During the early hours of Saturday 28 June 1969 patrons of the Stonewall Inn, the most popular gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, fought back against a police raid: as coins and beer bottles rained down, the surprised and terrified police were forced to take refuge inside the inn – which was soon set ablaze. It took two hours for re-enforcements from New York City’s elite Tactical Patrol Force to restore order. The next night a crowd of 2,000 protesters gathered, and by early evening the scene outside the battered Stonewall was akin to a carnival or street party: “handholding and kissing became endemic; cheerleaders led the crowd in shouts of ‘Gay Power’; and chorus lines repeatedly belted out refrains of ‘We are the girls from Stonewall’.” The police kept a careful watch.
The dramatic events of June 1969 are widely seen as marking the birth of the gay liberation movement, and they continue to inspire admiration and respect today. In the United States the aftermath of the riot saw an explosion of gay organizing. In addition to the founding of the high-profile Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, scores of other organizations were formed in cities and on college campuses across the nation; and there was a remarkable flowering of gay culture too – illustrated by the growth of gay newspapers, churches, coffee shops and bookstores, for instance. Moreover, Stonewall’s international significance was recognized immediately by contemporaries; one gay activist, in a cheeky analogy with the American Revolution, described the riot as the “hairpin drop heard round the world.” Inspired in part by events in New York, gay liberation organizations were formed in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and in Western Europe and a tradition quickly emerged of holding gay pride events and protests to coincide with the anniversary of Stonewall. In 1989 when British gay rights activists, including Sir Ian McKellen, decided to organize against the homophobic policy of Margaret Thatcher’s government they chose to name their group ‘Stonewall’.
Next week, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people around the world, along with our friends and allies, will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riot. At a time when many battles remain to be fought and victories won, and when everyday life for LGBT people in so many countries is marred by fear and violence, it is entirely fitting that we should remember with pride the activists of June 1969 and salute their courage, draw on their example, and celebrate too the considerable progress made these past 40 years.
But while widely viewed as the first ever act of gay resistance, a sort of gay ‘year zero’, it is also worth recalling that four years before the iconic events in New York, a group of forty or so brave gay and lesbian activists spent July 4th protesting outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia to urge the United States government to grant its homosexual citizens the equality that the nation’s founders had promised. Dressed smartly (collars and ties for the men, dresses for the women), they carried signs that stated “Homosexual Americans Still Don’t Have Our Sacred Freedoms & Rights” and “We Want: Equal Treatment By Our Fellow Citizens.” The activists explained that the closing of gay bars was a denial of the right to free assembly and that the criminalization of homosexuality was a denial of the “right to the pursuit of happiness.”
(Watch the entire FILM on PBS here - http://video.pbs.org/video/1889649613 )
Craig Rodwell, who came up with the idea for the Independence Day protest, would be there inGreenwich Village in June 1969 – an illustration of how those active in what was termed the ‘homophile’ movement during the early 1960s helped to lay the groundwork for the gay liberation movement that followed. Indeed, homophile activists pioneered the use of direct action (protesting outside the White House, the United Nations and the Pentagon in addition to Philadelphia); challenged the closing of gay bars, the use of police entrapment tactics and petty harassment; worked to end the policy of excluding homosexual immigrants; and organized protests against federal employment discrimination. They also contested prevailing notions that deemed homosexuality a ‘sickness’ and in 1968, led by Washington, D.C. activist Franklin Kameny, adopted the slogan ‘Gay is Good’ (a clear precursor to the ‘Gay Pride’ sentiment of the 1970s).
And Stonewall, of course, wasn’t the first time that patrons of a gay bar had protested. In Los Angeles a police raid on the Black Cat, a popular gay bar on Sunset Boulevard, in the early hours of 1 January 1967 had prompted a series of demonstrations and pickets to protest police harassment and a year before Stonewall, following a raid on another L.A. bar, The Patch, a group of activists had marched to a flower shop, purchased “all the gladioli, mums, carnations, roses, and daisies (but not pansies)” and delivered several huge bouquets to officers at the nearby police station. With their jackets and ties and their peaceful, restrained protests, the homophile activists of the mid-1960s can look rather old-fashioned; certainly they do not seem as immediately exciting as the dashing, daring revolutionaries who came later. But without them, there’s every chance that we would never have heard of Stonewall, and that is something worth remembering this June 28.