Time to Tell the Truth About Stonewall—and the Flawed LGBT Activism That Followed
We should not mythologize the early gay liberation movement, which was often very male and white. We should also accept that conservative and radical activism work well in unison.
Was Stonewall really a riot?
Disgusted with the mainstreaming of gay liberation, a number of radically-minded queers, scholars, and activists have, on this 50th anniversary of the event, emphasized that the events of June 28 to 30, 1969, were a riot, started by trans women of color, which gave birth to a radical gay liberation movement that, for 10 years, pushed a radical and intersectional program of revolution.
In this telling, the assimilationist tactics of marriage equality, #loveislove, and the Human Rights Campaign are a betrayal of the radical roots of gay liberation.
This myth is neither accurate nor helpful.
First, while the three days of the Stonewall protests were sometimes riot-like, the actual sequence of events is far more complex, nuanced, and multi-vocal. In fact, they were just as multi-vocal as today, with the same conflicts between radicals, liberals, and moderates.
Protesters ranged from violent cells like the Motherfuckers and other anarchists and radicals of the '60s to moderate-minded gay and lesbian activists from the Mattachine Society. As Gideon Grudo pointed out in his excellent Daily Beast piece delineating the history and reality of the riots, the myth that the LGBT movement began with Stonewall is also false.
The first night, June 28, was the most riot-like, and also the most racially diverse. Police burst into the Stonewall, which, like most gay bars, was operating without a liquor license under the protection of Mafia bosses and police bribery; ironically, the instigator of the raid was a ‘good cop’ who refused to go along with the grift.
Cops harassed patrons, as usual. They performed “anatomy checks” on transvestites (as they were then known). They beat people up, including one lesbian, probably Stormé DeLarverie who shouted at onlookers, “Why don’t you guys do something!”
Surprisingly, some people did.
They fought back, throwing coins and trash at the cops, and eventually forcing the police to hide out in the Stonewall itself. (Despite the recurring theme of “who threw the first brick at Stonewall?” there’s actually, as Grudo and others pointed out, no record of such a projectile being thrown.)
On the second night, June 29, a wide range of protesters showed up. As participant and downtown arts fixture Penny Arcade told the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman a couple of years ago, “the Stonewall uprising happened because we were having demonstrations everywhere. It wasn’t unusual to have groups of people fighting the cops every other week. What was unusual about it was that it happened at a gay bar.”
That night was different. Arcade again: “Everybody was there. If you lived downtown you went over there. All kinds of people were there. We believed in coalition. There wasn’t violence. There were Black Panthers, ecologists there.”
By most accounts, night two was the most violent night—most of the violence coming from the wider Radical Left, as Arcade describes, rather than from queers specifically. (Incidentally, some participants, including DeLarverie, object to the term “riot,” which suggests chaotic violence, and prefer “rebellion” or “uprising.”)
In general, though, the second and third nights of Stonewall looked a lot like contemporary political protests, with a wide range of people and agendas in attendance, some radicals like Penny Arcade, some quieter gay protesters, some bystanders. Those nights were also, if you look at the photos, overwhelmingly white.
Even more problematic than the myths of Stonewall itself, however, is the misplaced nostalgia many radical queers today have for the Gay Liberation Front, or GLF.
In this gauzy, romantic view, the GLF embodied the radical spirit of queer activism at the time. The GLF, not the assimilationist Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis, pushed for the anniversary of Stonewall to become a day of angry, fuck-the-system protest. And the GLF succeeded in giving birth to a gay culture of radical liberty, hedonism, and sexual freedom that endured until the twin evils of AIDS on the one hand and assimilationist gay politics on the other.
This is almost entirely wrong.
First, the GLF’s peak influence lasted less than six months; though the organization endured until 1973, its most impactful leaders left in December, 1969, to form the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), because they wanted to focus exclusively on gay and lesbian activism rather than Marxist revolution and the rest of the radical left agenda.
Second, the GLF was a mess. It was tiny, fractious, constantly fighting with itself, and at once utopian in its vision and horribly blinkered in terms of what racial and gender justice might look like within its own ranks. It never had a large base of support, and according to numerous accounts, its leading personalities wouldn’t last a minute in #MeToo, let alone the anti-oppression Left of today.
Third, while it’s easy to condemn pre-Stonewall activists for being not confrontational enough, let’s remember that queer people were being jailed, beaten, forced to undergo shock-treatment, blackmailed, banned from housing, and subjected to public humiliation if they were even discovered by authorities.
Frank Kameny’s suit- and dress-attired protesters may seem tame today, but they risked more than most contemporary queers can imagine. Their courage was inconceivable.
Oh, and that first New York Pride march in 1970? It was an almost entirely peaceful “protest rally in Central Park,” in the words of the New York Times. And it wasn’t led by the GLF. Actually, the GAA marched first, followed by Mattachine. GLF activists were there too, but it’s hardly as if they ran the show.
Unlike the GLF, which sought to crush the system, the GAA sought to work within it. Mostly, anyway. In fact the GAA was torn by the same tensions between radicals and liberals that we see today.
In 1973, GAA president Bruce Voeller half-quit, was half-forced-to-quit over those very tensions—he was pushing for mainstream tactics, while much of the membership wanted to focus on ‘zaps’ and other street tactics. Voeller and many GAA leaders went on to found the National Gay Task Force, which is still around today (as the National LGBT Task Force).
The early movement was also overwhelmingly male and white. Also in 1973, many women left the GAA because they felt sidelined by the male leadership of the organization. The now-lionized Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson weren’t embraced by the early gay liberation movement—they were shunned, and often lived at the edge of poverty. There’s a reason why they started the extremely-short-lived Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) rather than continue to work within the ‘drag queen caucus’ of GLF.
Is this the utopia that the faux nostalgia for the “early LGBT movement” seeks to recreate?
In short, the ‘radical roots’ of gay liberation are a myth. The roots of gay liberation were always varied, some radical and others liberal or moderate, some confrontational and others assimilationist. Indeed as historian Hugh Ryan put it in an assessment of the LGBT movement’s origin myths:
In a larger historical frame, the post-Stonewall heyday of radical politicking exemplified by the Gay Liberation Front looks more like an anomalous blip. It was, after all, long preceded by the courageous and principled—but incredibly straight-laced—gay and lesbian organizing of the 1950s and ’60s. Groups such as The Mattachine Society (for gay men) and The Daughters of Bilitis (for lesbians) made a gambit for the decriminalization of homosexual acts mainly by arguing that, in every other respect, they were mainline, patriotic Americans.
None of this is to undermine the courageous, world-changing work of this generation of activists. I wouldn’t be living my life as freely as I do today if it weren’t for them. I am deeply grateful for their work.
But this Edenic myth of the radical gay liberation movement is untrue. Those early groups weren’t inclusive, intersectional, effective, or broadly supported. There was never a moment at which a majority of gay people were woke, radical, and fierce. At Stonewall and ever since, queers have been radical, liberal, moderate—even, God help us, conservative.
Untrue—and unhelpful. In fact, all of these tactics and ideologies have had an impact on queer lives. If no one had thrown that first… coin… at Stonewall, the mainstream would never have paid attention to us. And yet fifty years later, if HRC—yes, HRC—hadn’t brought Republicans as well as Democrats into the fold, the horrifying backsliding on LGBTQ equality that the Trump era has brought, especially against trans populations, would have been far worse.
The same interdependence holds for liberal campaigns for same-sex marriage, and radical demands for sexual and economic liberation regardless of relationship status; ACT-UP and GMHC; employment non-discrimination laws and economic justice.
Radicals push the edges, moderates secure incremental wins. Assimilationist gay men have, in the words of Barney Frank, “fought all my life for the right to be boring” and nonbinary and sexually fluid queers are forcing us to reexamine the inadequate and confining categories of law and convention.
Moreover, trying to “own” or “reclaim” the past is basically a fundamentalist move, not a progressive one. The past was messy, like the present. There were many ways to be queer, like now. And trying to Make Gay Radical Again is an oxymoron.
I’m not saying we all have to get along. That would be naïve. Radicals and incrementalists have different visions for the future, and different tactics in the present. The persistence of privilege, racism, sexism, and transphobia in elite gay circles is absolutely unacceptable. We don’t have to make everyone feel comfortable all the time.
But I refuse to invent a mythic past to suit my ideological preference. I refuse to say that my way of being queer is real and someone else’s is not. I refuse to flatten historical complexity into a fundamentalist vision of the past in which everyone was just like me.
I’m not sure what that kind of myth-making is, but I know it’s not pride, or power, or justice.