Intertwined Movements: An Analysis of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the Greater 60s Culture of Protest
In the early morning of June 28th, 1969, police descended upon the Stonewall Inn of New York City’s Greenwich Village, unexpectedly inciting a nonlethal violent response from its predominantly LGBT patrons. The police raid was not a one-time event – police had been raiding gay bars in the surrounding neighborhood for years prior, citing local liquor licensing laws as their motivation.1 Inspired by the momentum that other liberation movements and political protests of the 60s were gaining, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn decided on impulse that enough was enough.2 In an uncharacteristic act of violent protest, the LGBT community of New York City rioted against the police over a period of multiple days. From the perspective of outsiders at the time, the riots seemed like nothing more than an immature, drunken backlash started by a bunch of rowdy queens. However, the riots were fueled by the LGBT community’s deep-seated resentment against the many ways in which mainstream heterosexual society oppressed them.3 From that night forward, the number of people involved in gay rights organizations increased exponentially, and gay activists began to take a more assertive approach than before.4 Aiming to form solidarity with all of America’s downtrodden, post-Stonewall gay rights organizations also sought out alliances with other liberation movements and political protestors, including some more controversial groups such as communists and the Black Panthers.5 Though the Stonewall Riots were the spark that kickstarted the gay liberation
movement of the late 1960s through mid-1980s, the movement would have never gained the momentum it did, were it not for the inspiration it received from other liberation movements and political protests of the 1960s.
In the early 1960s, the gay bars of New York City’s Greenwich Village were subject to discriminatory liquor licensing laws and disproportionate harassment by law enforcement. According to New York’s State Liquor Authority, bars that served alcohol to gay people were classified as “disorderly houses,” and were thus effectively barred from obtaining licenses to sell liquor.6 Gay bars that slipped through the cracks and obtained licenses despite the restrictions often had their licenses revoked due to “indecent conduct,” or were frequently raided by police.7 As a result of police harassment, over 1,000 arrests were made in the early 1960s in New York on the basis of “solicitation of a male partner,” and around 250 arrests were made on the basis of “sodomy” – defined as oral or anal sex.8 Though around 40 to 70 of those sodomy arrests involved offenses against minors, the majority of arrests were made on the basis of sexual relations between consenting adults.9
To establish a legal basis for their raids, local law enforcement frequently sent plainclothes officers to gay bars in search of evidence of illegal activity.10 In response, some gay bars adopted elaborate systems to defend themselves from secret agents. For example, the Heights Supper Club “had a signal-light system that warned the boys to stop dancing with one another” when a visitor was suspected of being an undercover policeman. Indeed, “dancing without a cabaret license” was amongst the many excuses that undercover police used to justify raiding gay bars – along with “loud jukeboxes” and “insufficient lighting”.11 The Stonewall Inn
made use of a much simpler deterrent measure, posing as a private “bottle club,” in which visitors brought their own liquor bottles in beforehand and drank it later. Legally speaking, this allowed Stonewall to serve alcohol without a liquor license – though the bar also sold alcohol directly to customers by labeling its own bottles with random names to fool the police.12 Additionally, visitors would sign their name at the door, indicating their membership. Most visitors listed themselves by pseudonyms to protect their privacy.13
The Stonewall Inn’s public image as a private bottle club was not enough to defend the bar on its own. In fact, the real key to the Inn’s self-defense was the fact that it was run by the Mafia. Tony Lauria, a member of the prominent Genovese crime family, found a business opportunity in running gay bars in Greenwich Village when no one else could safely do so. Lauria, otherwise known as “Fat Tony,” purchased the Inn from its previous owners with the intention of converting it into a gay bar in 1966 – and thus, the Inn had been under Mafia control for the entirety of its existence as a gay bar.14 This is not to say that Lauria was “protective” of New York’s gay community – in fact, the Mafia blackmailed patrons of the Stonewall Inn, threatening to “out” them if they did not give them money. Furthermore, the Mafia engaged in shady business practices such as watering down the liquor and selling it at top-shelf prices.15 Nevertheless, the Inn would have come under far greater fire from the police had Lauria not regularly bribed the local precinct with upwards of $1,200 to stay away.16 Thus, the gay community of New York City was simultaneously indebted to and exploited by the Mafia.
Gay activism existed before the Stonewall Riots – however, the “gay liberation movement” of the late 1960s through mid-1980s was not yet mainstream. Rather, gay rights activist organizations in the early 1960s collectively represented the “homophile movement” – a superficially similar movement that nevertheless had a different modus operandi and a radically
different set of values and objectives. At the time, the word “gay” was not universally understood to mean “homosexual” in the United States. Indeed, a 1963 New York Times article on homosexuality in New York City had to explain to readers that the term “gay” was a slang term that homosexuals used to refer to themselves.17 The term “homosexual”, as popularized by the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, was the most widely used term for gay people at the time, especially amongst psychiatrists who claimed that homosexuality was a mental illness. Thus, “gay” was not in the title of the homophile movement.
The Homophile Movement, though politically moderate by today’s standards, represented the first collective, organized push for gay rights. The core mission of the homophile movement was to organize public demonstrations in support of gay rights and attack the popular notion that homosexuality was a mental illness.18 Prominent homophile activist Frank Kameny envisioned a movement that would be “modeled on the black civil rights movement as formulated by nonviolent leaders such as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.”.19 The homophile movement adapted the civil rights movement’s “Black is Beautiful” slogan in the form of its own motto – “Gay is Good”.20 With the help of his younger associate Craig Rodwell, Kameny organized two picketing events in 1965 protesting Fidel Castro’s plans to put Cuban homosexuals in concentration camps.21 Inspired by the pickets, Rodwell proposed the Annual Reminders – peaceful demonstrations held every Fourth of July outside the Independence Hall in Philadelphia reminding the public that gay Americans did not have the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Demonstrators at the Annual Reminders were “dignified and orderly”, wearing respectable clothing and giving out smiles at every turn – and the police were respectful in turn.22 Nonviolent protest, as well as keeping up an image of homosexuals as “respectable Americans”, was crucial to the relatively positive reception the Annual Reminders received. However, one of the most powerful techniques in Martin Luther King Jr.’s arsenal was missing from the Homophile Movement – civil disobedience. While Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged protestors to break discriminatory laws to highlight the ways in which African Americans were discriminated against, the Homophile Movement limited itself to peaceful assemblies in legally acceptable public forums.
Inherent in the homophile movement’s goal of keeping up a façade of gay people as respectable Americans was an aversion towards excessively radical politics. Foster Gunnison Jr., a founding member of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO), wanted to contradict the popular view that homosexuals were “far-out types and professional non-conformists”, believing that a publicly visible pool of “normal” middle-class homosexuals would best help the homophile movement succeed.23 Similarly, Frank Kameny’s worst fear was the homophile movement being overtaken by beatniks and young people that subscribed to fringe ideologies.24 The Mattachine Society, the earliest prominent homophile organization, was originally set up by communists in the 1950s, but the Red Scare convinced the organization that gay activists should instead conform to or accommodate prevailing social norms, and even seek advice from psychiatrists.25 Kameny, who joined the Mattachine Society after its conception, established a “Homosexual Bill of Rights” in 1968, which included amongst its goals the acceptance of homosexuals in the military and federal employment.26 Kameny was fired from the Army Map Service for this.27 In other words, a secondary objective of the homophile movement was to show that homosexuals opposed the things the average American opposed, such as communism, and were patriots that wanted to integrate into the military – which at the time, was wrapped up in the controversial Vietnam War.
The June 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn provided just the right conditions to spark the gay community’s first well-publicized violent protest against police harassment. Usually, the Mafia was tipped off by an informant before New York City’s Sixth Precinct conducted a raid on the Stonewall Inn. However, this time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms discovered that the Stonewall Inn’s liquor bottles had no federal stamps on them – indicating they were bootlegged or stolen from the distillery. Further BATF investigations discovered the bar’s “corrupt alliance with the Sixth Precinct”.28 Thus, the BATF kept the Sixth Precinct in the dark about the raid until the last minute, presumably with the goal of catching the bar’s owners off-guard.29 As a result, Fat Tony was late to respond to the raid because he was high on methamphetamines that night.30 The patrons of the club were also caught off guard, and many of them were not prepared with IDs to show the police. The standards for arrest in the raid were low. Chico, a forty-five year old patron, was arrested for being unable to show an ID proving he was of drinking age. Eighteen-year old Joey Dey was arrested for dancing.31 Both male and female patrons were arrested for not wearing at least three articles of clothing appropriate to their gender.32 The ambush, combined with the low standards for arrest, made this routine raid the one that broke the camel’s back.
In the heat of the moment, the Stonewall Inn’s patrons fought back with physical force. At first, the physical resistance was limited to select individuals resisting arrest, but the fighting quickly erupted into an all-out brawl between police and an angry crowd. The incensed patrons screamed phrases such as “Gay power!” and “Pigs!” at the cops as they weaponized everything from high heels, coins, garbage, and even bricks against the police.33 A New York Times article published the following day – which emphasized the injuries police officers sustained rather than the reasons the patrons fought back – even reported a parking meter being thrown at law enforcement.34 At two-fifty-five A.M., the Tactical Patrol Force – a crack-riot control unit that was created to respond to Vietnam War protests – was summoned to the scene. Despite the additional force, the riots continued until the following night. Upon catching word of the events of the first night, homosexuals from all over New York City came to Greenwich Village to participate in the second night of the riots.35 Despite reports from local news dailies that the second night was less violent than the first, the truth was that the TPF had progressed to bashing heads and breaking the bones of Stonewall Inn Patrons. In other words, violence was only worth reporting on if law enforcement officers were the victims.36
The Village Voice, an alternative news weekly based out of Greenwich Village, had a mixed response to the Stonewall Riots. On July 10th, an editorial mockingly referred to the riots as the “Great Faggot Rebellion”, calling the second wave of protestors “tourist faggots” and “class-A deadbeats”.37 Though the author was not fond of the idea of police, he claimed that even TPF officers were okay as individuals and that the violence coming from both sides was more depressing than inspiring.38 In the July 3rd edition of The Voice, an eyewitness reporter gave an outsider account of the riots, describing the events in vivid detail for shock value. Nevertheless, the reporter was willing to listen to the rioters, one of whom commented that “the gays… were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags had 10 years ago”.39 The reporter accurately predicted that a manifesto for the movement would soon be written, and that “the liberation [was] underway”.40
Jerry Hoose, a gay resident of Greenwich Village, figured that the Stonewall Riots would be a one-off event that would not go down in history.41 However, roughly a week later, Hoose encountered Mattachine Action Committee representatives advertising that they were planning a meeting to form a “more militant organization”.42 At the meeting, participants who suggested that gay activists should remain civil and amicable were shouted down before they could finish their sentences. One prominent participant responded by saying that the gay community “[didn’t] want acceptance, goddamnit! We want respect!”.43 Jim Fouratt, who was known for his antiwar activism, claimed that being “soft, weak, and sensitive… [is the] role society has been forcing these queens to play… We have got to radicalize… if it takes riots or even guns to show them what we are, well, that’s the only language that the pigs understand!”.44 By the end of the night, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed – a new gay activist organization named after the Communist Vietnamese National Liberation Front.45 The comments made during the meeting set the tone that the Gay Liberation Front would take in its activism – and by extension, the tone of the greater gay liberation movement the GLF would kickstart.
The final Annual Reminder occurred on July 4th, 1969, shortly after the events of the Stonewall Riots. As originally planned, Craig Rodwell showed up in a suit and tie and walked in a single-file circle without chanting. However, the crowd that showed up for the protest, which was roughly double the size of the previous riots, was energetic and dressed in jeans and T-shirts. A man crossed out the slogan on his sign and replaced it with “SMASH SEXUAL FACISM.!” Two women broke from the single file circle and held hands – to which Frank Kameny responded by karate chopping the women’s hands apart and telling them to stop. It had only been a week since the onset of the riots, and yet gay activism was already outgrowing its calm and amicable roots. Thus, the Annual Reminders had outlived their use.
A major difference between the Gay Liberation Front and the early homophile movement was that the GLF analyzed the struggles of homosexuals through a Marxist lens, believing that “true homosexual revolutionaries … must ally themselves with other groups oppressed by capitalism”.47 In its first major press release, the GLF announced that they identified themselves “with all the oppressed: The Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers… all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked up capitalist conspiracy”.48 Perhaps in part due to the GLF’s communist sympathies, in 1970, the FBI proposed that Craig Rodwell attend GLF meetings and report back to John Caufield, the head of White House security – an offer which Rodwell refused.49 Regardless, the GLF’s support of the North Vietnamese stood in stark contrast to Frank Kameny’s stated goal of integrating homosexuals into the U.S. military, which implied that gays and lesbians should contribute to the Vietnam War effort.
Though the homophile movement as led by Kameny had taken superficial inspiration from the peaceful protest tactics employed by Martin Luther King Jr., some members of the Gay Liberation Front were additionally sympathetic towards the Black Panthers – who drew inspiration from Marxist thought, assisted the poor, and returned fire against the police. In a show of solidarity, the GLF voted in late 1969 to donate $500 to the Black Panthers.50 Additionally, Jim Fouratt – who suggested naming the GLF after the Vietnam liberation struggle, and once harvested sugar cane in Cuba in support of Fidel Castro – posted notices for a demonstration in support of jailed Black Panther party members.51 Fouratt was not the only member of the GLF who was involved in other political and liberation movements. Indeed, many GLF members came from activist backgrounds.52 By 1970, it was clear that some prominent GLF members were more than willing to ally themselves with highly controversial political and liberation movements that could potentially hinder the reputation of the gay liberation movement.
Over the course of 1969 and 1970, the Gay Liberation Front acted in bold, daring ways that the relatively docile Homophile Movement would have never resorted to. Though violent protest never came back into prominent use, civil disobedience and exhibitionism had become the norm in gay activism. The GLF organized a sit-in at the Republican State Committee headquarters, demanding that the New York Republican Party come out in support of gay rights. Five protesters were arrested.53 Sit-ins were, of course, a protest technique popularized by the Civil Rights Movement. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the world’s first two gay pride parades were held in New York and San Francisco. The marchers were not concerned with looking respectable. Some marchers publicly dressed in opposite gender clothing to protest crossdressing laws. Others protested the criminalization of gay sex with provocative slogans such as “fucking is better than killing” or “make love, not babies” – the latter of which was inspired by the phrase “make love, not war” that was popular in the antiwar and sexual liberation movements.54 A sign that was seen in the march on New York’s Christopher Street summed up the reasoning behind the protesting methods well: “Better Blatant Than Latent”.55
What made the Stonewall Riots the catalyst for the gay liberation movement was not the violent protest tactics utilized, but the precedent it set for nonconformity and noncompliance with discriminatory laws in gay activism. Gay activists were no longer content to politely request liberation. Taking a cue from the assertive nature of other sociopolitical movements of the era, some gay liberationists chose to publicly embrace their “weirdness” and radical politics rather than attempting to convince the public that gay people were deserving of equal rights because they were normal, respectable Americans. Though certain radical ideologies such as communism would lose popularity amongst mainstream gay rights organizations in the 1990s, the alliances forged in the 1970s would lay the foundation for the LGBT community’s current prominent role in American left-wing politics. It is doubtful that the LGBT community would have organized on a large enough scale to secure the litany of legal rights they enjoy today, were it not for a politically charged pub brawl set against the backdrop of 1960s activism.
“4 Policemen Hurt In ‘Village’ Raid.” The New York Times, June 29, 1969.
Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
Doty, Robert. “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.” The New York Times, December 17, 1963, 1-33.
Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. Plume, 1993.
Dunlap, David. “Franklin Kameny, Gay Rights Pioneer, Dies at 86.” The New York Times, October 12, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/us/franklin-kameny-gay-rights-pioneer-dies-at-86.html.
Pettis, Ruth. “Homophile Movement, U.S.” GLBTQ Archives. 2008. http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/homophile_movement_S.pdf.
Spencer, Walter. “Too much my dear.” The Village Voice 14, no.39, July 10, 1969, 19.
Thorstad, David. “The Nature of Gay Oppression.” The Militant 35, no. 14, April 16, 1971, 15-22.
Truscott, Lucien. “Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square.” The Village Voice 14, no. 38, July 3, 1969, 1-18.
“Who was at Stonewall?” PBS, Accessed November 30, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/stonewall-participants/.
“Why Did the Mafia Own the Bar?” PBS, Accessed November 30, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/stonewall-why-did-mafia-own-bar/.