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OTD: The Stonewall Riots Bring a Sea Change in LGBT Activism

Content warning: Homophobia.

Today, despite the battle for LGBT rights and liberation being far from won, its cause seems more mainstream than it has ever been. At Pride celebrations in many countries, corporations and politicians join the marchers, keen to show themselves as allies of the movement. Given that, it is remarkable to think just how recently these same streets were battlegrounds in the struggle for rights and equality. On this day in 1969, New York’s Stonewall Inn was one such place. 

As Vicki Lynn Eaklor highlights in her ‘People’s GLBT History of the United States’, the events of June 28, 1969 did not represent the first instance of activism by this movement. In reaction to the enormous hostility faced by LGBT Americans, including being labelled a security risk to the Cold War nation in the ‘Lavender Scare’, activists had begun to fight for recognition of their humanity and right to be equal. In spite of these efforts, LGBT Americans still remained a heavily persecuted minority by 1969. Those conditions would contribute to the events of the Stonewall riots. Facing this persecution, they could only rely on a few underground clubs in which they could openly express their identities, many of which, including the Stonewall Inn, were Mafia-owned. On this pretence, the police would take the opportunity to raid these bars and clubs, line up customers and check their identification, arresting those not conforming to their gender identities. 

The Lavender Report

On this night though, those at Stonewall would not accept their fate, refusing to show ID or be arrested. Meanwhile, those who were not arrested, rather than leaving quietly, decided to congregate outside, and were joined by hundreds of others soon after. As rumours of police becoming increasingly violent towards those arrested inside the bar spread (and were verified by their behaviour towards the same people as they were led to police wagons outside), spontaneous riots erupted. Participants slashed the tires of police wagons and threw coins at police, leading to the police sending in reinforcements, and more beatings of rioters. Similar events occurred the following night, with around 1600 participating in all. 

Although Stonewall did not represent the first instance of LGBT activism, it was in many ways a crucial event in the history of the community. Participants noted its liberating impact upon their outlook with Michael Fader recounting, ‘we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around- it’s like standing your ground for the first time in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.’ 

Indeed, activists did not waste time in beginning to form new organisations. A month later, activists formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) with chapters across American cities, one of a number of organisations founded in the aftermath of Stonewall to advocate for LGBT rights that came to prominence in the 1970s, emphasising the importance of ‘Coming Out’ as a political act, to show the prominence of members of the movement, their place in society and right to have equality. They would need that organisation in the decades to come, facing the homophobic ‘Save Our Children’ campaign led by Anita Bryant, who succeeded in overturning anti-discrimination laws in Miami in 1977 but failed to ban the employment of LGBT teachers in California in 1978, as well as the insensitivity and neglect of the Reagan administration towards the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. 

Although these groups took a powerful legacy from Stonewall in their advocacy of LGBT rights, these events and their aftermath can also pinpoint their importance for intersectionality and co-operation between causes. The influence of other causes is evident in the events of Stonewall, where the singing of ‘We Shall Overcome’ borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement, and the chants of ‘Gay Power’ took inspiration from the Black Power movement. In the style activism that Stonewall gave life to, a shared understanding is also visible, with activists making use of the ‘Consciousness Raising’ techniques of feminist contemporaries, whilst organisations like the GLF were keen to stress their common cause with other struggles for liberation and equality. This philosophy came to the fore in the 1977 boycott of Coors Beer in reaction to the imposition of polygraph tests to determine employees’ sexuality, where gay activists and trade unions co-operated to end the practice, in a similar fashion to the ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ group in Britain, immortalised by the 2014 film Pride.

Stonewall then is a hugely significant event of recent American history. For LGBT activists it represented first and foremost a reaction against an oppressive society that refused to recognise their humanity and desires for equality. But it also presents an example of the importance and power of common cause between groups, whereby an understanding of the shared goals of groups could forge a politics of solidarity and build a better world from it.  

Photo credits from top to bottom shogunangelUS National Archives,

By Alex Riggs

History student at the University of Nottingham- current MA student, PhD student studying the presidential campaigns of Edward Kennedy and Jesse Jackson with Midlands4Cities funding from September!

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