's gay bars took place all the time, but that night was different. That night people fought back. They were angry. Maybe it was because gay icon Judy Garland died two days earlier, or because the heat got to everyone. Or it just might have been that gays couldn't take it any longer. But that evening, and for the next two evenings, Christopher Street was filled with gays, as well as the neighborhood's more motley denizens, heckling, taunting, and at times engaging in physical exchanges 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, or rather the myth of Stonewall, has become an intrinsic part of our history. It is a milestone and touchstone of gay freedom and revolution, but it has also become a millstone weighing us down with its historical burden. Have we, as a community, given such incredible weight to Stonewall, and turned it into a sentimental story of singular self-assertion, that we have actually distorted what it actually means, or might mean? Maybe if we really understood the complexity of Stonewall -- rethink it in the tangled web of late-1960s history from which it has too often been removed -- we could see it for exactly what it was and better understand our relationship to it.

My own connection to Stonewall is complicated. At the time I was a 20-year-old college student across the river in Newark, New Jersey. On the big night I was probably in New York for a hamburger and a double feature of art films. The following day I heard about the first riot, but figured that it was a one-shot deal and never thought that the energy would be sustained -- albeit greatly abated -- over two more nights. But even then the event didn't seem like front-page news, and nobody called it a riot; it was slightly more than a minor skirmish with the police, the sort of thing that happened all the time on the hot city streets.

Although within weeks of the event I would become very involved in the new gay liberation movement, Stonewall did not mean much to me at the time. Nor, I must say, does it mean a whole lot to me now. At Dartmouth College in this past March -- where I teach courses including “Introduction to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies” -- 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.

It's not so easy. Some students think Stonewall was simply the first gay pride parade with floats and an after-party. (I'm not sure why they think the word “riot” is included.) Others imagine full-scale street fighting, and once a student asked me how many gay people died at the Stonewall Inn. Their more informed classmates understand the relatively small scale of the event but presume that its reverberations were felt immediately -- the high-pitched scream heard Ôround the world.

To understand Stonewall we need to place those valiant acts of street power and street theater into a larger historical perspective. The first fact I impress upon my students is that for almost 20 years before Stonewall the country saw the growth of a vibrant homophile movement. The Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay in 1950, was the first gay rights organization in the U.S., followed five years later by the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis, founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. The Society of Individual Rights was founded in San Francisco in 1964, and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations came into being in 1966.

Photo from 70s Gay Liberation Front poster. Used on the jacket cover of: Martin Duberman's, 'Stonewall,' 1993.

These groups completely changed the public discourse about homosexuality in the entire country. Without these homophile groups nothing that happened in 1969 and the years afterward would have been possible. In praising Stonewall, as we do now, we all too often completely erase the profoundly important work that these groups did for nearly two decades. Stonewall was, in a very real sense, both a continuation of this work as well as a radical break from it, as it brought the very idea of homosexuality from the realm of the private into the public world of the street and used anger, not reason, as its impetus.

The second thing I try to impress on my students is that without the prevalence of the Vietnam War protests, without the women's liberation movement, without the example of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the counterculture's mantra of “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” there would have been no Stonewall riots. There would have been no gay liberation movement (at least not as it happened in 1969.) The queens -- and let's remember that they were aided by the street people in the Village, men and women we would now call homeless -- rioted at Stonewall because everybody was rioting; they protested because everyone was protesting. The Stonewall riots were completely in sync with the crazy, frantic, angry, and yes, sometimes heedless political activities -- including the bombings by anti-war groups like the Weather Underground, as we were reminded of so frequently during this past election -- of the late 1960s.

The gay liberation movement was not made up of non-profit groups raising funds and lobbying to enact laws. It was a grassroots movement, a groundswell of women and men who had reached the breaking point. The first major gay activist group to form after Stonewall was the Gay Liberation Front -- a name borrowed from the Woman's Liberation Front, which in turn borrowed it from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, which claimed the spirit and moniker of the Algerian National Liberation Front, which fought French domination in Northern Africa. The phrase “gay is good” was derived from “black is beautiful.” Gay power emerged naturally 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 culture was being transformed and transfigured. Considering the enormous changes that took place as a result of these movements, it truly was the second American Revolution. There was a decisive break, and afterward things were different for gays, women, people of color, and young people. It may not look like that now -- or at least not all the time -- but America changed in those years, and all for the better.

But even as I write this I feel that there are details missing. While all of these connections are true -- even as they are forgotten in most remembrances of Stonewall -- they lack concrete details and feel like radical rhetoric. So let's look at exactly what was going on during the five years before Stonewall that, along with the important work the homophile movement had done, set the stage for this remarkable event. As Bob Dylan sang in 1964, “The Times they are a-Changin,” and when we look back at the massive cultural and political changes that were occurring, it is impossible to imagine that Stonewall wasn't inevitable.

In March of 1964, Cesar Chavez and the grape pickers union called for the first nationwide boycott of California grapes, while at the same time the University of California Berkeley closed its campus in response to students demanding their right to speak out against the war in Vietnam. Later that month, the Supreme Court granted married couples right to birth control. In response to an increasingly angry civil rights movement, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in June. Even with this minor commitment to justice the next year ushered in a wave of violence.

In February of 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated, and while Congress passed the Voting Rights Act guaranteeing federal protection for voter registration, August saw the first truly serious race riots in Los Angeles in which almost 1,000 buildings in the Watts neighborhood were looted, burned or destroyed. As if the world wasn't mad enough, Harvard professor Timothy Leary urged Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out” -- the drug revolution hit the streets.

In 1966, race riots destroyed large sections of Chicago and three African-American teenagers were killed by National Guard troops. Things only got worse in 1967 as full-scale riots in Detroit and Newark, as well as serious conflicts in 33 other cities, left 66 people dead and 10,000 more homeless. Antiwar protests escalated as the U.S. sent nearly half a million soldiers to Vietnam, many of them African-American men from the inner cities. On the domestic front, CBS ran a groundbreaking news show called “The Homosexuals,” which was the first time self-identified gays talked about their lives on television. In November, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop opened on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village -- the first gay bookstore in the world.

In April of 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King led to riots across the country that left 39 people dead and thousands of others hurt. Robert Kennedy was assassinated two months later. In the midst of this gays become more visible when Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band opened on Broadway. Women's liberation became increasingly visible when feminists staged a mass demonstration at the Miss America pageant in September. In the midst of this upheaval it made perfect sense that a frightened America would elect Republican Richard Nixon to the presidency that November.

It was really only a matter of time before gays got angry enough to start fighting back. Beginning in March of 1969, the New York Police Department stepped up its periodic raids on gay bars; the June 28 raid on the Stonewall Inn was simply business as usual. After three nights of unrest women and men began to organize and weeks later the formation of the Gay Liberation Front was announced. The group was a direct, and important, result of the Stonewall riots.

But Stonewall was not the end of this national narrative, just a small moment in time. Two months after the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, Students for a Democratic Society staged its largest national demonstrations. National protests against the war in Vietnam increased and in November an unprecedented quarter million people marched on the Pentagon. Although inconceivable a decade earlier, American society was in full-throttle revolt against racism, oppression of women, sexual repression and the deadly foreign policies that were destroying lives in the U.S. and abroad. Is it any surprise that by the middle of 1970 there were already more than 300 independent chapters of the Gay Liberation Front across the country? It wasn't just that gay liberation was an idea whose time was ripe, but rather that in this context of multiple fights for massive social change it was an idea that was inevitable.

What was incredible about the Gay Liberation Front, and what is so 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 wars abroad, fighting racism and securing reproductive freedom for women as it was with fighting homophobia. Members of the Gay Liberation Front also understood that they needed, pragmatically and philosophically, to work in coalition with other movements.

For me, as a young queer who had already been working with Students for a Democratic Society and had been involved in civil rights and women's rights issues, gay liberation was a revelation that brought together all my political and emotional concerns.

The vision of the Gay Liberation Front linked freedom for gays to the freedom of all other oppressed groups. It is a vision that neither the homophile groups that preceded it nor the gay rights groups that followed understood or embraced. It is a lesson the gay rights movement just might be learning now.

The importance of Stonewall resides not in a sentimental vision of it as a sort of 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 month but let's also remember that it is not just about gay equality; it is about the broadest vision of social change and social justice the U.S. has experienced in our lifetimes.

[Michael Bronski is the author of "Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility" and T"he Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom." He writes frequently on sex, books, movies, and culture. His " A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History of the United States" is being published by Beacon Press next Fall. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.and is a Senior Lecturer at Dartmouth College.]

The Stonewall Inn. Photo by Larry Morris / NYT.
A Response to Michael Bronski
By Allen Young
/ The Rag Blog / June 27, 2009

Michael Bronski’s article, in part a tribute to the early post-Stonewall movement, in particular the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), is greatly appreciated by those of us who were involved as activists during those amazing times -- generally viewed as 1969-71.

The article is correct in describing the GLF politics as radical, and as linked to other social justice movements of the times, but I believe Bronski is incorrect in suggesting that gay liberation has disappeared and been replaced by something excessively mainstream.

One longtime gay activist, agreeing with the thrust of the Bronski article, sent out this email to friends and acquaintances: “The demand, the agenda, has shriveled from real change -- whether you call it revolution, liberation, freedom -- to nothing much more than the status quo wreathed in lavender. Now everything is besotted with ‘equality’ and there’s a downside: Equality won’t get single payer health care, for one. It only brings more of the same and it limits the vision. The dreams are smaller now, way smaller… How did the gay movement morph into the Rotary Club in a few decades?”

A lesbian who has been active since those days wrote: “The article [by Bronski] was worth reading. But the question is, short of a revolution supported by the majority of Americans, how could the various groups have realized their vision? We devolved into a scattering of non-profit groups precisely because there was no revolution.”

My position is that I do not share the very negative and pessimistic evaluation of the changes in gay politics that have taken place in the 40 years since the founding of GLF. The current movement is much more than the black-tie parties of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) -- which I have never attended and have no desire to attend -- and does not resemble the Rotary Club. (The Rotary Club in my small-town community, by the way, does a lot of very good work and I have some friends who are in it.)

I feel there's a lot of progress involving GLBT individuals and organizations going on, throughout the nation and the world, and we can be proud of our original efforts that have merely evolved into something different. I am much more inclined to celebrate, not piss and moan about how gay liberation is dead. It is, in my view, very much alive and well, thankfully without the wrong-headed and ultimately futile “radical” voice that Michael Bronski misses so much. I remember chanting in 1970, “Go left, go gay, go pick up the gun,” imitating a Black Panther chant of that time. How ridiculous, even shameful! The gay movement today makes progress without the language or the political analysis of the 1960s, and I am glad about that.

Sure, some important and wonderful aspects of early gay liberation have been lost or diminished in importance, but they're still floating around and I am confident that the best and most important of these will have their day.

There are a few factual mistakes in Bronski’s article, but I don’t see any point in nit-picking. However, on the pre-Stonewall gay or homophile movement, I feel Bronski makes a major error. Now, I totally respect these earlier pioneers. They were brave and they brought a positive message about homosexuals to the world as best they could at the time. We GLFers were, back in the day, not sufficiently aware of their accomplishments, and sometimes were disrespectful, and I have apologized about that personally to Jim Kepner, Billy Glover, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and others whom I have met. However, the suggestion made by Bronski that "these groups completely changed the public discourse about homosexuality in the entire country" is patently absurd, an exaggeration that cannot be sustained by facts. The truth is that these groups had minimal impact in a few big cities, and almost no impact elsewhere.

GLF introduced something of much more psychological and political importance than the “anger” that Bronski focuses on. For us, the key was “coming out of the closet.” We were relentless in that message. Our memorable positive chant, “Out of the closets and into the streets!” is one that we used a lot. Marching in the streets while provocatively chanting was something that the old homophile movement did not do and wasn't particularly comfortable with. In the 40 years since Stonewall, the end of fear and secrecy for millions of GLBT individuals is our biggest victory. Several gay liberationists have helped me better define what we did and what we should be remembered for most. A Minnesota activist wrote: "One of the distinguishing characteristics of the early gay liberation movement is that we were made up of a group of people who had managed to escape the fetters of the societally imposed regime of fear.” Another added that we successfully defied “that regime of fear and -- together in an outspoken mass --were able to name it for its injustice, violence and false defamation of our lives.”

Stonewall and GLF changed the impact of gay activism from minimal to substantial. That was done initially with the help of the new gay periodicals such as Come Out! in New York and Gay Sunshine in San Francisco and the newly out yet experienced staffers of the counterculture "underground press" linked to the anti-war and anti-racist movements of the Sixties.

Our impact grew to something beyond substantial to monumental with the emergence of professional organizations like Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) and Lambda Legal, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), with the advent of modern gay literature, gay and straight Americans’ response to the tragedies of AIDS and Matthew Shepard, the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres and other mass media advances, the partially successful campaign for gay marriage, and on and on.

Gay liberation is not dead. Many millions of Americans, gay and straight, have dreams that are not at all "small." Many gay people -- people touched by the message of early gay liberation -- are helping to create and promote those larger dreams -- in government jobs , the nonprofit world including schools and colleges, international NGOs, and in political organizations working on health care, workers rights, environmental issues, animal welfare, immigration issues, and much more.
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