The 28th of June this year will mark 50 years since the Stonewall riots, an event which represented a tipping point in the struggle for LGBTQI equality. The riots radically accelerated the gay liberation movement in America and internationally, and shaped the politics of a new generation of activists. There are many lessons we can learn from these radical struggles.
Located in the heart of Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn was popular among LGBTQI youth because it allowed same-sex dancing, something that was usually considered disorderly and so grounds for arrest. The Stonewall Inn was described as “a bar for people who were too young, too poor or too much to get in anywhere else.”
There have been many theories advanced attempting to explain why a routine police raid sparked riots outside the Stonewall on June 28th, but none have been agreed upon. Whatever the impetus, the crowd on that night began to resist when police started arresting patrons. One journalist at the scene described how the mood of the crowd, initially festive, suddenly became furious. Onlookers began throwing bottles and beer cans, eventually forcing the police to barricade themselves inside the bar. The police deputy on the scene recalled, “There was never any time that I felt more scared than I felt on that night.”
The initial riot lasted 45 minutes, but for the next few hours the LGBTQI community taunted the police in the streets around the bar with chants and violence. This pattern continued nightly until the 2nd of July, when police finally gave up trying to regain control of the area. All told, around 2,000 people were involved.
The victory of one of the most oppressed groups in American society over the cops had a profound effect. After the riots, gay beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg wrote: “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”
The LGBTQI community could not have been unaffected by the momentous political upheavals that had rocked the world in the years leading up to the riots. Throughout the 60s the world had seen decisive struggles for women’s rights and racial equality, and anti-capitalist movements accompanied by the biggest general strikes in history until that point. The importance of these struggles in cementing the militant mood of the activists cannot be understated.
The progress that had been made on other fronts undoubtedly emboldened the LGBTQI community to fight for their rights. Life for LGBTQI people in American society remained viciously repressive. People could be arrested if they were not wearing three items of clothing “appropriate” to their gender. Homosexual acts were considered grounds for firing, and sex between consenting adults of the same gender was punishable by life in prison. Illinois was the only state in America where homosexuality was not explicitly outlawed. As one legal expert put it, in the 60s “the homosexual was…smothered by law.”
Prior to Stonewall, the gay liberation movement had been characterized by its emphasis on fitting into broader society. In 1969, the first lesbian rights group in America, the Daughters of Bilitis, was still urging its members “to stop the breeding of defiance toward society” and to exhibit “outward conformity” in its newspaper. The riots changed this. The rage that had been suppressed for so long finally exploded.
As socialist Sherry Wolf writes: “What separates the Stonewall Riots from all previous gay activism was not merely the unexpected nights-long defiance in the streets, but the conscious mobilization of new and seasoned activists in the riot’s wake who gave expression to this more militant mood.” Stonewall would not feature so prominently in the history of gay liberation if it weren’t for the radical activist groups that came out of it.
Stonewall marked a turning point in the fight against LGBTQI discrimination.
Oppression had to be fought, and the fight had to be coordinated. The need to get organised was evident to the new generation of activists.
An organizing meeting was called by local activists in the days after the riots, and from this meeting emerged the Gay Liberation Front. The GLF took its name from the North Vietnamese Liberation Front, then fighting the US government in Vietnam. From its inception, the GLF was far ahead of the old gay liberation organisations. The activists wanted to confront not only homophobia, but also the whole oppressive, imperialist system. Activist Jim Fouratt compared the attitude of the older LGBTQI activists to that of the younger generation, stating: “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.”
After some debate, the GLF took the position that it should be involved in struggles around a wide range of issues. The activists saw that the struggles for gender and racial equality, for workers rights and against capitalism, were intrinsically linked to the fight for LGBTQI liberation. In an interview for an underground magazine, The Rat, GLF activists stated: “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.”
Today, there are many lessons that we who want to fight discrimination can learn from the radical struggles of those who came before us.
We must be anti-capitalist. Capitalism is not merely an economic system – it is a social and political system that rests on the twin pillars of exploitation and oppression. Capitalism saw the emergence of LGBTQI discrimination alongside the establishment of the nuclear family. In 1970, the Chicago chapter of the GLF wrote in their newspaper: “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…” A struggle for true liberation must take on capitalism. Anything less is not enough.
Secondly, the way to win demands is not through voting or lobbying. History has shown again and again that attempts to win demands via these methods alone are bound to fail. The campaign for marriage equality in Australia confirmed the way to win is through mass mobilisation. Activists took on the fighting attitude of radicals that had come before us – rather than asking nicely, we hit the streets in our thousands and made our demand impossible to refuse.
Finally, the generation after Stonewall saw the need to be involved in activism. The fury of the spontaneous riots would have fizzled into nothing had it not been for the militant mood that the activists took on coming out of the experience.
Today the far right is growing all over the world, and homophobia and transphobia are key tenets of their ideology. In Australia, they have continued to grow and gain confidence because of consistent accommodation to their views by both Labor and the Liberals. Since our insipid politicians have shown they have no interest in standing up to the bigotry of the right, it is up to us to confront it through protest.
Though we have made much progress since the Stonewall riots, our rights are once again under attack. We face different challenges, but we can look to the radical activists of the past to guide us in our fight today.