June is Pride month, as you’ve probably noticed.
As the mother of an LGBTQ youth, Pride is important to me. I want my child to know she should be proud of who she is and that she has a community that loves and respects her. Pride is both conceptually and practically important because there are going to be people who devalue her in this life. I want her to have the tools to deal with that.
As you probably well know, the early part of the 20th century was not a good time to be anything other than cis-het. After WWII the state department declared homosexuals to be a security risk and began dismissing anyone they suspected might be gay. There were also increased police raids on gay bars all over the US and laws enacted against cross-dressing. In 1955 a group called the Daughters of Bilitis organized in San Francisco. This was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the US. The group was focused initially on giving woman some privacy and educating other women about lesbians and address the self-loathing that came with living in such a repressive society. The group had to work within the paradoxical aims of being secretive and recruiting new members. They filed for a corporate non-profit status in 1957 with a completely vague description of themselves to avoid scrutiny. In 1956 the group began publishing The Ladder, the first nationally distributed publication specifically intended for lesbians.
The group advertised itself as “A Woman’s Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.” They composed a four-part statement that prioritized the purpose of the organization, and it was printed on the inside of the cover of every issue of The Ladder until 1970:
- Education of the variant…to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society…this to be accomplished by establishing…a library…on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions…to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
- Education of the public…leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices…
- Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
- Investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual, proposal of changes,…and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.
“Variant” was used instead of “lesbian” because in the 1950s the word “lesbian” had such a negative connotation.
The early gay rights movement, then called the Homophile Movement, was centered around the Mattachine Society, which we will get to in a moment. The leaders of these early groups thought the best approach was to convince heterosexual society that gay people were no different from themselves. The Daughters of Bilitis followed this model by encouraging its members to do everything they could do “pass” as heterosexual or assimilate into that culture.
For example, there was an ongoing debate in the early group meetings about the appropriateness of butch or femme dress. But by 1955 the group ruled that if a woman attended a meeting in pants, they had to be women’s slacks.
By 1960, letters from readers in The Ladder were appearing that expressed exasperation with the emphasis on heterosexual conformity in the DOB.
In 1961 in San Francisco there was the largest raid on a gay bar to date, which resulted in the arrests of 100 people, and in Chicago, in another raid, the police forced arrested women to prove they were not wearing men’s underwear. This led to a call in The Ladder for the DOB to be more active.
However, at the 1962 DOB conventions, national president Jaye Bell argued for assimilation and patience. But in 1963 the editorship of The Ladder changed from Del Martin to Barbara Gittings and that had a major effect on the direction of the organization.
Because The Ladder was how the leadership of the group communicated to its individual chapters, the editor was extremely important to the organization. Gittings made significant changes to the magazine, putting an emphasis on being more visible. One of Gittings’s priorities was aligning the DOB with the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO), a coalition of other social and political clubs for gays and lesbians. ECHO was established in January 1962, with its formative membership including the DOB chapter in New York, the Mattachine Society chapters in New York and Washington D.C., and the Janus Society. ECHO was meant to facilitate cooperation between homophile organizations and outside administrations.
The homophile movement was influenced by the successful activism of the civil rights movement (possibly partially because in 1964 Cleo Bonner, an African-American, was elected the DOB’s national president) and higher-profile members of the DOB began to picket the White House, the State Department, and other federal buildings in 1965 and 1966 with members of the Mattachine Society. Gittings, as editor of The Ladder, encouraged members of the organization to get active, and their protests soon became a subject of debate among leaders of the DOB. Gittings also ran a regular column in The Ladder that she called “Living Propaganda” in which she encouraged women to come out to those close to them. It often included contributions from Frank Kameny, the nation’s most famous gay rights activist. Some readers responded positively to Kameny and his activism, who in a speech declared homosexuals as normal as heterosexuals; and some didn’t appreciate the political nature of his approach. Still some, however, were angered that a man was suggesting to them what they should do. DOB leaders disliked Kameny and Gittings’ editorial decisions, and she was let go in 1966.
That year Shirley Willer, DOB president, penned an essay that pointed out some of the different problems faced by gay men and women. For example, gay men dealt with more police harassment, solicitation, and entrapment. Also, few women were arrested for cross-dressing. She argued that the kinds of problems lesbians dealt with were more like job security, and child custody and visitation. Because of this discrepancy, many lesbians felt a disconnect with homophile organizations, which were often focused on the kind of political or legal issues that gay men faced. Many members of the DOB felt that lesbians had more in common with heterosexual women than with gay men.
A generational rift also began to show. Younger members did not share the concerns of older members – they were more interested in revolutionary tactics than the patient, institutional, model of the original members. Some women became disillusioned and left, and many younger lesbians were more attracted to join feminist organizations, even though there was controversy over the place of lesbians in the feminist movement. By the time the 1968 convention was held less than two dozen women attended.
By 1972, The Ladder had run out of funds and it folded.
Many other lesbian organizations came in the wake of the Daughters of Bilitis. But the DOB managed to do something that had not been done before – it connected gay women across the country and gave them a community.
But the Daughters of Bilitis was not the center of homosexual activism before Stonewall. That, as we noted, was a group called the Mattachine Society.
The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950 by Communist and labor activist Harry Hay in Los Angeles with the goals of protecting the rights and improving the lives of gay men. Branches formed in other cities, and by 1961 the Society had various regional groups.
Most of the original Mattachine members and founders were Communists. As the Red Scare progressed, the association with Communism concerned some members as well as supporters and Hay, a dedicated member of the CPUSA for 15 years, stepped down as the Society’s leader. Others left or were forced out, and the leadership structure became influenced less by communism, and began to resemble something more like the kinds of civil rights organizations that existed for Black Americans.
The primary goals of the society were to
- “Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind”;
- “Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples”;
- “Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants”; and
- “Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression”.
The group expanded quickly, with estimations of membership in California at over 2,000 with as many as 100 people joining a typical discussion group by 1953. Membership diversified, as women and people from a variety of political and ideological backgrounds began to join the group. As that happened, some became concerned about the left leanings of the organization. There was a movement for the Mattachine Soceity to amend its constitution to clarify its opposition to so-called “subversive elements” and to affirm they were loyal to the United States and its laws. However, being loyal to the laws of the U.S. was somewhat problematic because the law of the land was that homosexuality was illegal. After some leadership changes the Society officially adopted non-confrontation as an organizational policy.
During the 1960s, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies were among the foremost gay rights groups in the United States, but beginning in the middle 1960s and, especially, following the Stonewall riots of 1969, they began increasingly to be seen as too traditional, and not willing enough to be confrontational. Like the generational divide that affected the Daughters of Bilitis, a new generation of activists wanted a more radical agenda. There was a sexual revolution going on, and young gay activists wanted to be a part of it. Several organizations that went under the name “Mattachine” fell apart as support dwindled or internal division tore the groups asunder.
So there was activity before 1969. Groups like the DOB and the Mattachine Society had been working to better the lives of gay men and women in America since the 50s. But most people would say the modern gay rights movement in America began with the Stonewall Riots.
The Stonewall riots were a series of demonstrations by members of the LGBTQ community in response to a police raid on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. The short version is that the police became violent, and the patrons of Stonewall fought back. But the full story is much more interesting and complicated than that.
By the early 1960s, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. had launched a campaign shut down all of New York City’s gay bars. The city revoked the liquor licenses of the bars and undercover police officers worked to entrap as many homosexual men as possible.
The gay bars weren’t even owned by gay people. Almost all of them were owned and controlled by organized crime, who treated the patrons poorly, watered down the liquor and overcharged for drinks. But, they also paid off police to prevent frequent raids.
Two undercover policewomen and two undercover policemen entered Stonewall early that evening to gather visual evidence, as the Public Morals Squad waited outside for a signal. Once inside, they called for backup. Stonewall employees were not tipped off that a raid was coming, even though they usually were.
At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969 there were just over 200 people at the Stonewall Inn. A bunch of police showed up at Stonewall and announced “Police! We’re taking the place!” The music was turned off and the main lights were turned on. There were some people there who had never been in a raid and got very confused. The more experienced ran for the doors and the windows in the bathroom, only to find that the police had barred them.
The raid did not go as planned. The usual procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification and have female police officers take suspected trans women to the bathroom to check their genitals, and any identified were arrested. That night, trans women refused. Men began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone to the police station, after separating those suspected trans women into a room in the back of the bar. A sense of discomfort spread very quickly, made worse by police who assaulted some of the lesbians by touching them inappropriately while frisking them.
Those who were not arrested were released, but on this night, they did not just leave. Instead, they stopped outside. A crowd began to grow. Within minutes, over 100 people had congregated outside, some after they were released from inside the Stonewall and some after noticing the police cars and the crowd.
A patrol wagon finally arrived to take people and alcohol away. The crowd had grown to at least ten times the number of people who were arrested. Confusion over radio communication delayed the arrival of a second wagon. The police began escorting Mafia members into the first wagon, to the cheers of the bystanders. Next, regular employees were loaded into the wagon. Somebody shouted, “Gay power!”, someone began singing “We Shall Overcome” and the crowd began to get increasingly more amused and hostile. A cop shoved a trans woman, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse and the crowd boo’d. Pennies, then beer bottles, were thrown at the wagon and rumors began to spread that people inside the bar were being beaten.
A small fight broke out when a woman in handcuffs was being taken from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon. She escaped a few times and fought the police, making a scene. The police had hit her on the head with a baton. Bystanders recalled that the woman encouraged the crowd to fight when she looked at them and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After a cop picked her up and threw her into the wagon, the crowd transformed into a mob and became uncontrollable.
The police tried to control the crowd, and by that I mean they started getting a little violent with them, which only incited the crowd even more. The crowd tried to overturn the police wagon and slashed its tires. The wagon and some police cars left, but were urged to return by lead officers quickly. The activity outside of Stonewall was quickly attracting more and more people who were learning what was happening. People began to yell that the reason the cops were there was that they hadn’t been paid off, and the crowd responded “Let’s pay them off!” They threw things and hurled slurs at the police. The police responded violently, and some of the crowd was pushed to a nearby construction site. At this point there were 500-600 people. The rioters broke the building windows and uprooted a parking meter that they used as a battering ram on the door. They lit trash on fire and stuffed it through the windows. The police had access to a fire hose with they turned on the crowd, but it didn’t have any pressure, so it only served to anger the mob even more.
The Tactical Patrol Force came to free the police trapped inside the Stonewall. A number of officers were injured. Once the police had more officers there they detained anyone they could and put them in patrol wagons. According to the police and witnesses, it was transgender people particularly who fought back most viciously and would not go peacefully.
By 4:00 a.m., the streets had nearly been cleared. Thirteen people had been arrested. Some in the crowd were hospitalized, and four police officers were injured. The Stonewall Inn was completely wrecked.
News of the riot spread quickly throughout Greenwich Village. There were rumors that it had been organized by the SDS, the Black panthers, or even triggered by a jealous gay cop. All day on June 28 people came to view the wreckage. Pro-gay and pro-trans graffiti appeared on the walls.
The next night there was more rioting. Some of the same people returned, but they were joined by a new crowd, as well. Gay people were out, throughout the street, expressing themselves and identifying openly, even showing affection publicly.
This time thousands of people gathered in front of Stonewall. The demonstrators spilled out of the street into the next blocks. The mob surrounded buses and cars and demanded that the occupants either admit they were gay or supported the protestors. Some demonstrators shattered the windshield of a police car.
The protestors started fires in garbage cans and after 2am the TPF were called in again. The street fighting went on until 4am.
And so the Stonewall Riot kickstarted the gay movement. After that the LGBTQ movement was much more visible and active in America. The Stonewall Riot was an outburst of LGBTQ frustration at being oppressed and marginalized and after that the gay community publicly said they weren’t going to take it anymore.
Stonewall was made into a National Monument in 2016.
The legacy of Stonewall and Pride is a bit fraught because some have tried to keep transgender people out of it and limit it to gay and lesbian rights. But that would not be true to the spirit of Stonewall as it was transgender women of color who were at the heart of it.
Pride has not always been family friendly, as it has always been a celebration of sexuality, and there is conversation and controversy today about what kind of atmosphere is appropriate for a Pride parade or festival. There is also the issue of the corporatization of Pride. It makes sense to proverbially vote with your wallet, right? If a company supports the LGBTQ community it makes sense to support that company. So on the one hand, it is great to see mainstream support of LGBTQ rights and the community – on the other hand, Pride started as an anti-establishment movement and it doesn’t really seem quite in the spirit of things for major corporations to be profiting off the backs of marginalized communities.
So this June, we encourage you to think about the spirit of Stonewall. Support transgender rights. Support queer people of color. Seek out queer owned businesses and do some shopping there.
The story of Pride is a radical one. It is anti-establishment. Practice accordingly.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.