What Made Stonewall Different

Published in: July-August 2009 issue.


IN THE FORTY YEARS since the Stonewall Rebellion, an event that achieved legendary status almost before it was over, its power as a symbol has continued to rise more or less unabated. Four decades later—after two books, one film, several radio documentaries, countless articles and news stories; after hundreds of gay events and organizations named in its honor; and after becoming the first gay and lesbian site to be designated a national historic landmark—Stonewall retains its power to fascinate and inspire. On this anniversary both the BBC and PBS are making their first documentaries about the Stonewall Riots. It is therefore worth considering why Stonewall became such a ubiquitous symbol.

The place to start is the context in which the Stonewall Riots occurred. The perception that homosexuals had it hard before Stonewall is often accompanied by the belief that the further one goes back in time, the worse the situation for gay people was. If it was bad in the 1960’s, imagine how much worse it must have been in the 1950’s, the 40’s, and so on. But historians have shown us that this is far from the case. William N. Eskridge, Jr.’s 2000 book Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America demonstrates that colonial and American sodomy laws were written not with homosexuals in mind but with an entire range of nonprocreative sexual acts. Legal records reveal that the main categories of persons charged with sodomy were those who had sex with animals or used force to have sex with others, especially women and children. It was only in the late 19th century that sodomy laws started to be written with homosexuals in mind.

George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1994) disclosed that a thriving gay subculture existed in New York by the early 20th century. This subculture was sufficiently tolerated that it burst into the mainstream popular culture in the 1920’s and 30’s as the “pansy craze,” which in turn created a measure of gay visibility in films and plays. However, a backlash began during the Depression era and worsened during World War II, culminating in the cultural nightmare that was the 1950’s. David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare (2004) shows how the terror brought on by the Cold War fed a national hysteria about homosexuality. In the end it was homosexuals, even more than Communists or their sympathizers, who bore the main brunt of government purges. In 1953, Carlisle Humelsine, the security officer for the Department of State, testified before Congress that out of 654 State Department dismissals or forced resignations on security or loyalty grounds, 402 were for homosexuality. Johnson estimates that the number dismissed on suspicion of being gay during the McCarthy era would eventually rise to some 5,000.

The conflation of homosexuality and Communism occurred in part because during the Red Scare a hardening of the American psyche occurred, which engendered a corresponding desire for American males to be “tougher.” The hypermasculine male ideal that emerged in the 1950’s wreaked havoc on the image of gay men, who were perceived as inherently less masculine than other men. Sex offender laws were revised in the 1940’s and 50’s to stiffen penalties against homosexuals and to allow for their involuntary commitment to mental institutions. Once institutionalized, they were subjected to a ghastly range of “cures” that included chemical and electric shock treatments, castration, and pre-frontal lobotomy. Religious organizations were unanimous in their condemnation of homosexuals as sinners—completing what homophile activists like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings saw as a triple condemnation that left no escape for homosexual citizens: the law condemned them as criminals, medicine declared them insane, and churches branded them as sinners.

In GayLaw (1999), Eskridge summarized the litany of such laws and policies that were in place by the 60’s: “The homosexual in 1961 was smothered by law. She or he risked arrest and possible police brutalization for dancing with someone of the same sex, cross-dressing, propositioning another adult homosexual, possessing a homophile publication, writing about homosexuality without disapproval, displaying pictures of two people of the same sex in intimate positions, operating a lesbian or gay bar, or actually having oral or anal sex with another adult homosexual. The last was a serious felony in all states but one [Illinois], and in most jurisdictions also carried with it possible indefinite incarceration as a sexual psychopath…. If the homosexual were not a citizen, she or he would likely be deported. If the homosexual were a professional … she or he could lose the certification needed to practice that profession.”

This assault on lesbians and gay men explains why the self-image of homosexuals was so negative in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The minds of gay people had been so colonized by the heterosexual world that almost no one could imagine a positive gay identity, let alone a positive gay culture. Thus homosexual rights as a political cause—except for the extremely rare gay person who participated in the homophile movement—would not have occurred to most gay people, even those who were very politically engaged. For example, Danny Garvin, who in 1969 lived in the only gay commune in New York, often talked with his fellow commune members about the war in Vietnam and women’s rights, but they never had a single political discussion about homosexuality.

Michael Denneny had been very politically involved since the late 1950’s, when he was a teenager. He had sat in at the Woolworth counter in Providence in sympathy with the sit-ins conducted to protest segregation in the South and was thrown out of his high school for starting a front organization for Women Strike for Peace. When he went to the University of Chicago, he helped edit The Hawk and the Dove magazine, showing that in 1964 he was among the very few Americans who publicly questioned whether the United States should be in Vietnam. Still, he had never considered his homosexuality from a political perspective. “Homosexuality was so heavily psychologized that the idea of looking at it through a political lens just didn’t occur to me.”

When my friend Donn Teal, author of The Gay Militants (published in 1971), died last February, I examined his papers. Among his documents I found an envelope filled with the dozens of letters he received when he wrote the first article ever published in the New York Times by a person who self-identified as gay. The article, titled “Why Can’t ‘We’ Live Happily Ever After, Too?” published less than five months before the Stonewall Riots, criticized films, plays, and books for not providing positive images of gay people. What was so remarkable about the letters that he received in response was that whether they were written by people who identified as lesbian, gay, or straight, the vast majority of the letters criticized the article for being shrill and overstating the case: things surely weren’t as bad as all that in the arts! The kulturkampf, as Eskridge called the antigay clampdown, was so complete that the American populace, both gay and straight, could not think seriously about gay oppression.

There were other stirrings of gay awareness in the 60’s, to be sure, but organizations like the Mattachine Society for gay men and the Daughters of Bilitis for lesbians were practically secret organizations—if only because the media refused to cover their activities—while their publications (ONE and The Ladder) were essentially samizdat. However, it is precisely because the American public was so unaware of these early stirrings that the Stonewall Riots came as such a shock to the system. Michael Denneny, living in Chicago, remembers his reaction on seeing a headline about rioting homosexuals in a New York newspaper: “Stonewall came like a thunderclap.”

To be sure, Stonewall had its precedents in the form of a few rumbles in gay venues in L.A. and San Francisco and a protest or two in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Some have suggested that Stonewall doesn’t deserve the special status it has acquired.  But as interesting and important as those other acts of resistance are—and as courageous as those who protested were—this still does not give them the historic weight of Stonewall. Compared to these earlier events, Stonewall was of a different order for four reasons: it was the only sustained uprising, lasting six days; it was the only one that involved thousands of people; it was the only one that got much media coverage; and it was unique in engendering a new kind of militant organization (first the Gay Liberation Front and later the Gay Activists Alliance) as well as a new political ideology known as ”gay liberation.” It also does not stand to reason, as some have argued, that Stonewall was “bound to happen” or that it was some kind of fluke. There were certainly many raids on gay bars before Stonewall, and even some violent resistance in cities like L.A. and San Francisco, but the fact remains that they did not generate a sustained mass uprising.

In researching my book on Stonewall a few years ago, I recorded many firsthand stories that illustrate what a shock Stonewall was to the collective gay nervous system.* Take Robin Souza, who was traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia with two straight female friends on the night of June 27, 1969. As they listened to a rock and soul station, Robin and his friends were amazed when a newscast announced that gay men and the police were fighting a pitched battle on the streets of Greenwich Village. Although Robin imagined a battle waged with guns, he felt impelled to turn the car around and head for the Village to witness what was happening. In far-off South Vietnam, a gay Army man assigned to watch over the news ticker on Saturday, June 28th, was reading reports on the tickertape as it streamed out when it suddenly ran out of paper. He continued reading until he reached the tape’s final words, “Homosexuals riot in Greenwich Village,” and he received one of the biggest thrills of his life. In Long Binh, Vietnam, U.S. Army Specialist 3 Henry Baird sat eating lunch in the mess hall and reading a military newspaper. As he scanned the day’s news summary, his eye was drawn to a short paragraph that described a riot led by homosexuals against the police in Greenwich Village. He told radio producer David Isay, “My heart was filled with joy. I thought about what I had read frequently but had no one to discuss it with. Secretly within myself I decided that if I should survive to come back stateside I would come out as a gay person.”

In San Francisco, a gay man who had just heard news of the riots in one of the city’s gayest areas watched in amazement as he witnessed the news physically spreading: as one gay man would approach another on the street and start telling him the news, more men would cluster around and listen, the group would break up, and each in turn would speak to the next man he ran into, the news spreading like a nuclear chain reaction. In a convent owned by the Sisters of Charity, a nun of Italian descent heard the news over a radio in her room. She had entered the convent determined to spend however much time there it would take to work out the moral meaning of her lesbianism. The nun, who had just turned 29, had already observed three years of celibacy when the news coming over the radio made her suddenly realize that she was not alone. “It hit me with a bolt of lightning. It was as if I had an incredible release of my own outrage at having to sequester so much of my life. To me, it was the quintessential ‘enough is enough.’” A few weeks later Virginia Apuzzo left the convent to start a new life. When Joan Nestle heard of the rioting she went down to the Village on Saturday, June 28, and stood in the street in front of the Stonewall Inn, looking at the police barricades and the crowds that had gathered. “There is a background to what happened in that bar, a building up of rage like volcanic steam, over the years. I remember standing there and knowing that a new time had come because that rage had exploded.”

Several of these individuals would go on to play leading roles in GLBT activism and scholarship. Michael Denneny packed up his belongings and moved to New York to figure out what it meant to be gay. His exploration eventually led to his founding, with Chuck Ortleb and a few others, the influential literary magazine Christopher Street, where many of the Violet Quill writers first published their works. Later Denneny founded the nation’s first gay imprint, Stonewall Inn Editions, at St. Martin’s Press. Robin Souza, using the pseudonym Gary Dutton, became one of the founders of the Gay Activists Alliance, the organization most responsible for the spread of the gay liberation movement that emerged from Stonewall. Joan Nestle founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and Ginny Apuzzo became the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force before she became an advisor to President Bill Clinton.

The sum total of the changes brought about by the Stonewall Riots transformed the small homophile movement into a mass movement, as summed up by Frank Kameny, an activist in Washington, D.C., for years before Stonewall happened: “By the time of Stonewall, we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there were at least 1,500. By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was 2,500. And that was the impact of Stonewall.”

Immanuel Kant famously wrote of the French Revolution that “The occurrence in question does not involve any of those momentous deeds … of men which make small in their eyes what was formerly great. … We are here concerned only with the attitude of the onlookers as it reveals itself in public while the drama of great political changes is taking place.” In other words, the fall of the Bastille and the French Revolution had the impact they did because of their effect, not on those who participated in these events, but instead on those who witnessed them. It was the same with Stonewall: the event derived its power from the emotional shock it created in those who heard about it.

One thing that’s rarely acknowledged in our gauzy memory of the Stonewall Riots was the critical role of violence in the event. Observed Denneny:  “I was struck by the fact that more cops ended up hospitalized than demonstrators. That made an impact on me. I think it was decisively important that there was physical violence, that gay people fought back, and that the riots went on for several nights. I think had they been peaceable and gone the way of all the civil rights demonstrations that were happening in the 60’s, I don’t think it would have had the same impact at all.” Just as nonviolence allowed African Americans to overturn the racist image of blacks as violence-prone and achieve a measure of moral superiority, the use of violence by gay men subverted the stereotype of homosexuals as ineffectual and lacking in courage or masculine qualities.

Stonewall became an overnight symbol but could easily have faded as new events unfolded in the Gay Liberation movement. What gave it staying power was Craig Rodwell’s flash of insight when he got the idea to memorialize the riots with an annual celebration. Since June of 1970, when the first marches were held to celebrate Stonewall in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the idea of holding an annual march has spread to other cities around the U.S. and eventually around the world. Notable are marches that occur in countries where homosexuality is still harshly condemned, such as Russia and Croatia, whose governments have tried to stop the marches. Marchers are sometimes attacked by skinheads and the like, often with the complicity of the government, and forced to fight back. Thus the militancy and sometimes even the violence of Stonewall continue to be recapitulated in such places, where rights are far from won—which is to say that Stonewall continues to serve as a symbol of gay rebellion and liberation.


David Carter is the author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (2004), which is the basis for a new American Experience episode on PBS.


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