José Hernandez looks back at the iconic Stonewall Riots, explaining their role in the LGBTQ+ liberation movement and drawing parallels with the ongoing anti-racist rebellion.
Stonewall, Reclaim Pride and Black Lives Matter
As we celebrated the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Pride Day became Reclaim Pride. In doing so, it returned to its radical origins of activism and distanced itself from the corporate-sponsored marches organized in previous decades. This return to more radical actions happened in the context of the rebellion led by Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a reaction to the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a white cop with a track record of police brutality working with Minneapolis Police Department. Throughout the US, massive multiracial crowds gathered both spontaneously and in response to BLM and other left-wing organization’s calls to action. Activists from all walks of life and from different races are embracing BLM’s slogans to demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality that constantly targets Black people and other minorities. Through organized resistance, protesters succeeded in forcing biased editors to resign, united to topple statues that legitimate bigotry, and forced police reforms across the US.
National and international outcry came as a response to decades of institutionalized racism in police departments across the nation and continuous, often unpunished, police oppression against people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
Unfiltered anger and pain endured for decades have often crystalized into riots in different cities. As Martin Luther King Jr, put it, “a riot is the language of the unheard” and that has definitely been the case this time around as it was 51 summers ago.
The latest BLM rebellion reminds us of another historical moment when the oppressed rose up against the oppressor. Back in 1969, “homosexuals” were harassed, abused, and systematically persecuted by local, state, and federal authorities. Similarly to Black people in present days, “homosexuals” endured sustained institutional oppression and a systematic violence that inevitably led to a violent response by the oppressed.
Riots at the Stonewall
On June 28, 1969, around 1:20 A.M. New York Police Department (NYPD) initiated another one of its regular raids at the Stonewall, a gay bar located at 51-53 Christopher street in the Greenwich Village. Little did they know that the their usual smooth raid, with their ensuing arrests and rides to the precinct, would turn into spontaneous and violent riots that would last for six days and would spark a gay liberation movement in the United States and across the world.
The Stonewall was an institution wearing many hats. It was a mafia-run bar, a copper bar, and, most importantly, a refuge for the whole spectrum of New York City’s LGBTQ+ community: street kids, sex workers, and drag queens who, together, represented the most outcast people in the gay community. The Stonewall was also the place where different oppressions converged: predominantly Black and Latino working class, often in low paid jobs or sex work. These street kids shared a common oppressor: the mafia, coppers, and a dehumanizing capitalist state. The Stonewall was a place where the outcasts found refuge. Needless to say, it was not a fancy bar. It was a place where those abandoned by society would be able to meet friends, express affection, escape their harsh realities, and feel alive if only for a night.
To understand the context of the Stonewall Riots, we have to make an abstraction of our current freedom, directly related to that epic night in the summer of 1969. Back then, self-identifying as gay and engaging in homosexual activities entailed a huge risk because social, gender, and family roles were extremely rigid. Let’s remember that the “homosexuals” were considered “deviants” that transgressed the capitalist institution par excellence, the family which will provide generations of workers who will be exploited by the ruling class. This is the context where the government, the private sector, churches and the media joined forces to develop an institutional oppression against LGBTQ+ people. The common goal was to preserve a conservative and reactionary family model. To achieve their goal, they resorted to defamation and indoctrination. In nationally broadcasted programs they stereotyped, disqualified and demonized LGBTQ+ people.
This oppressive agenda was not that different from agendas set in motion in the past by authoritarian regimes. In 1967, programs such as The Homosexuals were broadcasted in a CBS Reports series. Loaded with myths and pseudo-science, this program described homosexuality as a disease. The aim was to marginalize gay people and to create a culture of repression. In fact, both “out” and “closeted” gay people were warned of the consequences of fulfilling their sexual and affectionate needs: You will be caught, a speaker would say to adolescents in an auditorium. Similarly, a bit earlier in 1961, the Inglewood Police Department orchestrated a campaign titled “Boys Beware” which would describe gay men as sexual predators and pedophiles. This campaign created a kafkaesque climate for both gay people and young American men: the former would feel terrorized while the latter would feel in permanent danger. To complete the picture, some academic institutions like Columbia University had already put in their two cents by producing questionable “educational films” (e.g. Activity Group Therapy, 1950) to help identify homosexual tendencies in children through their behavior and/or mannerisms. The State created institutions where unorthodox conversion therapies such as sterilization, castration, and sometimes lobotomy were applied, for the State believed them to be useful in curing homosexuality. The worst of these, was a state-run facility located in Atascadero (CA) known also as the Dachau for homosexuals.
This smear campaign was spread by private and public institutions. Indeed, the persecution of gay people had very tangible consequences. Among these consequences, we can mention, for example, entrapment which was a common practice by NYPD in public bathrooms and parks. Any gay person who would fall into the trap could face not only arrest and/or prison, but also defamation: their name, age, and address would be published in the newspapers. This was a precedent to the current Sex Offenders Lists. There is a big difference though: current sex offenders have the benefit of a trial. In the 50’s and 60’s, being caught engaging in homosexual activities, even if completely consensual, entailed loss of a job. Even worse, just the fact of being gay disqualified candidates from being hired by the federal government, getting teaching positions, practicing medicine, or even a working as a beautician because all those professions required a license. Even the fact of being a “known” homosexual would disqualify you for any license.
Local authorities, such as the New York State Liquor Authority (NYSLA), also participated in this oppressive scheme. In fact, it had the following rule: one known homosexual at a licensed premise made the place disorderly. Consequently, nobody would set up a place where gay people could meet. They were afraid that cops would come in and close their businesses. With this rule, the NYSLA isolated and marginalised gay people in the state of New York. It also opened the doors to the mafia as they were the only ones willing to break the law while exploiting gay people’s need for social spaces and dominating the gay bar scene.
The Stonewall was one of those mafia-owned bars. It was a run-down place with a front room consisting of a bar with questionable hygiene and a second room with a jukebox and cigarette machine both owned by the mafia. It was common knowledge that most of the liquor was off a truck hijacking which means the bar produced a 100% profit. Being the product of a capitalist state, the Stonewall perfectly reflected different components of society as a whole. Martin Boyce describes it in Stonewall Uprising: “Well in the front part of the bar, would be like A guys, like regular gays that didn’t go in any kind of drag, didn’t use the word she, that type, but they were gay, 100 percent gay. And then as you turned into the other room, with the jukebox, those were the drag queens around the jukebox.”
The Stonewall wasn’t run just by the mafia. It was indirectly run by corrupt cops who would raid the place and collect commissions. It was these very same corrupt cops who harrassed, persecuted, abused, and arrested patrons at gay bars, especially drag queens who were submitted to the 1845 statute, otherwise known as the crime of masquerading which punished any individuals not carrying three pieces of clothing belonging to their assigned gender. Two of those pieces of cloth would be underwear. Now, using a third one would ruin their outfits. So, they found the solution: a belt. Non conformance to this rule would entail jail time.
Times where pretty rough for gay people. But not all of them. Rich gay people would be spared, as Dick Leitsche, president of the Mattachine Society would points it out: “You read about Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, and all these actors and stuff… Liberace, all these people running around doing all these things. And then you came to New York and you found out that maybe they’re doing them but, you know, us middle-class homosexuals we’re getting busted all the time.”
The anger cumulated through years of oppression implemented in collusion by most societal institutions was the fire that ignited the Stonewall riots. It should not come as a surprise as Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt reminds us: “What they did in the Stonewall that night, they took bats and just busted that place up. The mirrors, all the bottles of liquor, the jukebox, the cigarette machines.” There is no doubt that the Stonewall was the symbol of a double oppression: one executed by the mafia who owned it on one side and, on the other, one executed by the state through its repressive institutions: the police, the courts, the jails.
The Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969 have two complementary meanings: for the repressive institutions of the state, it was a surprise; for the oppressed, it was the understanding that they were in it together as a group. Both antagonistic groups – oppressor and oppressed – were risking victory or defeat. It is in this context that the riots take their full meaning. After decades of marginalization and defamation, queer people stood up to and defeated NYPD, the state’s repressive institution par excellence. Fifty-one years later police departments across the US keep the same oppressive behavior. It is in this context that we can better understand the importance of BLM’s fight to defund police.
Beyond a Repressive State
The Stonewall Riots should not be summarized by the easy metaphor of “bricks + molotov cocktails + drag queens in heels.” Instead, it should be summarized by the chant Gay Power, directly inspired by the Black Panthers Black Power. Its impact goes well beyond that epic night of rebellion against a corrupt and oppressive system. Even in the immediate aftermath, these riots have a deeper meaning as they broke the political dam represented by the Mattachine Society, which was at that time, the only gay organization in New York.
On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument, making it the United States’ first national monument designated for an LGBTQ+ historic site. The creation of a national monument and the ulterior official excuses by NYPD are important symbolic steps, albeit insufficient. As long as LGTBQ+ people face hatred and oppression, there are reasons to continue the fight. This is especially important because on March 28, after the Reclaim Pride march, NYPD attacked protestors with pepper spray, batons, violent shoving and arrests. It seems that those official excuses were just words.
As we consider the impact of the Stonewall Riots on our lives, 51 years later, perhaps we should remember that, in 1969, the press didn’t acknowledge the importance of the riots. In fact, the press covered this event in a mocking way. As Fred Sargeant, gay rights activist, reminds us, the press referred to the riots “in pejorative terms, as the night the drag queens fought back. And it was nonsense. It was nonsense. It was all the people that were reacting and opposing what was occurring.” Sargeant is right. It was the night when gay people told the world that they would no longer allow society to dehumanize them. The Stonewall Riots had a clear political nature and an immediate transformative outcome. Danny Garvin, a gay activist, summarized the importance of Stonewall in just a few words: “We [gays] became people. We didn’t necessarily know where we were going yet. You know, what organizations were going to be or how things would go. But, we became something. I, as a person, could all of a sudden grab onto that I couldn’t grab onto when I would go to a subway tearoom as a kid, or a 42nd street movie theater, you know? Or being picked up by some dirty old man. You know, all of a sudden, I had brothers and sisters, you know, that I didn’t have before.”
The Stonewall riots showed us how to win some battles. It was through solidarity and organized action that “homosexuals and deviants” succeeded in confronting an oppressive State that denied them the right to choose who they loved, to look like their chosen gender identity, and to have a place in society being the person they were without suffering constant discrimination and prejudice. The riots turned out to be a transformative experience that led to the emergence of the LGTBQ+ movement. The most inspiring outcome of the riots was the unity in action with other movements fighting racism, sexism, and imperialism. This is the spirit of Reclaim Pride and a common struggle with the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist rebellion.