To mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this month History Workshop will post a series of articles reflecting on the event and its legacy.
“Sheridan Square this weekend looked like something from a William Burroughs novel as the sudden specter of ‘gay power’ erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen.” In this way, Lucian Truscott IV rather disparagingly characterized the Stonewall uprising of 1969 in his eyewitness account published in the Village Voice on July 2nd of that year. The event was indeed something never before seen in New York City’s Greenwich Village, but it was not the first time LGBTQ people stood up to police harassment. The Black Cat Tavern raid in Los Angeles and the Compton Cafeteria riots in San Francisco a few years prior also saw individuals fight back against unfair treatment, police brutality, and discriminatory laws that targeted the most unambiguous members of the community.
It’s hard to imagine that in New York City in 1969, laws prohibited members of the same sex from dancing together, restricted the sale of alcohol to homosexuals, and penalized those who wore articles of clothing of the opposite sex, but it would take years of activism and action to have those restrictions officially taken off the books. Bars like the Stonewall Inn represented a kind of reluctant haven for New York City’s downtown gay scene. Most patrons had a love/hate relationship with the bar and its mafia-controlled operators. The drinks were weak and overpriced, the ambiance was trashy, but the vibe was by most accounts intoxicating if not fully liberating. So how did the Stonewall Inn gain its celebrated status as the birthplace of LGBTQ civil rights? Many details are hard to nail down, and so many debates have focused on the myths and mysteries of the Stonewall incident to a degree that it is now common to gloss over the inconsistencies.
However, despite the vagaries of the facts, Stonewall still maintains an allure that most other early struggles within the community – such as the 1966 confrontation with police at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco or the organized resistance of the homophile movement – have not been able to match. Today’s media accounts frame Stonewall as the spark that ignited the LGBTQ rights movement, and for the most part the community’s leaders have acknowledged, if not embraced, this view. Though details of the rebellion vary according to the source consulted, Stonewall has captured popular imagination and become embedded in collective memory. As Barbie Zelizer writes in Remembering to Forget, “…we allow collective memories to fabricate, rearrange, elaborate and omit details about the past, pushing aside accuracy and authenticity so as to accommodate broader issues of identity formation, power and authority, and political affiliation.” Zelizer recognizes that the stories that emanate even from those with the least power, those who exist on the margins of society, are impacted by political and social influences. In the case of the Stonewall narrative, the broader social movements of the time, the militant protest culture, the youth-oriented counterculture, and consciousness raising all converged to help leaders of the nascent gay rights movement form a concept of identity, affiliation and authority for the community.
Prior to Stonewall, many lesbians, gay men and bisexuals existed quietly in the closet but enjoyed a moderate level of comfort and stability in their social lives and to a degree in society at large as long as they were reserved and respectable. For the gender non-conforming, this often meant living dual lives. For those who did not conform and remain in the closet in their daily lives, alienation from society and friends as well as family was typical. The new authority exercised by the liberation movement was one that asked for more than tolerance and required acceptance. In a recent interview I conducted, Mark Segal notes that prior to the uprising in 1969, the very concept of LGBT community had not been defined. “LGBT community didn’t exist before Gay Liberation Front founded it,” he explains. “And what I mean by that is if you take a look at what LGBT community, what LGBT life was like before GLF, what you had was several gay organizations in major cities around the country being run by two or three people. And maybe they would have meetings where 10 or 20 people would show up. Then there were the few gay bars that existed, then there was maybe a newsletter and public places where gay people met. That was the extent of it.”
The Gay Liberation Front emerged in the weeks after the Stonewall uprising and coalesced around the concept of oppression symbolized in the Stonewall police raid. The activists elevated the LGBTQ experience and struggle to the level of civil rights discourse. They adopted or, as some may interpret it, co-opted slogans of earlier rights movements and held marches and other protest actions announcing “Gay Power” and “Gay is Good.” Early participants like Martha Shelley, Craig Rodwell and many others organized and developed the idea of commemorating Stonewall and perceived its mnemonic capacity as a tool in a broader series of actions and reactions. The activist community in New York City was clearly media savvy and capitalized on the attention the initial unrest attracted, and the ensuing controversies, especially concerning Village Voice articles, solidified the commemorative potential of Stonewall. Historical documents provide evidence of gay activists’ emphasis on memorializing Stonewall; from the slogan “Stonewall means Fight Back” to employing “Remember the Stonewall” as a tag line in numerous articles in Come Out!, the newspaper of the Gay Liberation Front.
Stonewall was and still is romanticized as any pivotal “battle” has been throughout history. The individual interpretations of what is variously termed the riots, the rebellion or an uprising by participants, witnesses, and activists provide the means to shape Stonewall’s success as a catalyst and create a narrative that resonates beyond simple facts and a linear sequence of events.
The development of this narrative is echoed in the testimony of several activists I interviewed for an oral history project on Stonewall. One of the earliest written accounts of the incident, in the Rat Subterranean News, also follows the narrative fostered by Gay Liberation Front participants and others. The Rat reporter, known only as “Tom” writes, “Soon pandemonium broke loose. Cans, bottles, rocks, trash cans, finally a parking meter crashed the windows and door.” He concludes, “What was and should have always been theirs, what should have been the free control of the people was dramatized, shown up for what it really was: an instrument of power and exploitation. It was theater, totally spontaneous. There was no bullshit.”
The development of this story into the Stonewall narrative was set in motion by the grass roots organizing that developed almost immediately after the first night of the rebellion. The narrative borrows elements from the protest movement culture and ties them to notions of identity that envelop the specific details of the event. Craig Rodwell, Jim Fouratt, Martha Shelley as well as Sylvia Rivera can be seen as shaping this narrative of Stonewall Rebellion, while Rudy Grillo, Morty Manford and Dick Leitsch of the Mattachine Society authorize its re-telling. In the end Stonewall eclipsed earlier confrontations because the event is instilled with the significance of the activists’ interpretation within the context of broader social movements of the time.
At a recent Stonewall event at NYU Skirball Talks, playwright and author Larry Kramer alluded to the Stonewall uprising as a public relations strategy. It was a mildly dismissive assessment but not one without some basis in truth. The activists of the Gay Liberation Front recognized the value and effectiveness of such a strategy. Raising awareness, visibility, and voices was and remains key to furthering the movement toward equality. The early liberation movement was able to inspire that pronounced shift in consciousness in just over two years. Coming out no longer had to involve involuntary exposure, but was reclaimed as a proud rite of passage. Thanks to focused and concerted activism surrounding the Stonewall riots, “Gay Pride Week” was celebrated across the US and in Paris, London, and Stockholm in June of 1971. Not bad as far as public relations campaigns are concerned.