The 1969 Stonewall rebellion and lessons for today

The Stonewall Inn, New York City

Photo: Andrew Dolkart, Nat’l Park Serv.
The Stonewall uprising that began on June 27, 1969, in New York City was a shot that rang out around the world. It marked the arrival of the modern mass movement for equality for lesbians, gay men, transgender and bisexual men and women.

Small articles in the New York Times, New York Post and other news outlets described the melee that occurred as a “riot” involving several hundred youths throwing bricks, garbage, pennies and an uprooted parking meter at police after a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in downtown Manhattan.

The New York Daily News spewed the headline, “Homo Nest Raided—Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.” In fact, the diverse crowd that gathered at the Stonewall Inn and the youth who gathered on the street below were not only angry, but also taking history into their own hands by fighting back against police brutality and centuries of persecution and oppression.

The rebellion erupted after a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn. Like most gay bars, Stonewall was run by shady characters from organized crime syndicates and corrupt police, accustomed to bullying and brutalizing the gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. The LGBT people came from all over the New York/New Jersey region to find people like themselves—to escape, however temporarily, from the day-to-day grinding oppression of being queer in a brutal and intolerant society.

Capitalist policy: LGBT oppression

The policy of the capitalist state in the days before Stonewall was to suppress homosexuality and transgender expression, hound gays from their jobs and communities and use police repression against LGBT people. Police actions in all the major cities in the United States, from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Chicago and New York, were similar. In Los Angeles, cops brutalized gay gathering spots in Pershing Square and Echo Park, driving queer life deeper and deeper into the closets of despair and oppression.

All the institutions of capitalist rule, including the capitalist political parties, police, military, courts, universities and professional organizations—such as the American Psychiatric Association—defined homosexual and non-conformist gender identity as an aberration of nature or, at best, a form of severe mental illness that needed to be suppressed and isolated from mainstream society.

Along with running the bars to keep the gays in line, the police conducted operations against gathering spots for queer people, both in the streets and clubs. The police would enter a bar, rough up and arrest patrons for congregating or for illegal drinking. Inside the bars, signal lights were installed to warn patrons that either suspected undercover cops or uniformed police were approaching the bar.

When the signal lights went on, all touching and dancing would stop immediately. IDs would be checked by the invading cops and arrests made. Many, like those at the Stonewall Inn, lived with this day-to-day reality of harassment and discrimination. For people living “dual lives” or “in the closet,” jobs were lost, careers ended and families disintegrated as a result of being arrested and outed by the repressive state apparatus.

Members of the LGBT community demonstrate against the 1991 war on Iraq.

Stonewall changes history

The movement for LGBT rights did not begin with the Stonewall rebellion. Magnus Hirshfeld and the early socialist movement in Germany in the early 20th century gave birth to the modern LGBT movement. More recently, courageous and far-sighted individuals and organizations such as Harry Hay, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis in the United States, organized and fought for social justice for LGBT people. These struggles continued even during the repressive 1950s, where anti-gay witch-hunts were second only to the vicious anti-communist witch-hunts.

When the modern LGBT movement burst upon the world political arena in 1969, it marked a new era of LGBT struggle that has, through militancy and determination, influenced millions of workers and won significant support.

That June night, history changed when the crowd at the Stonewall was evicted from the bar and gathered on Christopher Street. There they fought back ferociously, hurling bottles at the police, using a parking meter as a battering ram, trapping some cops inside the bar and then torching it. Police backup arrived to disperse the crowd, arresting 18 people. Folk singer Dave Van Ronk was charged with felonious assault on a police officer.

At the front of the fighting crowd were militant drag queens and other transgender people, accustomed to fighting physically for day-to-day survival in a world with no civil rights and constant physical and verbal harassment. The courage and leadership in street tactics that came from transgender people with experience in militant self-defense is unfortunately often omitted in current histories of the Stonewall uprising.

For the following several consecutive nights, hundreds of LGBT youth gathered in the streets of Greenwich Village, fighting the police with rocks and bottles, marching and chanting “Gay power!” and “We want freedom!”

While coverage of the events in the bourgeois media was limited, word of the rebellion spread quickly around the city and the world.

Pride march in Washington, DC 2000.

Photo: Shawn Thew
Just one year later, in June 1970, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration took place in Central Park in New York and other cities, celebrating “Gay Pride” and demanding equal rights.

In following years, demonstrations were scheduled in more and more cities in the United States and around the world. Ten years later, the first National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights was held in Washington, D.C., attended by over 100,000 LGBT people and their supporters. This stunning outpouring came in the wake of the assassination of gay leader Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by a right-wing, racist, anti-gay ex-police officer, Dan White. In addition, the 1979 demonstration featured the first National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference, which drew hundreds of LGBT people of color.

Subsequent marches for LGBT equality drew over 500,000 people in 1987 at a peak moment of the AIDS crisis, protesting discrimination and bigotry by the Reagan administration, and over one million in 1993, one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history.

Capitalist rulers depend on inequality and division to maintain their rule over the vast majority who toil for their enrichment. Underlying capitalist economic relations are based upon the family, as defined by the bourgeoisie. Women and LGBT people are oppressed in order to sustain the ruling class’s hold on their wealth and power.

The militant new LGBT movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s drew its inspiration from the national struggles of Black, Latino, Asian and Native movements in the United States and national liberation movements around the world. One of the first militant and self-proclaimed U.S. gay liberation organizations called itself the Gay Liberation Front, inspired by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.

In unity with labor, LGBT organizations joined with Mexican American workers in Colorado against unfair labor practices and overt policies of discrimination of the right-wing Coors family brewery by initiating a nationwide boycott of Coors beer. It is still virtually impossible to find a gay bar that sells Coors beer.

Rally against racist policies of Badlands bar, San Francisco, April 26, 2005.

Photo: Bill Hackwell
Continuing the struggle

The growing movement for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has most recently focused on the demand for full same-sex marriage rights. The Bush administration and reactionaries everywhere have used this in their ongoing crusade against civil rights, affirmative action, immigrant rights, labor and all progressive movements.

In addition to referendums in several states banning same-sex marriage, other discriminatory actions are being adopted. These included a ban on even mentioning homosexuality in public schools, prohibiting same-sex couples from caring for foster children, banning gay men as sperm donors, and deporting LGBT immigrants. Right-wing zealots have linked their anti-gay attacks to attacks on secular education, science and even Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, trade unions, leading women’s organizations and other progressive movements, including the major LGBT organizations in the United States, poured millions of dollars into getting Democrats elected. After the Democratic Party’s defeat in the November elections, California Senator Dianne Feinstein—a self-described friend of the LGBT movement—attacked the same-sex marriage movement for acting “too fast” and “too soon” on marriage equality. Democratic politicians who blamed John Kerry’s loss on the equal marriage rights movement left many LGBT activists stunned, demoralized and angry.

Unity in action

Many of the larger, well-funded national LGBT rights organizations that emerged after Stonewall have distanced themselves from the day-to-day struggles of millions of LGBT workers who are as ethnically and nationally diverse as the working class as a whole. Rather than organize mass rallies and direct action, the self-proclaimed leaders call on LGBT people to focus their energies and resources on helping to elect pro-gay politicians to Congress. Rather than uniting in common struggle with others who are oppressed under capitalism these national LGBT rights organizations steer the struggle away from unity and mass action.

These organizations are, for the most part, tied to the Democratic Party and accept large corporate donations. The Democratic Party leadership, which does not support same-sex marriage rights, is pressuring LGBT leaders to settle for civil unions that do not provide federal benefits for same sex couples at all. To opt out for civil unions ignores the deep feelings for equal marriage rights that were expressed again and again at weddings in San Francisco, Oregon and elsewhere before the government intervened to stop them.

Important obstacles to the workers uniting to seize control of the wealth they produce are the capitalist tools of divide and conquer. Racism, sexism, bigotry and national chauvinism serve the interests of the capitalists by keeping the working class divided and unable to unite against its common enemy.

That is why the best leaders of the LGBT, anti-racist, women’s rights, labor and anti-war movements have struggled to build a united movement that connects and seeks to unite all the struggles.

The Stonewall rebellion marked a qualitative change in the struggle for justice for LGBT people. It was an important historical moment for the entire multinational working class in its struggle for unity against capitalism and imperialism. Ancient divisions regarding sexual and gender behavior were promoted by church and state alike and later incorporated by capitalism. These divisions will eventually be tossed into the dustbins of history by a socialist society based on sharing, cooperation, and true equality.

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