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Stonewall: Requiem for a Riot
It was a just another hot city night in late June. The streets of Greenwich Village were filled with cruising queens, displaced street youth, drug dealers, and musicians trying to gather a small audience and make a few bucks. Police raids on the city's gay bars were an almost every-evening occurrence. But when New York's "finest" raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, something extraordinary happened—people fought back. For the next two evenings, Christopher Street was filled with queers, as well as the motley denizens of Village street life, heckling, taunting, and at times engaging in physical interchanges with the police. It was the birth of a new era of queer life. But exactly what that new era was is up for debate.
Stonewall, rather the myth of Stonewall, looms so large in contemporary gay imagination that it has become, like pink triangles, a global symbol of same-sex community.
So where was I on the evening of June 28? I was 20 and a college student in Newark, New Jersey. On that fateful evening I was probably somewhere in New York seeing a double feature of art films at either the Elgin or the Thalia. I heard about the first riot the next day, but figured it was a one-shot deal and never thought the energy would be sustained. Even then the event seemed like small news and nobody ever called it a riot. It was slightly more than a minor skirmish with the police, the sort of thing that had been happening all the time on hot city streets.
At Dartmouth College where I teach queer courses, I found myself spending an entire class trying to get students to attach less importance to the Stonewall riots and to see them in perspective. Some students thought that Stonewall was the first gay pride parade with floats and a disco party. Others imagined full-scale street fighting. One student asked how many people died. The more informed understood the relatively small scale of the event, but presumed that its reverberations were heard around the world.
In trying to get a real understanding of Stonewall, we need to place those valiant acts of street power into a larger historical perspective. The first thing I impress upon my students is that for nearly 20 years prior to Stonewall, the U.S. had seen the growth of a vibrant homophile movement in many cities. Mattachine, which was founded by Harry Hay in 1950, was the first gay rights group in the U.S., followed five years later by the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Society of Individual Rights (SIR) was founded in 1964 and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO) in 1966. Without these homophile groups nothing that happened in 1969 and later would have been possible. Stonewall was a continuation of this work as well as a radical break from it as it brought the very idea of homosexuality to a wider public.
Another point is that without the prevalence of the Vietnam War protests, without women's liberation, without the example of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the counterculture's mantra of "drugs, sex, and rock and roll" there would have been no Stonewall riots or Gay Liberation. Queens—aided by the street people in the Village—rioted because everybody was rioting. They protested because everyone was protesting.
The Gay Liberation Movement was not comprised of non-profit groups that did fundraising and lobbying to change laws. It was a grassroots groundswell of women and men who had had enough. The first gay activist group after Stonewall was called the Gay Liberation Front—a name borrowed from the Woman's Liberation Front, who had earlier borrowed it from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) who had claimed the spirit of the Algerian National Liberation Front that fought French domination in Northern Africa. The phrase "Gay is Good" was derived from "Black is Beautiful." Gay Power emerged from Black Power. It wasn't that we were copying other movements, but that we saw ourselves as part of a broader struggle. Gay Liberation was possible because the whole society and culture was being transformed.
In July 1964, in response to an increasingly militant civil rights movement, Congress passed an omnibus Civil Rights Bill. In the fall, students demanding the right to speak out on political issues such as civil rights and the war in Vietnam, started the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley which led to massive sit-ins that paralyzed the university. In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, granted married couples right to birth control. Though Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which guaranteed Federal protection for voter registration, the beginning of August saw racial riots in Watts, Los Angeles in which almost 1,000 buildings were looted, burned, or destroyed. In September 1965, Filipino American farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike, which led to calls by Caesar Chavez and the farmworkers union for the first nationwide boycott of California grapes.
In 1966 racial riots in Chicago destroyed large sections of the city and three African American teenagers were killed by the National Guard. As the U.S. conducted massive bombing raids on Hanoi in June, antiwar protests escalated. By the end of the year, the U.S. had 385,000 troops in Vietnam, many of them African Americans from the inner cities. In 1967 race-based riots flared in eight U.S. cities with full-scale riots in Detroit and Newark as well as 33 "serious" incidents in smaller cities.
In 1968 the My Lai massacre of hundreds of women and children by U.S. troops in Vietnam caused more people to question our political leadership. In April the assassination of Martin Luther King led to riots across the country leaving 39 people killed and thousands hurt. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June.
Meanwhile, homosexuals became more visible. In 1967, "CBS Reports" ran a groundbreaking news show, "The Homosexuals," which was the first time self-identified homosexuals appeared on television, and Craig Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Bookshop on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village. In April 1968, Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band opened in New York. Women's Liberation also became increasingly visible when feminists staged a mass demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in September and a frightened America elected Richard Nixon that November.
Two months after the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, the Weather Underground, a breakaway group from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), staged their "Days of Rage." On November 15 an unprecedented 250,000 protesters marched on Washington. Is it any surprise that by the middle of 1970 there were over 300 independent chapters of Gay Liberation Front across the country? In this context of multiple fights for social change it was inevitable.
What was incredible about the Gay Liberation Front—and what is sorely missing from our gay rights movements now—is that it saw itself as a multi-issue radical movement. It was as concerned with ending the war in Vietnam, fighting racism, and securing reproductive freedom for women as it was in fighting homophobia. The Gay Liberation Front understood that it needed to work in coalition with other movements as its vision linked freedom for queers to the freedom of all other oppressed groups.
All of which is to say that the importance of Stonewall resides not in a sentimental vision of a community coming out story, but in its unique place in the panoply of movements, events, riots, demonstrations, political actions, social revolts, bad behaviors, and bursts of anger that defined the second half of the 1960s.
By all means, let's celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall this June, but let us also remember that it is not just about queer freedom, but about the broadest vision of social change and social justice this country has experienced in our lifetimes.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.