Thursday, June 25, 2009

Stonewall: The Uprising That Smashed the Closet Door for Generations of Gay People

In the Hot and Sultry Small Hours of June 28, 1969, Gay Patrons at New York's Stonewall Inn Fought Back Against a Raid by Cops Who Peppered Them With Homophobic Insults and Threats; Forty Years Later, Gays and Lesbians Are Settling Down, Getting Married and Even Raising Families

In this, the only known photograph taken of the first night of the Stonewall Riots on June 28, 1969, New York City police officers push back protesters while conducting a raid of the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar that catered to gay patrons. While the raid was one of many against the city's gay bars that had been conducted by the police for years, the raid at the Stonewall touched off three nights of violent protests by outraged gays. The uprising is credited as the beginning of the modern gay liberation -- later gay rights -- movement, the 40th anniversary of which will be celebrated with massive gay-pride parades and festivals across the United States and around the world this weekend. (Archive photo courtesy New York Daily News)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, June 25, 2009)


Forty years.

It's hard to believe that four full decades have passed since members of "New York's Finest" staged a raid on a gay bar in the city's Greenwich Village -- and in the process, sparked a social revolution that continues to reverberate to this day.

Forty years.

It's hard to believe that two entire generations of gay men, lesbian women, bisexuals and transgendered people (Known collectively by the acronym GLBT) -- not to mention their heterosexual friends and family members -- have been born and have grown up in the four decades since the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against the police.

First of a Three-Part Monthly Series

Forty years.

It's hard to believe that there are now two generations of GLBTs that have knowledge of active, thriving and, most importantly, out-of-the-closet communities of their own all across America and around the world -- even if there isn't necessarily one in their own hometown, but which they can still be connected with via the Internet.

Forty years.

It's hard to believe that now, in many cities across the United States -- both large and small -- there is a third generation born after Stonewall whose parents are as likely to take them to see a dazzling display of the rainbow colors at a Gay Pride parade in June as to see an ocean of kelly green at a St. Patrick's Day parade in March or the patriotic red, white and blue of an Independence Day parade in July.

Forty years.

It's hard to believe that there was a time not too long ago when almost no one -- not even gays and lesbians themselves -- gave a moment's thought to the idea of two men or two women standing before a justice of the peace or a member of the clergy and reciting the vows of marriage; those who did considered the idea patently absurd. Not anymore: Gay and lesbian couples by the thousands are now settling down, getting married -- and even raising families.

Forty years. Indeed, a lot has changed for gay people in ways that were unimaginable in 1969.

To the tens of millions of GLBTs, their loved ones, their friends and their relatives who have been celebrating throughout this month of June the freedom to be who they are -- a celebration that will culminate this weekend with massive Gay Pride parades and festivals in hundreds of cities, large and small, across America and around the world -- it is indeed impossible to imagine what life would be like for them today were it not for the "Stonewall Uprising" 40 years ago.


Indeed, it was a totally different -- and deeply hostile -- world for GLBTs in the 1960s, even in socially liberal cities such as New York and San Francisco. Yet as bad as things were at the time of Stonewall, Life for gay people was far worse in the 1950s.

Following the social upheaval wrought by World War II, many people in the United States felt a fervent desire to "restore the prewar social order and hold off the forces of change," according to historian Barry Adam in the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America.

The Cold War with the Soviet Union and the anti-communist witchhunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), turned the United States in the 1950s into a country in a state of national paranoia. Anarchists, communists, and other people deemed "un-American" and "subversive" -- including homosexuals -- were considered security risks.

Homosexuals -- the word gay, which previously meant "happy," did not generally become synonymous with homosexuality until 1970 -- were included in the blacklist by the State Department in 1950, on the theory that homosexuality was a "perversion" and that homosexuals were therefore prone to blackmail. Undersecretary of State James Webb noted in a report, "It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons."

Between 1947 and 1950, more than 1,700 federal job applications were denied, over 4,300 people, mostly men, were dishonorably discharged from the military, and more than 400 civilian employees were fired from their government jobs for being suspected homosexuals. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI and local police departments kept blacklists of known homosexuals, their favored establishments, and friends; the Post Office kept track of addresses where material pertaining to homosexuality was mailed.


In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as "a sociopathic personality disturbance." A comprehensive study of homosexuality in 1962 justified inclusion of a definition of homosexuality as "a pathological hidden fear of the opposite sex that was caused by traumatic parent-child relationships."

This view was widely influential in the medical profession. In 1956, however, Dr. Evelyn Hooker performed a study that compared the happiness and well-adjusted nature of self-identified homosexual men with heterosexual men and found no difference. Her study stunned the medical community and made her a hero to many gay men and lesbians, but the APA's definition of homosexuality as a "mental disorder" remained in place until 1973.

Considered by municipal authorities to be as "morally repugnant" as brothels, bars catering to homosexuals were routinely raided and shut down by local police "vice squads" and their customers were arrested and exposed in "name-and-shame" campaigns by newspapers. Cities often performed police "sweeps" to rid neighborhoods, parks, bars, and beaches of gay men.

Authorities -- in those days almost exclusively male and driven in large measure by what they saw as an affront to both their own masculinity and, ironically, the femininity of women -- held particular contempt toward "drag queens" by pushing through laws that outlawed cross-dressing.

Colleges and universities fired instructors -- even tenured professors -- suspected of being homosexual, on the grounds of "moral turpitude." Gay men and lesbians were jailed by the police, fired from their jobs by their employers, evicted from their homes by their landlords or committed to institutionalization in mental hospitals by doctors.

Under this climate, many gays were forced to live double lives, keeping their private lives secret from their professional ones -- and from their families.


In response to this trend, two California-based organizations -- known in the pre-Stonewall era as "homophile" groups -- formed independently of each other to advance the cause of homosexuals and provide social opportunities where gays and lesbians could socialize without fear of being arrested.

In 1951, a small group of gay men founded the Mattachine Society in the Los Angeles home of activist Harry Hay. Their objectives were to unify homosexuals, educate them, provide leadership, and assist "sexual deviants" with legal troubles.

Facing enormous opposition to its then-radical approach, the Mattachine Society shifted its focus in 1953 to assimilation and respectability. They reasoned that they would change more minds about homosexuality by proving that gays and lesbians were normal people, no different from heterosexuals -- a focus that many GLBT organizations have followed ever since.

Two years later, in 1955, a group of eight lesbian women in San Francisco banded together to found the Daughters of Bilitis. Although the DOB's founders were initially motivated by a desire for a social alternative to lesbian bars -- which were illegal and thus subject to raids and police harassment -- the DOB soon developed similar goals to the Mattachine Society, and urged their members to assimilate into the general society.

One of the first direct challenges by gays to government repression came in 1953. An organization named ONE Inc. -- an outgrowth of the Mattachine Society -- published a magazine called ONE, that the Post Office refused to mail. The magazine's first issue, mailed out in plain brown wrappers, concerned homosexuals in heterosexual marriages; the Post Office claimed it was obscene.

ONE Inc. challenged the ban as a violation of its First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which in 1958 declared the Post Office's ban unconstitutional and that ONE, Inc. could mail its magazine without interference.

It seems downright hokey to today's generation of GLBTs, but ONE Inc.'s legal challenge was incredibly daring for the socially repressive 1950s. It paved the way for other gay publications -- most notably the national newsmagazine The Advocate, founded in 1967 -- to be distributed by mail to subscribers across the country.


The early homophile organizations soon grew in number and eventually spread to the East Coast. By the mid-1960s, members of these organizations grew bolder.

Activist Frank Kameny founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. in 1958. He had been fired from the U.S. Army Map Service for being gay and sued unsuccessfully to be reinstated.

Kameny wrote that homosexuals were no different from heterosexuals -- often aiming his efforts at mental health professionals, some of whom attended Mattachine and DOB meetings and told members they were "abnormal" -- which outraged Kameny.

On April 17, 1965, Kameny, inspired by the African-American civil-rights movement, organized an unprecedented, yet polite picket of the White House and other government buildings to protest employment discrimination. The silent pickets -- men and women dressed in business attire and carrying signs reading "End discrimination against homosexuals" -- shocked many people and upset some of the leadership of Mattachine and the DOB.

Kameny's protests across Washington came against the backdrop of demonstrations by the black civil rights and fledgling feminist movements and growing opposition to the Vietnam War all growing in prominence, frequency, and severity throughout the 1960s, as did their confrontations with police forces.

But it was precisely because of the rise of a greater militancy in the various social-change movements of the 1960s -- especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 -- that those early efforts by Kameny, now 81, to advance the cause of equal rights for gay people would prove to be quite modest in comparison with what would happen 250 miles northeast of the nation's capital early in the decade's final summer.


It was an oppressively hot and muggy night in New York City in 1969 as the clock struck midnight and the calendar flipped from Friday, June 27 to Saturday, June 28. Just over an hour later, four plainclothes police officers in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, a detective and a deputy inspector walked through the Stonewall Inn's double doors and announced "Police! We're taking the place!"

Four undercover police officers -- two women and two men -- had entered the Christopher Street bar earlier that evening to gather visual evidence, as the Public Morals Squad waited outside for the signal. Once inside, the officers called for backup from the nearby Sixth Precinct, using the bar's pay telephone.

Approximately 200 people were inside the Stonewall that night. Suddenly, the music was turned off and the house lights were turned on. Patrons who had never experienced a police raid were confused, but a few who realized what was happening began to run for doors and windows in the bathrooms. Police barred the doors, and confusion spread.

The raid did not go as planned, however. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their IDs, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their gender, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested.

But the drag queens that night refused to go with the officers. The other patrons in line likewise refused to produce their IDs.

The police decided to take everyone present to the police station, and separated the drag queens in a room in the back of the bar. The atmosphere quickly grew tense, as male officers began to "bully" some of the bar's lesbian patrons by "feeling some of them up inappropriately," according to one eyewitness account, while frisking them and haranguing them with homophobic and sexist insults.

Those who were not arrested were let out the front door, but rather than leave, they gathered outside and by the time the first patrol wagon arrived, a large crowd had grown in Sheridan Square Park, across the street from the bar. Fearing potential crowd control problems, a police inspector called for a second patrol wagon.


By all accounts, the crowd grew angry and hurled insults at the cops when an officer shoved a drag queen into the patrol wagon, who immediately responded by hitting him on the head with her purse. When a rumor spread through the crowd that patrons still inside the bar were being pummeled by officers, The crowd erupted with a barrage of coins, rocks and bottles.

A fight broke out when a lesbian in handcuffs being escorted to the police wagon broke free and fought with four officers, kicking and swearing at them before she was clubbed in the head by one of the arresting cops. At that point, all hell broke loose, as the crowd -- chanting "Gay Power!" and branding the officers "Pigs!" -- launched another barrage of rocks, bottles and bricks.

The police responded by charging into the crowd, knocking several people down. But instead of fleeing, the crowd -- which by this time had vastly outnumbered the cops, charged back, attacking the police vehicles by smashing their windows, slashing their tires and attempting to overturn them. Several of the rioters somehow managed to rip a parking meter from its moorings and hurl it at the cops. Stunned by the outburst, at least ten of the officers retreated from the fusillade by barricading themselves inside the Stonewall.

Police reinforcements soon arrived and beat the crowd away, but the following night, the crowd returned, even larger than the night before, with numbers reaching over 1,000. For hours, the protesters clashed with police outside the Stonewall until a full riot-control squad was sent to disperse them. For several days following, smaller demonstrations of varying intensity took place by gays throughout Manhattan.

In a historical irony, Stonewall would prove to be the last major urban riot in America in the 1960s. Compared to the highly destructive race riots that engulfed scores of inner-city ghettoes the two previous summers, Stonewall was a minor disturbance. And because -- in the words of one snarling New York newspaper editor -- it was "a bunch of faggots, dykes and trannies" doing the rioting, Stonewall got only minimal news coverage by an incredulous mainstream media.

Only the alternative weekly The Village Voice gave Stonewall the page-one treatment -- even delaying its normal Wednesday publication by a day to provide comprehensive coverage. But the otherwise staunchly liberal weekly's use of anti-gay slurs to describe the protesters touched off yet another night of rioting.

In the end, though, the gay community would never be the same again after that tumultuous week.


In the immediate aftermath of the riots, several gay advocacy groups were formed, such as the Gay Liberation Front, which became notorious for its so-called "zaps" -- noisy disruptions of elected officials' public appearances and other events that the GLF believed promoted anti-gay prejudice.

[The GLF's militant tactics would later inspire the creation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the 1980s and Queer Nation in the early 1990s. The British branch of the GLF survives to this day as OutRage!, led by activist Peter Tatchell.]

One year after the riots, gays assembled on Christopher Street on June 28, 1970 to mark the first anniversary of the uprising with a protest march from Greenwich Village to Central Park in what became the world's first-ever "Gay Power" march. Although the parade permit was delivered only two hours before the start of the march, the marchers encountered surprisingly little resistance from onlookers, save for anti-gay heckling from construction workers.

Gays in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles also marked the occasion with marches of their own. Within two years, gay rights groups had been started in nearly every major city in the United States and over the next four decades, the protest marches marking the anniversary of Stonewall evolved into today's celebratory parades of gay pride.


But the Stonewall riots also spawned a GLBT community that for many years was fractured along fault lines of race, class and especially gender -- the only common denominator being same-gender erotic attraction.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s -- until the onset of the AIDS crisis that decimated gay men and put lesbians in the forefront of many GLBT organizations as a result -- the gay rights movement was almost exclusively male and, to this day, remains predominantly white. Only in recent years have bisexuals and transgenders begun to fully assert themselves. Yet despite its differences, the GLBT community continued to advance in legal and social acceptance, despite seemingly long odds.

On the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1999, four retired police officers who participated in the raid on the Stonewall took part in that year's New York Gay Pride Parade. In an emotional display of reconciliation, the retired officers rode in a "Veterans of Stonewall" float with surviving patrons of the bar.

The day before, the Stonewall Inn -- which reopened in 1994 -- was designated a national historic landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In a dedication ceremony, then-Assistant Interior Secretary M. John Berry stated, "Let it forever be remembered that here—on this spot—men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire."

As GLBT Americans gain greater and greater acceptance in the broader society, particularly with the younger generation -- even in the face of increasingly bitter opposition by religious conservatives -- it is becoming more and more evident that, 40 years after Stonewall, there is no longer a closet for GLBTs today to go back into.

COMING THURSDAY, JULY 16 -- Part II: A look back at the landmark Apollo 11 moon landing.

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Volume IV, Number 50
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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