Stonewall 1969: a generation on fire
This article, by Liz Ross, first appeared in the May 2009 edition of Socialist Alternative.
The year was 1969. Liberation and protest movements had sprung up everywhere.
From the anti-Vietnam War campaign, to Black Power, Women’s Liberation and left-wing political groups, millions were taking a stand, fighting to radically change the world they lived in.
And among those millions were lesbians and gay men, activists who’d been involved in all the campaigns and now wanted a voice of their own, a voice for their own liberation.
That voice was to explode onto American streets – and around the world – one June night in 1969, as hundreds of gays took on the cops outside New York’s Stonewall Inn. As the crowd chanted “Gay Power!” bricks and bottles went flying through the air at police.
With these words ringing out, the world witnessed the riotous birth of a new radical movement – Gay Liberation.
The protest wasn’t planned or organised, it was a spontaneous – and unexpected – response to yet another police raid of a gay bar. Instead of going quietly, as had happened in the past, on the night of June 27, New York gays decided they’d had enough of years of police harassment and victimisation.
They fought back. Lesbian and gay, the drag queens/transgender and transvestites, young and old, Black, Hispanic and white, took on the cops over six nights.
On that first night, as bar patrons were thrown out, the usual unease turned to cheers as people who’d been bundled into police vans escaped. Then one lesbian started resisting as she was “escorted” outside.
This galvanised the crowd. Initially they started throwing coins – mocking the “gayola” or notorious system of payoffs by bar owners to the police.
But the coins soon turned to bottles and bricks and the number of protesters swelled as word spread and hundreds of mostly working-class lesbians and gays converged on the Christopher Street area around the Stonewall Inn.
The cops, outnumbered, retreated into the bar, barricading themselves inside. This didn’t stop the protesters as they tried to batter down the doors, even attempting to set fire to the place.
Escaping the bar, the police joined forces with the riot-control Tactical Patrol Force (TPF), a squad trained to take on anti-Vietnam War protesters.
But the police faced resistance they hadn’t expected – the protest had cracked the shell of shame and silence about being gay. Gay historian Martin Duberman wrote:
The protesters would not be cowed.
The TPF would disperse the jeering mob only to have it re-form behind them, yelling taunts, tossing bottles and bricks, setting fires in trash cans.
When the police whirled around to reverse direction at one point, they found themselves face-to-face with their worst nightmare: a chorus line of mocking drag queens, their arms clasped around each other, kicking their heels in the air Rockettes-style and singing at the tops of their sardonic voices: ‘We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls.’
The protest continued for another five nights with the final night, Wednesday 2 July, taking a particularly brutal turn. One commentator likened the scene to a battlefield in Vietnam, with bleeding and bruised protesters lying all over the street.
But others recognised that something else had come out of those nights of protest. Activist Rikkie Blair recalled: “Stonewall was the word you heard whenever someone started talking about pride and living honestly and fighting for basic human rights.”
A Village Voice reporter, walking back from the last night of the protests with gay poet Allen Ginsberg, wrote these prophetic words:
As Ginsberg turned to head toward home, he waved and yelled, ‘Defend the fairies!’ … He enjoyed the prospect of ‘gay power’ and is probably working on a manifesto for the movement right now. Watch out. The liberation is under way.
Well, it wasn’t Ginsberg writing the manifesto. But others, such as Jim Fourratt, were.
The next day, a group of us got together and we organised the Gay Liberation Front. That was the importance of Stonewall. There had been bars raided before. That was not new. What was new was now, we had a politically aware, seasoned group of people who were going to organise as gay and lesbian people. We wanted fundamental change.
Less than a month later leaflets began circulating round Greenwich Village and surrounds, calling for a meeting and further action.
Provocatively titled “Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!”, the leaflet boldly stated: “We’re going to make a place for ourselves in the revolutionary movement. We challenge the myths that are screwing up this society.”
Gay Liberation had entered the political arena. And it was determined to fight on all fronts, arguing that “We identify ourselves with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers, the women…all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy.”
Stonewall wasn’t the first gay riot – that had happened in 1966 outside a Compton’s restaurant in San Francisco; nor was it the first mass demo – several hundred black and white gays and rebellious youth had protested at a Dewey café in Philadelphia in 1964.
Nor was GLF the first homosexual rights organisation. But 1969 marked a real change, an explosive mix of liberation movements, worker militancy, France’s near revolution of 1968 and a younger generation promised a better world, but offered only repression, Cold War and the atom bomb.
And gays round the world, including Australia, recognised this new radical period and were part of the revolutionary upsurge. Openly gay groups sprang up from late 1969, with the first demo in October 1971; Gay Liberation, adopting the more radical demands of the American groups, swept through the country in 1972.
Australia’s own “Stonewall” – part of an international celebration of the earlier Stonewall Riots – erupted in June 1978, when gays fought back against police attacks on Sydney’s first Mardi Gras.
Forty years after Stonewall, while militant struggles by lesbians and gays have won crucial reforms, the system continues to deny real liberation, not just for lesbians and gay men but all oppressed groups.
The early Gay Liberation Front, a movement that aligned itself with those attempting to overthrow the whole rotten capitalist system, saw working class revolution as the only solution.
In 1969 Jim Fourratt believed such change was on its way: “There was going to be a revolution, and we were going to be a part of it.”
While the revolutionary promise of 1969 was not realised, what changed forever was the acknowledgement that lesbians and gays – alongside blacks, women and other oppressed groups – are a vital part of the working class struggle for revolutionary change.
That is the legacy of Stonewall and the Gay Liberation Movement it gave birth to.