The Stonewall rebellion, which took place on June 28th, 1969, was the opening salvo of a radicalization of the gay liberation movement. The New York City police, in an attempt to shut down the mafia-controlled Stonewall Inn, entered the bar, expelled all of the patrons and began dismantling the furniture. Unlike other, all too common police raids, this night, people did not slink off into the night, but got increasingly agitated until a riot broke out, White, black, and Puerto Rican, gay, lesbian, and transgender, all fought back against the police over three nights of fighting throughout New York’s Greenwich Village. The symbolic meaning of the riots, an attack on both the NYPD and the mafia that controlled the gay bar scene in New York, cannot be understated. Within a matter of weeks, radical gay liberation organizations sprang up in New York and around the country.
Stonewall was not the birth of the gay rights movement; there had been organizing in the decades before in the homophile movement of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Nor was Stonewall the birth of radical politics. Some of the first connections between gay rights and socialism were by Magnus Hirshfeld, a German socialist and gay liberation pioneer, and Harry Hay, who came out of the CPUSA to form the Mattachine society. Stonewall wasn’t even the first uprising; major riots had taken place for similar reasons in the transgender community at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco two years earlier.
The Stonewall rebellion was the spark that brought gays and lesbians who had cut their teeth in fights against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, to start to apply similar political tactics towards gay and lesbian rights. For the first time people used the slogan “gay power” and “gay is good.” The formation of groups like the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance also came as the repudiation of the old forms of quiet organizing by the early homophile groups. A new politics was emerging: gay liberation. Gay liberation saw homophobia and heterosexism as a force in society that needed to be fought against—and not just through civil rights, but through revolutionary change that would free individuals to be complete sexual human beings. Gay liberation had to go hand in hand with the fights for broader social justice as well. The GLF struggled for an anti-imperialist gay liberation. Unfortunately, the gay power organizations lasted only a few years, due to the decline of the new left, infighting, a group consensus process that slowed any visible external impact, and a New Communist Movement that wasn’t ready to embrace gays and lesbians into a vision of a socialist future.
With the decline of gay power/liberation politics came the rise of gay rights and gay identity. Gay rights narrowed the vision from a revolutionary change to the struggle for civil rights for gays and lesbians. This was no easy list of demands, as every state and city had criminalized gays and lesbians. As people came out of the closet, gays and lesbians were assaulted and killed at phenomenal rates across the country, often in the most gruesome of ways. People were fired from jobs and lives were being destroyed.
The gay and lesbian identity movement had the goal of allowing people to develop a sense of collective and individual identity and culture. And the identity movement also saw the need for visibility as a means to force hetero-normative society to acknowledge the existence of gays and lesbians.
The limits of these twin strategies are apparent as well. The gay rights movement was developed at the national level first with the creation of the Gay Task Force, and later, Lambda Legal Defense, and the Human Rights Campaign Fund. The large national organizations helped to define the parameters of gay/lesbian issues. Race and gender were not part of the equation. Nor were immigration reform, healthcare, or unemployment.
None of the large national groups have been very effective at developing movement at the grassroots level. Some of this has been by the nature of the closet, which made it hard to mobilize millions of lesbians/gays into an open grassroots movement outside of major metropolitan cities. The increasing professionalism of the national organizations also hindered the building of movement, as the base was seen as a silent partner to DC-based lobbying efforts.
Identity politics began with two tactics to fight what many called “the tyranny of the closet”: the act of coming out and the freedom parade. On an individual and collective level, when invisibility and denial quite literally destroys people’s sense of self, visibility becomes a political tool. Creating a sense of queer/trans culture helps to rebuild that sense of self, by creating a safe space for people to be who they are in an otherwise hostile society. By allowing people to feel whole again, they are more able to successfully challenge their own oppression.
But instead of creating a common cultural language, identity politics ended up creating more and more subdivisions of community, ignoring the intersection of race, class and gender. Although identity politics helped to build a base for grassroots political efforts, it did little to develop political theory that could help develop strategy and tactics outside of a cultural politics of critique.
Queer theory and politics in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were birthed from the early gay identity movement and continued it to its final conclusion: queer identity. Queer identity was in some ways a reaction to the continued subdivisions of community and culture in that it created an amorphous and amalgamated identity. Unfortunately, queer politics was unable to come to an understanding of race and white privilege and, to a large extent, remained a white movement.
So where has all of this led to? Many states have equal protection laws, anti-sodomy laws have been overthrown, and sexual orientation has been declassified as a psychiatric disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. There are openly gay and lesbian members of congress and other politicians. LGBT rights are recognized in multiple countries around the world to varying degrees, and many countries have legalized same-gender marriage.
But teenagers are still being bullied to death, gay, lesbian and trans people are still being murdered, and in many states, you can still get fired from your job, evicted from your house and refused service at a restaurant. Contrary to popular myth, LGBT people own less wealth and earn less than their straight counterparts.
What is needed is a return to the spirit and politics of the Stonewall rebellion and its aftermath on a national scale. We need all three aspects of the movement: LGBTQ rights, identity, and liberation. There also needs to be a thorough understanding of the nature of white supremacy and how it impacts LGBTQ individuals of all nationalities. And, like in 1969, we need to link the struggle for queer rights with the transformation of society and the redistribution of power. If revolution doesn’t also have a component of sexual liberation then it will be hollow for millions who will silently suffer in the closets of the world, and if the struggle for queer rights doesn’t end in the liberation of us all, then we may never win.
For further reading:
Gay Power, David Eisenbach (Caroll & Graf, 2006)
A Gay Manifesto, Carl Wittman (1969)
Manifesto issues by the Black Panthers regarding the Gay Liberation Front, Huey Newton (1970)
Combahee River Collective Statement (1977)
Eric See is a former member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation has been active in LGBTQ struggles since the early 90’s.
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