As much as LGBT Americans have against them in 2009, it seems almost insignificant compared to life in the 1960’s. Social repression in the 1950’s and before resulted in a wave of rebellion in the 1960’s. LGBT Americans migrated to larger cities, and established a sizable population in Greenwich Village, NY. The city had laws against homosexuality in public and private business, but policing all places of business was a strain on authorities. Since there were few places LGBT people could gather safely, bars were the hangouts.
A harsher crackdown on homosexuality began with the approach of the 1964 World’s Fair. Wanting the city to appear pristine, the mayor ordered authorities to clean up the streets. Police worked to entrap homosexuals as often as possible, posing undercover in parks and public places. Raids on gay bars were frequent. Police seized alcohol, lined up customers and demanded IDs. Men dressed in full drag were immediately arrested. Women not having at least 3 pieces of feminine clothing on were arrested. Bars were so used to the procedure that they often kept more alcohol hidden, sometimes in a car down the street, so they could re-open. Homosexuals were arrested simply over a perception they could become disorderly. Coming out in 1969 was virtually unthinkable.
The Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village was owned by the mafia, who in 1966 invested $3,500 to turn it into a gay bar. There was no running water behind the bar, used glasses were simply passed through a tub of water and immediately re-used, there were no fire exits and terrible plumbing. Customers were inspected through a peephole before being allowed in, and had to sign a book before proceeding. Most were male, with a few transvestites and the occasional lesbian. A small room at the rear of the club catered to drag queens. It was the only gay bar in New York which allowed dancing, however, so it became known as "the gay bar of the city".
In the week prior to the riots, police raids increased, with the Stonewall raided just five days before, as well as 4 gay bars forced to close down completely. For gay people in New York City in 1969, there was a constant threat of intimidation, physical abuse and imprisonment, often for merely being a homosexual or wearing a piece of clothing.
On June 28th, 1969, at 1:20AM, police raided the Stonewall Inn for the second time that week. Bursting through the front doors a detective shouted "Police, We’re taking the place!". While raids were common, and most people in gay bars were accustomed to the procedure, that night proved different. There were patrons who’d never been through a raid, who panicked and tried to escape. Some patrons refused to show identification. Realizing resistance was in the air, police announced they were arresting everyone, about 200 people. They began to bully patrons both verbally and physically.
They ended up releasing some of the customers, but instead of leaving the area, they gathered outside, joined by onlookers from the neighborhood. Police backup was delayed, and the crowd grew restless. As employees of the bar were put into police vehicles, someone shouted "Gay Power", as another sang "We Shall Overcome". Rumors began to spread that police were beating customers inside the bar. An officer shoved a transvestite, who hit him on the head with her purse. A woman being arrested struggled and fought with police, who had hit her on the head with a billy club for complaining her handcuffs were tight. She faced the crowd, which had grown to ten times the number being arrested, and asked why they weren’t doing anything. An officer picked her up and threw her into the back of the paddy wagon. That was the moment the riot began.
The crowd moved toward the police, who incited them more by trying to restrain them. Tires of police vehicles were slashed and the crowd worked to overturn the paddy wagon. Coins and bottles were hurled at the police, with shouts of "Faggot cops!" and "Pigs!". People outnumbered the police by about 500. As bricks were thrown and parking meters uprooted, several police men and women and several handcuffed patrons retreated to the Stonewall and barricaded themselves inside.
The crowd broke through the front doors and the police drew their weapons. Lighter fluid was squirted on the bar and it was set on fire. Soon after, fire trucks and the Tactical Police Force arrived. The fire was put out and the crowd was pushed back by a wall of police. Some in the crowd started impromptu kick lines, singing, "WE ARE THE STONEWALL GIRLS, WE WEAR OUR HAIR IN CURLS, WE DON’T WEAR UNDERWEAR, WE SHOW OUR PUBIC HAIR".
The night ended with police beatings, chases through the streets, as general chaos until 4 in the morning. The Stonewall was smashed and destroyed. The next day, graffiti adorned the walls around the bar, proclaiming DRAG POWER, THEY INVADED OUR RIGHTS, SUPPORT GAY POWER and LEGALIZE GAY BARS.
The next night, rioting broke out again, in larger numbers and more aggressively. Fires were started in garbage cans, car windows were shattered and the battle continued until the early morning. Activity continued for 2-3 days. All of this was new. Police actions on other groups resulted in riots, but homosexuals were not supposed to fight back. As soon as the second night of the riots, gay couples were openly kissing on city streets. The sudden exhibition of public affection by homosexuals was as revolutionary as it was instantaneous. Flyers were distributed in the days afterwards reading GET THE MAFIA AND COPS OUT OF GAY BARS. They called for gays to own establishments and pressured the mayor to investigate. Such open opposition from homosexuals was completely new.
Not everyone appreciated the riots. Members of the Mattachine Society, as well as others who’d long been working for gay rights, condemned the actions, calling them embarrassing, stating that what they’d done hurt the equality movement. They labeled participants screaming queens, disorderly, tacky and cheap. The Village Voice ran stories with descriptions such as "limp wrists", calling the first day the "Sunday Fag Follies". This triggered another riot when a mob showed up at the offices of the Village Voice, threatening to burn it down.
Despite criticism, the Stonewall Riots were an explosive and positive turning point in our battle. It changed everything, changed the rules. While the Mattachine Society suggested things like "amicable and sweet candlelight vigils", they were met with, "SWEET? BULLSHIT!" Gay rights groups like the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance formed, with slogans like "DO YOU THINK HOMOSEXUALS ARE REVOLTING? YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS WE ARE". Because of the riots, the gay rights movement became a force to be reckoned with.
All of this is a bit ironic, for me, at this time. I participated in a protest on Sunday, May31st, against the rally held downtown by Jim Franklin of the Cornerstone Church. This rally, STILL STANDING IN THE MIDDLE FOR MARRIAGE, was a rally celebrating the fact that Proposition 8 was upheld by the California Supreme Court, thereby stripping LGBT Americans in this state of the legal right to marry.
Two protest groups were present. One was made up of faith based activists, who remained on the opposite side of the street, sometimes holding hands and praying, sometimes singing songs or saying God Bless You to each Franklin group member who passed by. The other group, which I was a part of, intended to stand just outside the perimeters of the rally, hold up protest signs, and chant loudly as the rally began. We yelled out things like "WHAT DO WE WANT – EQUALITY – WHEN DO WE WANT IT – NOW" and "2 4 6 8 HOW DO YOU KNOW YOUR KIDS ARE STRAIGHT?" Our signs said things like WILL WORK FOR EQUAL RIGHTS and STAND UP 4 EQUALITY and CIVIL RIGHTS ARE FAMILY VALUES. We strategized beforehand. We talked with police. We knew exactly what we could and could not do and how we were going to proceed.
What we were met with, however was something else. Almost immediately after we began, we started to be closely surrounded by Franklin’s crowd, including his security. Surrounding quickly became pushing as their numbers far exceeded ours. We were slowly being crushed by them. Add to that the hatred which was hurled at us, everything from GO HOME to AIDS CARRIERS GO HOME. We have on video one of Franklin’s security guards chastising a man weighing about 250 pounds for consistently pushing one of us, a woman weighing about 130 pounds. Another Franklin woman literally pushed in and tried to rip the signs out of our hands. We had to move to another spot.
Surrounded again, we were threatened repeatedly, condemned and had "hands of faith" waved over us while people chanted in tongues. At that point one of us was head butted by a Franklin group member while another had her sign ripped in half. Before the end of the day, another of us would be shoved to the concrete, where he hit his head, by a Franklin security guard (which appeared on the 24 news broadcast), one more of us was hit in the stomach, motorcycles drove into our circle which was standing on the opposite side of the street at that point, and revved their engines continuously in order drown out our chanting, and one of our vehicles was keyed with YES ON 8 message to the tune of over $800 damage.
Despite what we were met with, despite how outnumbered we were and how easily we could have been seriously injured, we did not retaliate in any way. We continuously strategized during the protest, weighing the pros and cons of our safety, and eventually made the choice to retreat rather than risk further escalation. Did we scream? Yes. Did we shout? Yes. As Americans, we have the right to do so and the police on duty never once said we stepped over any lines.
Why were we there? Because it was overwhelmingly insulting to us that it wasn’t enough for Franklin and his kind to enslave us by stripping us equal rights, now they wanted to hold a public celebration to honor themselves. We felt we couldn’t let that happen without opposition. We were right. They were wrong.
What happened afterwards though, really made our heads spin. As early as that night, when news of our protest hit the Fresno Bee online and the LA Times, we were denounced. And not just chastised, or slapped on the wrist, we were vilified, not by those in support of Prop 8, although there was that, which we expected. No, we were condemned by other LGBT Americans and straight allies. We were labeled as childish, violent, selfish, ridiculous and accused of setting back the gay rights movement, of destroying months of work toward LGBT equality. We had some support, but the overwhelming reaction was astoundingly negative, even vicious. Much of it was from people who weren’t there and hadn’t seen any video since it hadn’t been posted yet. Some of it was from people who were there. This was not your simple run of the mill disagreement, though, this was hatred. To them, resoundingly, we were violent.
"Violent", is defined as "an exertion of physical force so as to injure". There’s not the tiniest bit of truth to that. Any violence that day, as I’ve already explained, came from the Franklin side. None of those who hurled those baseless accusations at our group has publically acknowledged that. In fact, some have denied it. Researching the Stonewall Riots and reading the reaction of those denouncing it some 40 years ago sounds vaguely familiar. Adding in that compared to the riots, our actions were child’s play, makes the reaction we received even more astonishing.
We now face an increasingly growing mindset in the gay rights movement of total non-confrontation, a foundation of passive activism. Before Prop 8 was even on the ballot, leaders in the marriage equality movement were dictating which words could be said, that signature gatherers were not to confront anyone opposed to our rights, and eliminating our faces and relationships from television ads. Even now, as we go door to door, we aren’t addressing the responsibilities of Americans as Americans, the responsibility to secure equal rights for all people. We’re trying to charm and reassure these people who take our lives away. We’re trying to befriend them. I don’t know about how it looks from your vantage point, but from where I sit, it doesn’t seem to be working.
There’s a tragedy in the fact that most people I’ve spoken to under the age of 30 don’t know anything about the Stonewall Riots. If they do, it’s typically only that something happened at a gay bar in New York sometime before the 80’s. Mention ACTUP or QUEER NATION and you’ll get the same blank stare. They don’t know what groups like ACTUP achieved with aggressive, in your face actions in order to demand health care for people dying from AIDS. Is there a time and a place for certain types of action? Of course. Do we inherently know what effect any action will have? Of course not. But know this, The Stonewall Riots and the actions of ACT UP literally saved lives. If we don’t know our own history, what has worked and what hasn’t, then we will forever stumble.
I have a memory from fifth grade, and those few seconds are as vivid now as if I’m still sitting in that classroom. We were studying history, and at the time, I hated history, hated it. My teacher was annoyed at that and asked me why I seemed irritated by her lecture. "I don’t care about history," I said, "why can’t we talk about what’s happening now?" Her response, as you may have guessed, was, "Those who refuse to learn history are doomed to repeat it".
At the time, I dismissed it. But there’s a reason those 15 seconds, standing alone, are burned into my memory, and later, in my teens, I learned to love history, one of the reasons being that I recognized how much of my textbook was utter bullshit, but regardless, I began to appreciate history.
The Stonewall Riots are not the beginning of history for LGBT Americans, but they are monumental in their contribution to our civil rights. Sometimes we have to put aside the rules in order to make a difference. The rules, after all, are the very things enslaving us. Fortunately, rules, as we all know, change from time to time. They are nothing more than the lines drawn by a group mentality. Although we are infinitely freer than we were before that uprising in the early hours of June 28th, 1969, we are not free. It’s time to stand up and not ask for it, but demand it.