The birth of gay power

June 25, 2009

Forty years ago, on June 28, a police raid on an unexceptional gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York City, sparked nights of rioting and demonstrations. The Stonewall riots marked the beginning of a new LGBT movement against bigotry and for justice.

Veteran activist and contributor Sherry Wolf is the author of a new book Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation. Here, we publish an excerpt from the book that describes the events at Stonewall.

IN A society filled with hatred, fear and ignorance of homosexuality, there was at least one public venue for socializing where gays and lesbians in most major towns and cities could go--the bars. But as with all public life for LGBT people, the bars also provided a place for police and authorities to harass and humiliate their victims.

From police entrapment in public cruising spots to raids on bars for perceived "disorderly" conduct within, the cultural openings and nascent activism of gays and lesbians was frustrated by state repression from California to New York. Despite there being no explicit laws against serving gays, many bars refused to do so, and there was no legal recourse since kissing or dancing with a member of the same sex and cross-dressing were considered disorderly.

It was in this context that the Mafia came to run many of the drinking establishments that catered to gays, lesbians and transgendered people in New York City. The Stonewall Inn was no exception.

Located at the crossroads of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue South, near a major subway station and steps away from the former offices of the nation's largest independent weekly, the Village Voice, the Stonewall Inn was dark, with two bars, a jukebox and an eclectic crowd of drag queens, gay street youth, cruising men, and a smattering of lesbians.

The Stonewall Inn in New York City
The Stonewall Inn in New York City (Diana Davies)

There was no running water to wash the glasses of watered-down booze and beer that were rinsed in a murky tub behind the main bar, leading to at least one known outbreak of hepatitis among customers. Black, Latino and white LGBT folks mixed and mingled there, one of the few joints around with dancing. Film historian and author of The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo, described the place as "a bar for the people who were too young, too poor or just too much to get in anywhere else. The Stonewall was a street queen hangout in the heart of the ghetto."

As with most drinking establishments that catered to gays, the Mob owner, Fat Tony, paid off the cops to keep the place from being shut down for city code violations. For a bar that took in between $5,000 and $6,000 on an average Friday night, Fat Tony had little problem skimming off $1,200 a month to assuage New York's finest in the local Sixth Precinct.

Yet raids were still commonplace at bars like the Stonewall--one had occurred there just days before the riots--but a choreographed kabuki routine was established between mobsters and cops, each of whom played out their roles to keep up appearances, while never threatening their mutual access to easy cash at the expense of the LGBT clientele.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Sherry Wolf at Socialism 2009 in Chicago and San Francisco, speaking on "Sexuality and Socialism." Sherry will also appear with West Coast equal marriage activists in the panel meeting "Prop 8 is Going Down! Winning Equal Marriage in California." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

Bars generally reopened the night after a raid, as happened at the Stonewall during the last week of June 1969. To this day rumors and speculation swirl around the reasoning for people's response to the police raid on the night of June 28. Police asserted that gay Wall Street brokers, who could not be legally bonded by brokerage houses due to their homosexuality, were being blackmailed, and exposure would have destroyed the lives of those men. Others suggest that it was the shocking death earlier that week of 47-year-old gay icon Judy Garland that exacerbated anger that night.

Whatever the immediate catalyst for the unprecedented response to a routine raid, the fact is that lives immersed in shame and secrecy in a world rocked by social upheaval and defiance could not have remained untouched much longer by the ferment that surrounded them. It was, after all, 1969.

UNDER THE pretext of the Stonewall Inn's operating without a liquor license, a handful of police, led by Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, figured they'd make quick work of shutting down the bar and rounding up its patrons that night. Sexist and homophobic stereotypes of gays and lesbians certainly reassured the cops that resistance was unlikely at best, irrelevant at worst. Initially, when the cops forced the men and women inside to line up, show identity papers and prepare to be arrested, everyone did as they were told, despite some cheeky back talk. But as crowds gathered outside and the harassment built, a once buoyant, even carnivalesque mood was transformed into active rage.

This snippet from the New York Daily News article headlined "Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad" provides a distressing glimpse of the smug contempt toward LGBT people at that time. The article begins: "She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn't bothered to shave. A day old [sic] stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street."

The Village Voice coverage of events of the first night of rioting captures not only the spirit of the fight but also the open disdain that even progressive writers had for gay people. Keep in mind that this account was written by two journalists 20 years before anyone ever thought to openly invoke words like "fag" and "dyke" as ironically empowering--in 1969, these were insensitive, nasty slurs.

"[A]s the patrons trapped inside were released one by one, a crowd started to gather on the street...initially a festive gathering, composed mostly of Stonewall boys who were waiting around for friends still inside or to see what was going to happen," the Voice reported. "Cheers would go up as favorites would emerge from the door, strike a pose, and swish by the detective with a "Hello there, fella." The stars were in their element. Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic...

"Suddenly the paddy wagon arrived, and the mood of the crowd changed. Three of the more blatant queens--in full drag--were loaded inside, along with the bartender and doorman, to a chorus of catcalls and boos from the crowd. A cry went up to push the paddy wagon over, but it drove away before anything could happen. With its exit, the action waned momentarily. The next person to come out was a dyke, and she put up a struggle--from car to door to car again...

"Pine ordered the three cars and paddy wagon to leave with the prisoners before the crowd became more of a mob. 'Hurry back,' he added, realizing he and his force of eight detectives, two of them women, would be easily overwhelmed if the temper broke...It was at that moment that the scene became explosive. Limp wrists were forgotten...

"'Pigs!' 'Faggot cops!' Pennies and dimes flew. I stood against the door. The detectives held at most a 10-foot clearing. Escalate to nickels and quarters. A bottle. Another bottle. Pine says, 'Let's get inside. Lock ourselves inside, it's safer.'...

"The door crashes open, beer cans and bottles hurtle in. Pine and his troop [sic] rush to shut it. At that point, the only uniformed cop among them gets hit with something under his eye. He hollers, and his hand comes away scarlet. It looks a lot more serious than it really is. They are suddenly furious. Three run out in front to see if they can scare the mob from the door. A hail of coins. A beer can glances off Deputy Inspector Smyth's head...

"The cop who is cut is incensed, yells something like, 'So, you're the one who hit me!' And while the other cops help, he slaps the prisoner five or six times very hard and finishes with a punch to the mouth. They handcuff the guy as he almost passes out...

"The exit left no cops on the street, and almost by signal, the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving [sic]. The reaction was solid: they were pissed. The trash can I was standing on was nearly yanked out from under me as a kid tried to grab it for use in the window-smashing melee. From nowhere came an uprooted parking meter--used as a battering ram on the Stonewall door...

"By now, the mind's eye has forgotten the character of the mob; the sound filtering in doesn't suggest dancing faggots any more [sic]. It sounds like a powerful rage bent on vendetta...One detective arms himself in addition with a sawed-off baseball bat he has found. I hear, 'We'll shoot the first motherfucker that comes through that door.'...

"I can only see the arm at the window. It squirts liquid into the room, and a flaring match follows. Pine is not more than 10 feet away. He aims his gun at the figures. He doesn't fire. The sound of sirens coincides with the whoosh of flames where the lighter fluid was thrown...It was that close."

After this initial 45-minute confrontation, the riot squad arrived, and for hours, a cat-and mouse game ensued between groups of police and groups of rioters, numbering
around two thousand in all. In a decade punctuated by riots in most major cities, it was a rare victory for the rioters over the police.

The fact that it had been "faggots," "trannies," "dykes," and street kids who delivered a decisive blow to the police was lost on nobody. News of the first night's rebellion spread widely, and by the following evening, organized leftists and more gays, lesbians, transvestites and transgendered people came out to see what would happen, catch a glimpse of the previous night's detritus, and snag their own opportunity for revenge against police who had humiliated and beaten them all for years.

The violence resumed each evening through Wednesday night, July 2, with taunts from young gays and chants by experienced activists stoking police violence through the labyrinthine streets of Greenwich Village. Mortified that they had been disgraced by a bunch of "queers," the cops returned in force each night to try and recapture Christopher Street. They never did.

Most eyewitness reports recount the leading role played by some of the most despised and oppressed groupings within the LGBT community. A multiracial lot of poor gay teens, many living on the streets because they had been tossed out of homes or had run away from abuse, taunted the cops with abandon. Transvestites who camped and mocked the cops while striking blows with spiked heels showed that defiance and humor could be complementary. And some reports credited at least one butch lesbian with a furious display of resistance that shamed some of the men present into shedding their passivity and fighting back that first night.

Deputy Inspector Pine, who had fought in the Second World War and was injured in the Battle of the Bulge, where 19,000 American soldiers died, said of the first night of rioting, "There was never any time that I felt more scared than I felt that night."

Beat poet Allen Ginsburg walked through the Village that weekend and poignantly summed up the atmosphere: "You know, the guys there were so beautiful--they've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago."

WHAT SEPARATED the Stonewall Riots from all previous gay activism was not merely the unexpected nights-long defiance in the streets, but the conscious mobilization in the riot's wake of new and seasoned activists who gave expression to this more militant mood.

Like a dam bursting, Stonewall was the eruption after 20 years of trickling progress by small handfuls of men and women whose conscious organizing gave way to the spontaneous wave of fury. The riots alone would not be remembered today for transforming gay politics and life had they not been followed by organizations that transformed the raw outrage into an ongoing social force.

A clash between the old-guard organizers and newly rising militants was apparent from the Sunday of the riots, when Mattachine activists who'd met with the mayor's office and police posted this sign on the front of the Stonewall: "We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village--Mattachine." Their pleas were ignored.

Each night thereafter through Wednesday, more and more gays and straight leftists, from socialists and Black Panthers to the Yippies and Puerto Rican Young Lords, arrived on the scene to participate in the latest confrontation with police.

By the time the riots subsided, activists began distributing leaflets that read, "Do You Think Homosexuals Are Revolting? You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are," and announced a meeting at a Village leftist venue known as Alternative U. What began as an ad hoc committee of Mattachine-New York to organize a march in commemoration of the riots evolved into a full-blown organization, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

In conscious tribute to the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front then fighting the U.S. government in Southeast Asia, these activists wanted to confront not just the stifling homophobia of U.S. society, but the entire oppressive and exploitative imperial edifice. From the earliest gathering of the GLF, disputes about the political perspective of the movement were framed in terms of whether to focus exclusively on LGBT issues and consciousness-raising, or to embrace a broader revolutionary agenda and solidarity with other oppressed minorities.

But almost all the newly radicalizing activists agreed that the old guard's approach needed to be upended. Looking back years later on the debates between the more conservative Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine leaderships, and the new radicals, one prominent militant, Jim Fouratt, summarized the tensions of that time: "We wanted to end the homophile movement. We wanted them to join us in making the gay revolution. We were a nightmare to them. They were committed to being nice, acceptable status quo Americans, and we were not; we had no interest at all in being acceptable."

One agenda key to all the new gay liberationists was the act of coming out, since most gays remained publicly closeted. As D'Emilio notes, this cathartic act of coming out publicly--to one's family and friends, at work, and on the streets--"quintessentially expressed the fusion of the personal and political that the radicalism of the late 1960s exalted." Shedding their internalized homophobia may have opened gays and lesbians to occasional attacks, but it also allowed them to claim a sense of self-respect that was incompatible with life in the closet. "Coming out," D'Emilio explains, "provided gay liberation with an army of permanent enlistees."

Ironically, the right wing's fears that gay visibility would encourage others to either experiment with homosexuality or at least be tolerant of it turned out to be accurate. While the right may shudder at that fact, the widening visibility and confidence of a gay movement did pave the way for others to come out and has transformed public consciousness ever since. Gallup polls taken over 30 years on questions regarding homosexuality show enormous advances. Since 1977, public support for legalization of "homosexual relations between consenting adults" has risen from 43 percent to a record 59 percent in 2007. In that same poll, 89 percent of Americans today believe that "homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities." Stonewall's wake created the conditions for this rise in social consciousness.

THE INFLUENCE of small radical groups in the GLF was evident in its statement to one underground newspaper, the Rat:

We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society's attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature. We are stepping outside these roles and simplistic myths. We are going to be who we are. At the same time, we are creating new social forms and relations--that is, relations based upon brotherhood, cooperation, human love and uninhibited sexuality. Babylon has forced us to commit ourselves to one thing...revolution.

In response to the Rat's question, "What makes you revolutionaries?" GLF members wrote, "We identify ourselves with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers...all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy."

One of the earliest protests launched by the GLF was against the Village Voice, the very newspaper whose account of the Stonewall Riots was circulated and cited in periodicals throughout the world. To raise money through dances and to publicize its activities, the GLF tried to advertise in the Voice, which refused to print the word "gay." Considering the word to be offensive and "equitable with 'fuck' and other four-letter words," the Voice's offices were soon deluged with petitions carrying thousands of signatures demanding they alter their policy, forcing them to concede.

As dozens of chapters of the GLF spread across the country, even to Britain, similar protests converged on newspapers, demanding respect and representation. The Los Angeles Times had even refused to print the word "homosexual" in its advertising, despite less flattering references to gays in cultural revues in the "family newspaper." The San Francisco Examiner was picketed that fall for referring to gays and lesbians as "semi-males" and "women who aren't exactly women." Even the right to put up flyers and distribute gay newspapers in the bars catering to LGBT people had to be fought for and won through protest.

The GLF launched its own newspaper, Come Out! in the fall of 1969, which became a popular means of disseminating ideas and movement information. Gay Power and Gay also premiered that year, each selling 25,000 copies per issue, expressing the hunger for an independent LGBT press.

Later that year, a group of activists split from the GLF and formed a new single-issue group, the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), with a constitution that defined its agenda as "exclusively devoted to the liberation of homosexuals and avoids involvement in any program of action not obviously relevant to homosexuals." Right from the get-go, they aimed their sights on getting rid of discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace and putting heat on local politicians to change bigoted laws. GLF and GAA collaborated on many efforts, including protests against further police raids and the annual Stonewall commemoration march.

Perhaps one of the greatest movement victories of that era came out of protests against the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) designation of homosexuality as a mental illness. So long as LGBT people were pathologized as sick, social and legal constraints would remain.

Angry protests disrupted the usually placid APA gatherings in the early 1970s. Militants Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny demanded and took seats at the table to discuss the damage psychiatrists' "therapies" were doing to the lives of gays and lesbians. One gay psychiatrist appeared on an APA panel wearing a mask and disguising his voice to plead for an alteration of that body's policy. In 1973, the APA's board of trustees removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Five years later, gay and lesbian psychiatrists formed a caucus within the APA--never again would a gay psychiatrist have to hide from his colleagues behind a grotesque mask.

It was a major breakthrough when, on August 21, 1970, Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton wrote the first openly pro-gay statement by a major heterosexual movement activist of any race, which was printed in the pages of the Black Panther, the party's newspaper.

In "A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters About the Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements," Newton admitted that the Black Panther Party had been inconsiderate concerning gays and lesbians. He argued, "Homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in the society." Newton also accepted the criticism of gay activists, "The terms 'faggot' and 'punk' should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people."

The radical transformation taking place in the minds of many gay activists was reflected in the following excerpt from the Gay Flames pamphlet, written by the Chicago chapter of the GLF.

[B]ecause of the rampant oppression we see--of Black, third world people, women, workers--in addition to our own; because of the corrupt values, because of the injustices, we no longer want to "make it" in Amerika...

Our particular struggle is for sexual self-determination, the abolition of sex-role stereotypes and the human right to the use of one's body without interference from the legal and social institutions of the state. Many of us have understood that our struggle cannot succeed without a fundamental change in society which will put the source of power (means of production) in the hands of the people who at present have nothing...

But as our struggle grows, it will be made clear by the changing objective conditions that our liberation is inextricably bound to the liberation of all oppressed people.

Further Reading

From the archives