50 Years After Stonewall: Fight for Queer Liberation

June 28th is the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that ushered in the modern gay liberation movement. 

Every year since there have been “Gay Pride” and LGBTQ+ marches on the anniversary, but for many years there have been complaints about the corporate sponsorship, commercialization, and de-politicization of the march.  This year there is an alternative to the corporate floats, and marginalized progressive contingent, inside the Pride parade. In a separate post, Jay W. Walker, a seemingly tireless activist on a number of issues founding member and organizer for the new Reclaim Pride coalition, discusses the important Queer Liberation March in New York City, Sunday June 30th (“An End to Corporate Control of Our Pride“). The march will re-trace the steps of the original “Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day” march out of the Greenwich Village to a rally in Central Park, and revive the radical content (see for details on joining the march). 

Accompanying this report, Eric Fred briefly discusses Stonewall, LGBTQ+ liberation and socialism. Part one discusses the original Stonewall rebellion and its immediate effects. Part two will look at the historical links between LBGTQ+ liberation and socialism. 

Stonewall and the GLF

The Stonewall Rebellion started in the early hours of Saturday morning when an angry and multicultural and working class group of (to use the language of the day) drag queens, transvestites, other gay men, and a few lesbians resisted a police raid on the Stonewall Tavern, a Mafia-run gay bar on Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. The people led out of the bar were joined by a crowd of gay passersby who jeered and threw things at the cops, harbored arrested patrons who escaped from the police van, and joined in physical skirmishes. Some eyewitnesses say it was a tough lesbian fighting back against the cops dragging her from the bar to a police van that set off the crowd. Others that it was the black drag queen, transvestite, and sometime street hustler Marsha P Johnson who threw “the shot glass heard round the world.” The crowd eventually barricaded the surprised and outnumbered police into the now empty bar where they had fled for safety. One group pulled up a parking meter to use as a battering ram against the doors. After hours, when the tactical patrol turned up, the crowd still did not scatter, but continued to fight back, repeatedly circling around the small village blocks to taunt the helmeted and shielded phalanx of tactical cops from behind. The riots lasted until morning throughout the West Village.

The next day word had spread, and some of the participants returned with a leaflet against police repression and the exploitative Mafia ownership of gay bars. The riot broke out again that night, joined by more supporters. Though the riot-trained tactical cops returned in greater numbers and used greater violence, they could not clear the thousands of angry people. It took several days for the nightly rioting to stop, and by that time the face of queer America had changed.

But the nights of riot alone would not be acknowledged now as the spark and beginning of the LBGTQ movement without the organizing that came after. The mood and example of struggle sent ruptures into the existing staid homophile organizations of the period, and soon resulted in the revolutionary Gay Liberation Front, and later the Gay Activists Alliance. The two organizations disagreed on backing other issues (the Panthers, The Anti-War movement) but worked together on “zaps” – quick activist disruptions around issues of gay, lesbian, and to a lesser extent, trans rights.

Stonewall was a spontaneous reaction by an oppressed people angered by their treatment in society and especially by the police who sparked the rebellion. Existing homophile groups like the Mattachine society helped lay the groundwork for organization, but called for calm after Stonewall, thinking the drag queens of color, effeminate boys, and fighting with police sent the wrong message and undermined the work they had been undertaking for acceptance. As one young activist yelled back, “We don’t want acceptance, goddamn it, we want respect!”  

More important that the Matachine or the lesbian Daughters of Bilitus was the general political climate. This was in 1969, when the movements against the Vietnam War and the activities of the Black Panther Party were at their heights. There was a growing Women’s Liberation movement. In New York City the year before 100,000 marched against the war and Columbia College had erupted in occupation. Also in 1968 police had opened fire on black protesters against segregation in the south (killing 3), attacked the Black Panther Party headquarters in Oakland, killed panther Bobby Hutton, and rioted against protesters at the stitched-up Chicago Democratic National Convention. Hundreds of thousands had taken part in over a hundred riots and uprisings in African-American communities across the US after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. By 1969 a majority of young black people identified with the Black Panther Party. Millions of people in the U.S. had come to consider themselves “revolutionaries,” although they had varied and confused ideas of what this meant.

As the Latinx trans activist and Stonewall participant Silvia Rivera put it, “we had done so much for other movements… Everyone was involved in the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement. We were all radicals.”

Yet neither the growing number of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) chapters, the counter cultural Yippies, nor the longer-established socialist organizations were involved in gay issues before Stonewall.

Within a month of Stonewall, the people who had prepared the leaflet and others created a new organization, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), named after the National Liberation Front fighting the U.S. military in Vietnam. Founding members included Jim Fouratt, a young gay activist and organizer on the New Left; Martha Shelly, a young lesbian who had worked with the Daughters of Bilitis and attended the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and the transgender people of color and sometime sex workers Marsha P Johnson and Silvia Rivera.  

While the Mattachine had insisted members wear conservative gender-appropriate clothing at events, and not hold hands in public, Come Out, the GLA newspaper in the 1970s, proclaimed “the Gay Liberation Front welcomes any gay person, regardless of sex, race, age or social behavior. Though some other gay organizations may be embarrassed by drags or transvestites, GLF believes that we should accept all of our brothers and sisters unconditionally.”

The founding statement of the GLF also stated: “We are a group of revolutionary men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot be won until all the existing social institutions are abolished.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the early years of gay liberation and socialist organization were linked (more on this in part two of this essay). But the combination of the Fascist attacks, the triumph of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and related Communist parties, and the oppressive conformity of McCarthyism in the US had obliterated this link for generations. The GLF had to start practically anew, basing itself on personal pride and anger and a contradictory mixture of New Left and third worldist—revolutionary, reformist, and activist—politics.  

The GLF sent contingents to  Anti-war marches in 1969, while continuing to educate and fight on gay issues–marching into the Village against new bar raids and arrests of gay men, where new riots ensued. In 1970 radical gays disrupted meetings of the American Medical Association in Chicago, and the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco over their official views on homosexuality. At the same time the GLF was clear they could not overthrow existing social institutions on their own. A GLF member addressed the famous May Day rally in New Haven is support of jailed Black Panthers Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale, and larger contingents came to other Panther supported events. 

The solidarity was mutual. In August 21, 1970, Huey Newton’s “A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters About the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements” was printed in The Black Panther, the party’s newspaper. Newton, the party’s co-founder, admitted they had been homophobic, and ordered that the “terms ‘faggot’ and ‘punk’ should be deleted from our vocabulary,” especially when used as insults to enemies. He also told the readers, “Homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in the society.” This was the first openly pro-gay statement to come from any heterosexual movement activist of that time.

Despite this mutual support, there were those who disagreed with the GLF and thought gays should focus exclusively on gay issues, and fight within the system. The Gay Activist Alliance did this with creative vigor, and some effect. But the narrowing down of issues also narrowed the range of gay people whose concerns were met. Trans people of color felt they were pushed out of the spotlight, and their issues not addressed.  When the first Gay Rights Bill was brought to New York’s City Hall, a backroom deal was offered—take out all references to the transgender to make it more “palatable.” As Sylvia Rivera, who had worked for the bill with the Gay Activist’s Alliance, put it: “So, what did nice conservative gay white men do? They sell a community that liberated them down the river, and it still took them seventeen years to get the damn bill passed!”

Gains were won. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the  DSM-II list of mental illnesses, and over half the U.S. states repealed their sodomy laws in the 1970s. But as the movement grew broader, and selected reforms were made, it was upper class gay men who benefited most. Not everyone can afford to live inside the pink economy, and even there exploitation and inequality are as present as anywhere else. If the GLF did not succeed in their goal of abolishing existing social institutions and complete liberation for all, it was not primarily their fault but the consequence of the over-all decline in the left from the high-point of the late 1960s.

In the US the 1960s wave of activism in the streets did not correspond with the rhythms of class struggle in the workplace, which would have helped unite the movements and show where the power lies to transform society. 

Today we see, not only real progress on attitudes towards differing sexualities and gender roles, but a noticeable increase of those calling themselves “socialist” in the U.S. Although, again, there is a confusing range of beliefs what socialism means and its relation to capitalism and the capitalist state. Unfortunately, this is happening again in a period with only hints of resurgent class struggle.    

But while there is a rise of interest in socialism, we also see escalating homophobic and trans-phobic government policies, continuing physical attacks (falling most heavily on poor and Black trans women) and a resurgence of a misogynist and anti-gay far right dependent on myths of male dominance. We cannot rely on a gradual change of attitudes and reduction of prejudice. Whether we go forward or backward from here depends, not just on the LGBTQ+ movements, but on an active, non-sectarian, and politically clear left current.

While the broad-left has largely adopted the issues of LBGTQ+ rights, this cannot just be brought out for pride month, but always put into practice. We believe socialists must be, in Lenin’s words, “the tribunes of the oppressed,” and hence participate in the liberation for all genders and sexualities. Where there are still trans-phobic attitudes or politics, it is the responsibility not just of LGBTQ+ comrades, but of all socialists to flag this up and fight against bigotry and oppression wherever and whenever they see it.

Yes, it helps the fight for equality to have more gay, lesbian, and transgender characters on TV, more out actors, teachers, and union leaders. But while the usual coverage of the Pride parades view equality as having openly gay men CEOs and Generals, socialists view equality as a world without CEOs or Generals.

As the GLF believed, there is no ‘gay liberation’ for all, or liberation for the entire range of non-traditional genders and sexualities, without a break from capitalist society—without what we call socialism from below. But neither can we achieve socialism without overcoming the divisions in the working class—without liberation for oppressed groups, including minorities, women, and all LGBTQ+ people.

Eric Fred