Stonewall: Get A Grip

First appeared June 10, 1999, in the Windy City Times.

THIS YEAR IS BEING billed as the 30th anniversary of "Stonewall Riots" of June, 1969 in New York's Greenwich Village.

Hallowed in story and song, "Stonewall," as it is now called, was a weekend-long series of skirmishes between gays and the police that followed a bar raid, often taken to mark the beginning of the modern gay movement.

To be sure, a great deal of gay self-disclosure, activism and institutional development followed rapidly after "Stonewall."

But focusing on "Stonewall" as some sort of beginning or defining moment for the gay movement is deeply misleading. It blocks recognition of the important fact that there was a rapidly growing gay community consciousness in the 1960s, and that there was already a gay movement that not only grew rapidly but accelerated as the 1960s progressed.

Stonewall, we could say, was as much an effect as a cause.

As New York gay historian Jim Levin pointed out in a 1983 monograph on the gay movement, "Stonewall was the trigger for the gun, but the gun was so well loaded that any number of other events might well have fired it."

And veteran activist Frank Kameny comments to me, "I've always believed that our public demonstrations in 1965 and the subsequent ones in 1966, and at Independence Hall thereafter, created the mindset which made the 1969 public demonstration at Stonewall possible, and without which such a public demonstration would have been so unthinkable that it would not have occurred."

Although speculating about alternative history is risky, it also seems safe to say that even if no such catalyzing event as "Stonewall" had happened at all, gay progress would have continued from the 1960s on into the 1970s at an ever-increasing pace. It would simply have happened differently.

Let me give a generous dozen examples of pre-Stonewall gay activism and growth. Notice how the pace accelerates as the decade progresses.

  • San Francisco entertainer Jose Sarria, the first openly gay man to run for public office, received 6,000 votes in the 1961 race for city supervisor, the same office Harvey Milk won 16 years later.
  • Illinois in 1961 was the first state to decriminalize sodomy. Connecticut followed suit at the end of the decade.
  • The first gay business association, the Tavern Guild, was formed in 1962 by gay bars in San Francisco. Within five years, gay bars in other cities formed similar groups.
  • A gay magazine distributed in San Francisco's gay bars had a circulation of 7,000 by 1962.
  • Frank Kameny organized the first ever picket demonstration for gay rights in America in April 1965 at the White House. Six more pickets followed that year in Washington or Philadelphia, including a second White House picket in October that drew 65 people.
  • A national gay association, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, began holding meetings and coordinating local activist efforts in 1966.
  • Gays in San Francisco opened a community center in 1966. It was supported, of course, by a thrift shop.
  • A Los Angeles rally to protest gay bar raids in which patrons were injured drew several hundred gays early in 1967.
  • Craig Rodwell opened the first gay bookstore, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, in New York in 1967.
  • The first campus gay organization, the Student Homophile League, was founded at Columbia University by Robert Martin in 1967. It was quickly followed by gay groups at Cornell and two or three other schools.
  • Dick Michaels and Bill Rand founded the biweekly national gay newspaper The Advocate in 1968.
  • The Rev. Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in 1968.
  • There were 15 gay organizations in the United States in 1966. By the spring of 1969, just before Stonewall, there were nearly 50.

I offer this dozen or so examples to make clear that during the 1960s there was a small but rapidly growing gay movement that helped ensure the continued growth of activism in the 1970s even had Stonewall not happened.

But to a certain extent people live by symbols, find meaning and structure for their lives in symbols, and Stonewall has become our symbol. Think of a symbol as a kind of mental shorthand -- a conceptual device we use to coalesce a large number of facts, beliefs and feelings into a single manageable package which comes to have some sort of meaning for us, apart from and greater than its constitutive elements.

Stonewall (the event) was an odd combination of guerrilla warfare, camp street theater, and New Age "happening." Noting the growth of avant-garde and experimental theater in New York during the 1960s, historian Wayne Dynes described Stonewall as "simply the most spectacular manifestation of the new funky theater, produced in improvisational style with unpaid actors, and the police playing themselves."

"Stonewall" (the symbol), however, now has come to stand for -- "to mean" -- the aggressive expression of gay moral legitimacy, gay self-determination, and gay assertiveness in the face of institutional (especially governmental) hostility. As a symbol it includes all the earlier activist claims and adds a kind of intransigent and militant posture, "Not with my life, you don't."

After the hostile response to the bar raid, in which a gay crowd kept police trapped inside the bar until reinforcements arrived, the slogans chalked graffiti-like on the sides of buildings included "Gay Power." No matter how imitative of "Black Power" that phrase may have been, for most gays it was a new and startling thought even as braggadocio.

Walking through the Greenwich Village neighborhood after the second night of the disruptions, gay poet and counter-culture icon Allen Ginsberg commented to a reporter, "You know, the guys there were so beautiful. They've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago."

But "Stonewall" was not automatically a symbol. People chose to make it one because they wanted a symbol. Clearly many people were close enough to being ready to agitate openly for gay equality that it took only the small added impetus of Stonewall to make them take that further step.

It seems almost as if the gay movement was building up so it could take advantage of some event that could sell the gay liberation message of gay equality, gay openness, gay assertiveness to larger numbers of people in an imaginative way.

The Stonewall Inn was an unlicensed bar. It was seedy. The glasses were dirty. The drinks were weak. It charged exorbitant prices.

Seldom has such a sow's ear been made into such a silk purse.

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