The Stonewall Riots: The Spark of Queer Liberation Set Ablaze

As promised, here’s the big project I’ve been working on. It’s a look at Stonewall for my English class, so I’m leaving citations in here. And for all my fellow college students out there, good luck on finals!

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This photograph appeared in the front page of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969, showing the “street kids” who were the first to fight with the police. It is the only photo from those nights in existence.

The 1969 riots in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village village of Manhattan are commonly attributed with being the start of the gay rights movement. While this is not entirely true (Frank Kameny actually helped start the gay rights movement a decade earlier by specifically fighting for his own rights), it is where the movement really gained life beyond a few small individuals, and when it truly began including women and transgender individuals. It was also a major part of the women’s liberation movement.

However, many aspects of these riots are often overlooked or forgotten, and as such, the commonly held knowledge of the events of that time are unclear and contradictory. Worse yet, there are those who do not even know of this historical event, such as a classmate of mine from New York who had never heard of the riots. Even those who acknowledge that there were other groups and movements for gay rights before Stonewall disagree on the results of Stonewall.

To understand what started Stonewall, we first need to understand what lead up to the event. Police raids on gay bars were a common occurrence then, so common in fact that according to Sylvia Rivera, one of the participants at Stonewall, that there was a routine to the process. The police would come in, take a payoff and the alcohol, the bartender would take the money and run, the police would padlock the bar closed, and fifteen minutes later, the Mafia was cutting the lock off and people were returning from coffee shops (Rivera 118). Police raids were so common in fact that “they constituted business as usual” (Poindexter 609).

Such treatment of the homosexual community led to many other protests in the years prior to Stonewall that some researchers, such as Armstrong and Crage, examine why exactly Stonewall took off while others did not as a symbol of gay liberation. Armstrong and Crage examined the San Francisco New Year’s Ball Raid (January 1965), Compton’s Cafeteria Disturbance (August 1966), the Black Cat Raid in Los Angeles (January 1967), Stonewall in New York (June 1969), and the Snake Pit Bar Raid in New York (March 1970) in their studies. The fact that they had so many incidents to work with shows just how prevalent this type of problem was.

Before Stonewall, there already existed a “gay rights” movement, known then as the homophile movement. Such organizations as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were already working for their rights, but doing so in a peaceful, non-aggressive manner that has been labelled by some scholars as assimilationist. It hoped to appeal to the common decency of the average American. After Stonewall, the movement dropped the name homophile, becoming instead the gay liberation movement, and with a new name came more militant methods.

There are roughly two opinions of Stonewall from those educated on the period of time preceding and following Stonewall. The first opinion is that Stonewall was not the spark that ignited the gay liberation movement, but instead was merely an achievement of it. This view looks to existing groups and similar incidents that occurred before Stonewall, and merely states that Stonewall was the one that people chose to remember.

The other primary opinion is that while there were other groups that existed before, Stonewall truly was the start of the modern movement, revolutionizing it into something new, as well as spreading the word across the nation that gay people were not some communist threat. This view acknowledges the existence of groups before the riots, but points to the change from peaceful, assimilationist policies to militant activism. They also point to the rapidly increased number of groups in the years immediately following the riots.

Armstrong and Crage are among those who look to the existing network in place at that time and conclude that Stonewall was not the birth of a new movement, but a continuation and achievement of the existing one. In fact, the abstract of their entire article ends on that note, “the Stonewall story is thus an achievement of gay liberation rather than an account of its origins” (Armstrong and Crage 724). They come to this conclusion by examining the five incidents that they take into account, looking for two factors: how commemorable an event was, and whether or not there was mnemonic capacity, the ability to transform the event into a commemorative vehicle. They determine that Stonewall was the first such event to be both highly commemmorable and highly mnemonic, thus is the most remembered event, but by no means the start of the movement.

Cynthia Poindexter also feels that Stonewall was less the birth of a movement and more the continuation of one. By examining the existing homophile movement, the treatment of gay and lesbian members in the U.S. Military, increased public awareness of both persecution and discrimination faced by gay and lesbian people, and the social activism of the 1960s, she concludes that if it weren’t for these existing structures, Stonewall would have been mostly forgotten, much as all of the other police raids on bars and clubs in that era.

Simon Hall, like Poindexter, feels that were it not for the existing structures in place, Stonewall would not have become the symbol it did. Even though it ““in public consciousness and historical memory marks the birth of the gay liberation movement” (Hall 546), he stresses that it was more of a transformative act, causing the movement to grow, rather than spawning a new one. In this sense, he straddles both points of view on this issue, but is primarily in the camp of it being part of an existing movement.

The Stonewall Inn, taken September 1969. The sign in the window reads: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village—Mattachine”.

However, others such as David Carter stress just how different Stonewall was from the other such incidents that Armstrong and Crage examined. None of the others lasted for multiple days while Stonewall occurred over a six day period. The others were relatively small compared to the thousands of people involved in Stonewall. And most importantly, Stonewall was the first to really gain media attention, with the response of one person seeing newspapers discussing the riots being “Stonewall came like a thunderclap” (Carter 12).

Others, such as Don Gorton, stress that while there was an existing movement, Stonewall transformed it into something completely different. Within five years of Stonewall, openly gay and lesbian people were being elected into public office (such as Elaine Noble who sat on the Massachusetts House of Representatives), spurring on more and more activism in levels unheard of in the years preceding Stonewall. He stresses that Stonewall brought mass LGBT visibility that did not exist before. Because of this “it became possible to demand a kind of respect that could never have been claimed by people skulking about in the closet” (Gorton 6).

Yet other scholars, such as Hekma, Oosterhuis, and Steakly, point out that while there was a movement already in existence, most of the youth who took up a militant activism in the wake of Stonewall were unaware of such groups (Hekma, Oosterhuis, and Steakly 2). Thus, the growth of the new movement not only came from those unaffiliated with the existing one, but that it grew in ways the existing movement could not have imagined.

However, the best source on that time period is not a historian, but someone who lived through it, specifically one who was there at Stonewall. Sylvia Rivera, popularly credited as the person to throw the first Molotov cocktail (though she insists she was the second), spoke on the topic of Stonewall in 2001 to the organization Latino Gay Men of New York (LGMNY). She spoke of the chaos of that first night, and of the details that happened, but also spoke about how that one night brought about a massive change for the gay community. She made it clear that she was speaking specifically to the gay community, not the larger LGBT community, when she said to the crowd “You have acquired your liberation, your freedom, from that night” (Rivera 120).

However one looks at the events of that night, as well as the aftermath, there must be acknowledgment that it affected the larger picture of women’s rights. This is best exemplified in an article by Stephanie Gilmore and Elizabeth Kaminski in which they examine the history of LGBT rights within the National Organization for Women (NOW), from the founding of NOW in 1966 to 2007, when they wrote the article. They initially show just how united the movements are by showing examples of a 2005 campaign for Valentine’s Day in which local NOW chapters would pressure their governments to pass legislation legalizing same-gender marriage. But then they examine how initially, there was a disconnect between the two.

Betty Friedan, founder and then president of NOW, made a comment in 1969 in response to Stonewall and the increasing visibility of lesbian members within NOW that lesbians were a “lavender menace” threatening the women’s movement. A year later, during the Congress to Unite Women in New York City, at least forty lesbians and heterosexual supporters from the local NOW chapter stormed the stage, wearing purple shirts with Friedan’s words written upon them, and insisted that lesbians’ rights and women’s rights were connected. A year later, in 1971, it was voted upon by the the board and passed a resolution acknowledging lesbians’ rights as part of the overall agenda for the organization.

As can be seen, there are disagreeing interpretations of the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots. There were existing organizations and movements, and even other conflicts with police in the course of raids. However, there is a distinct change in the politics of the gay liberation movement in the wake of the riots. Whether one believes Stonewall to be the continuation of an existing movement or the birth of a new one, it changed everything. And with it came increasing visibility for the gay community, which itself brought changes to existing movements, the women’s movement included. As the members and board of NOW decided in the early 1970s, the fight for rights in both groups is intertwined. To truly fight for the rights of all women, then one must fight for the rights of all other identities that intersect with those of women. Gay rights are women’s rights.

Works Cited
Armstrong, Elizabeth M, and Suzanna M Crage. “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth.” American Sociological Review 71.5 (Oct 2006): 724-751.

Carter, David. “What Made Stonewall Different.” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 16.4 (Jul/Aug 2009): 11-13.

Gilmore, Stephanie, and Elizabeth Kaminski. “A Part And Apart: Lesbian And Straight Feminist Activists Negotiate Identity In A Second-Wave Organization.” Journal Of The History Of Sexuality 16.1 (2007): 95-113.

Gorton, Don. “Why Stonewall Matters After Forty Years.” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 16.4 (Jul/Aug 2009): 6.

Hall, Simon. “The American Gay Rights Movement And Patriotic Protest.” Journal Of The History Of Sexuality 19.3 (2010): 536-562.

Hekma, Gert, Harry Oosterhuis, and James Steakley. “Leftist Sexual Politics And Homosexuality: A Historical Overview.” Journal Of Homosexuality 29.2/3 (1995): 1-40.

Poindexter, Cynthia. “Sociopolitical Antecedents To Stonewall: Analysis Of The Origins Of The Gay Rights Movement In The United States.” Social Work 42.6 (1997): 607-615.

Rivera, Sylvia. “Sylvia Rivera’s Talk At LGMNY, June 2001 Lesbian And Gay Community Services Center, New York City.” Centro Journal 19.1 (2007): 116-123.

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