No doubt recent gay rights developments – including this blog – would never have come about without the ballsy boys and girls who struck back at Stonewall.
The Stonewall Rebels may not have known at 1:20 am on June 28, 1969, but they were about to make history. Their actions spurred the international gay rights movement, resulting in countless cultural, legal, political, and social evolutions, including the decriminalization of homosexuality in dozens of nations. They also provided the nearly religious foundations for the greatest of gay traditions: Gay Pride.
In the thirty-eight years since gays, lesbians and drag queens first lashed back at police, forty-eight countries on every inhabitable continent have held commemorative gay pride celebrations, including Turkey, Sri Lanka and Peru.
Throughout countries, cities and towns the world over, queers commemorate that first gay pride march, the rebellion that started it all. The Stonewallers – and the activist successors – never could have imagined that the remembrance of their gay gumption would spur a multi-million dollar international party.
How did gay pride grow to such a girth? Where did it all start and, more importantly, where is it going? Find out, after the jump.
On June 28, 1969, New York Police Department staged a seemingly routine raid on Christopher Street’s Stonewall Inn. The raid came as a bit of shock to Stonewall’s denizens. First of all, gay activist group The Mattachine Society had recently fought – and won – a battle against sexual policing. Cops could no longer legally entrap gay men, nor were gay bars shadowy spaces of sexual debauchery. Authoritative invasions seemed a thing of the past. That changed in the weeks leading up to Stonewall, when police revived their anti-gay ways.
Many homo historians maintain the resurgence came after Mayor John Lindsay, who had just lost the primary, ordered officers to clean up the city, thus giving him a bit of electoral leverage. That explanation hardly explains why police went after Stonewall, a relatively innocuous establishment in Greenwich Village.
Some also suggest police targeted Stonewall for its colorful clientele – that is, many of the men and women were of color. Others cite suspicion of public sex lack of liquor license and mob ties. One officer even claims they were hoping to stop mafia-organized Wall Street leaks. Believe it or not, this story holds the most water.
As David Eisenbach writes in Gay Power: An American Revolution, Stonewall fronted for a closeted former “Mafia minion”, Ed “The Skull” Murphy. In addition to helping hookers and deal drugs, Murphy and his men blackmailed older, wealthy patrons. Murphy’s greed and the shame of public outing helped lead to Stonewall’s siege:
Sometime in early 1969 INTERPOL…notices an unusual number of negotiable bonds surfacing in foreign countries and requested the NYPD investigate whether they were counterfeit. Police detectives found that the mafia had been acquiring large numbers of bonds by blackmailing gay employees of New York banks. From studying police reports in various gay clubsâ€¦[Stonewall] quickly became a prime-suspect in a multimillion-dollar international criminal enterprise.
INTERPOL and the NYPD coordinated a June 24th sting against Stonewall, taking away staff members while patrons looked on.
That initial operation may have been the straw that broke the queer camel’s back. Another factor – aside from the oft-joked-about Judy Garland funeral – may have been the timing of the police raid: 1:20 am.
In the past, police raided earlier in the evening, when business wasn’t booming and drinkers weren’t yet drunk. No doubt some of Stonewall Inn’s inhabitants were inebriated by one o’clock, which may have amplified their frayed emotions when eight police entered Stonewall, turned off the music and set off a series of events that would change the world.
Eisenbach describes the scenario:
â€¦The staff was quickly hustled into a backroom while customers were separated into two groups Transvestites were to be “examined” in the bathroom while the other customers were lined up in front of the exit, waiting to be released after showing their IDs. The police also began ripping apart benches that ran along the wall of one of the rooms. [They] wanted to make it as difficult as possible to reopen the Stonewall even if a judge allowed the bar to resume operation. The surprisingly violent smashing of the benches heightened the tensions that had hung in the air since [June 24th]. As the customers lined up in the heavy June heat to show their identification, the officers faced an unusual amount of resistanceâ€¦ “We’re not taking this,” one patron barkedâ€¦
Within minutes of authorities’ arrival, all hell would break loose. Men, women and drag queens took to the streets, surrounded the coppers and let ’em have it.
New York Times reported on the incident:
Hundreds of young men went on a rampage in Greenwich Village shortly after 3am yesterday after a force of plains-clothes men raised a bar that the police said was well known for its homosexual clientele.
The young men threw bricks, bottles, garbage, pennies and a parker meter at the policemen, who had a search warrant authorizing them [to] investigate reports that liquor was sold illegally at the bar, The Stone Wall Innâ€¦
The article neglected to mention that the gays stood their ground against the riot unit, which had been trained to take down Vietnam protesters.
Over the next few nights, the queer count grew on Christopher Street. The people, however, weren’t about to buckle. In fact, they were more determined than ever to fight for their rights. America had already seen the first wave of the civil rights movement and gays were fully prepared to launch a fresh attack. Such an effort, of course, would take organization.
In the hours and days following Stonewall, dozens of gay activists came together to form the Gay Liberation Front. The group declared:
We are a revolutionary 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.
As part of their ideological mission, the GLF sought a complete overthrow of all heterosexist institutions, including marriage. Homosexuality should be considered completely normal, innate and natural. Governmental and social institutions problematized sexuality and, thus, those institutions must be destroyed.
As Carl Whitman writes in his seminal, semi-satirical essay, “A Gay Manifesto”:
We are children of straight society. We still think straight: that is part of our oppressionâ€¦ We’ve lived in these institutions all our lives. Naturally we mimic the roles. For too long we mimicked these roles to protect ourselves – a survival mechanism. Now we are becoming free enough to shed the roles which we’ve picked up from the institutions which have imprisoned us.
Liberation for gay people is defining for ourselves how and with whom we live, instead of measuring our relationship in comparison to straight ones, with straight values.
Militant to the core, the GLF hoped to spark an entire cultural revolution.
To that end, they aligned themselves with the Black Panther and anti-war activists. Taking the lead from other civil rights groups, including The Students for a Democratic Society, the GLF staged direct action ‘zaps’ – congregating en masse to raise public awareness – and distributed flyers debunking anti-gay myths. Members would also run around town yelling at straights and closeted queers to “come out”. The group that would help found gay pride used public shame to further their cause, a move many members would later regret. Ironically, so-called “straight values” and prescribed gender roles helped tear the GLF apart.
The GLF scoffed at allegedly stereotypical gay men and women, yet also refused to endorse heterosexist gender roles. GLF London’s leaders echo their American forefathers:
Many gay men and women needlessly restrict their lives by compulsive role-playingâ€¦ [It is bad] when gay people try to impose on themselves and on one another the masculine and feminine stereotypes of straight society, the butch seeking to expand his ego by dominating his/her partner’s life and freedom, and the femme seeking protection by submitting to the butch. Butch really is bad-the oppression of others is an essential part of the masculine gender role. We must make gay men and women who lay claim to the privileges of straight males understand what they are doing; and those gay men and women who are caught up in the femme role must realize, as straight women increasingly do, that any security this brings is more than offset by their loss of freedom.
Many gays guffawed at their effeminate teammates. The ladies, meanwhile, decried drag as perpetrators of oppressive gendered stereotypes and shook a finger at lipstick lesbians. Infighting made the group virtually useless. Within six months of GLF’s birth, a number of members broke off to start their own group, The Gay Activist Alliance.
Founded in on the eve of 1970, the Gay Activist Alliance focused entirely on gay civil rights. There were no alliances with other social rights groups, nor did they adhere to an comprehensively revolutionary ideology. The GAA preferred to work within the system, hoping to change society by taking on political enemies and overturning anti-gay legislation. To that end, the group started the gay employment non-discrimination movement, a move that arguably paved the way for today’s legislation.
Despite ideological rifts, the GAA also adopted the GLF’s disorder-inducing, headline grabbing ‘zaps’, including protests against Mayor John V. Lindsay, the man many held responsible for the Stonewall raid. And, also like the GLF, which disbanded in 1972, infighting and splintering sullied the GAA’s early success. By 1974, the group found itself essentially decimated, especially after arsonists took down its Soho firehouse HQ. Offshoots of the GAA, however, still exist today, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
The GLF and GAA may not have lasted long, but they left their legacy in the form of Gay Pride. Our current pride, however, bears little resemblance to the first rebellious pride: the GLF and GAA-sponsored Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day March. GLF and GAA allies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, meanwhile, also held June 28th celebrations of the queer insurrection.
Though thousands of activists participated in those first proper prides, one person more than any other deserves special recognition. And, surprisingly, it isn’t a gay man or a lesbian. It’s a bisexual named Brenda Howard.
Born in the Bronx on December 24, 1946, Howard came of age on Long Island. Described as exceptionally empathetic, Howard went on to become a registered nurse. Perhaps it’s this desire to heal that led Howard to the GLF and GAA. Regardless of motivation, Howard’s voice remained one of the loudest, most exuberant and productive of the time. It’s her efforts that helped gay activists lay the foundation for weeklong celebrations of gay pride leading up to the climactic Gay Pride Parade. Unfortunately, “the mother of Gay Pride,” who also founded the New York Area Bisexual Network, died of cancer in 2005.
Thanks to Howard and her homo-allies, gay pride grew exponentially throughout the 1970s. New York and Atlanta celebrated “Gay Liberation Day,” while San Francisco and Los Angeles adopted the less startling, “Gay Freedom Day”. Regardless of title, the gay free for all spread across the nation like wild fire, growing with each passing year. As time went on, gay pride found itself marching further and further away from the march’s culturally revolutionary principles.
The liberated 1970s weren’t without their downfalls. As we know all too well, the free loving sexual revolution helped usher in one of the most devastating plagues in human history. American gays were decimated.
The movement found itself drawn less toward public displays of faggotry and closer toward calls for health care, government involvement and funding for research into what would later be called Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
With the GLF and GAA disbanded and other energies focused on fighting the AIDS crisis, gay pride found itself taken over by new, more organized and decidedly more moderate groups. In New York, for example, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade became, quite simply, Gay Pride.
Produced by non-profit Heritage of Pride, New York City’s festivities opened the door for a more corporate sponsorships, media coverage and commercial allure. Pride shed its leftist visions for an acknowledgement of sexual diversity, an insistence of said sexual diversities’ social draws and declaration of homosexuality’s inalterable inherency.
The ideological – and economical – shift led many groups to admonish the sterilized stampede. It’s worth mentioning that despite Heritage of Pride’s perhaps homogenous aura, the do not call Gay Pride a parade. It remains a march. Or so they say:
Heritage of Pride, Inc., like its predecessor the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, has always called this event a March. HOP feels that until the day all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people can live their lives without violence, harassment, and discrimination, they must continue to march openly and proudly.
As opposed to a parade, a march points to political grievances.
Historical nod aside, some say such organizations helped fuel the current non-queer commercialization of gay pride. The commercialization trend accelerated into the 1990s, when gay neighborhoods and exponentially expanding bank accounts altered the landscape entirely. Gone were the zaps and in were the khakis. Gay pride’s become a serious business.
Homos help cities rake in millions and millions of dollars during the month of June. This commercialization – and the injection of mainstream policies – have led many so-called gays to reject the Stonewall commemorations. Though organizations such as Gay Shame are a relatively recent development, the tensions go back to the very first gay pride.
Tomorrow, we’ll attempt to explain who, what, when, where, how and, most importantly, why…