The Stonewall uprising: 40 years of gay and lesbian pride

By Hamish Chitts

Last month was the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village, New York City, when, for the first time in US history, gay men and lesbians fought back against government-sponsored persecution. Three days of spontaneous demonstrations sparked by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, sparked the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement in the US and around the world.

During the second World War the basic economic unit of capitalist society, the family, was severely disrupted. US women were pushed into the paid workforce, shattering illusions that women were dependent on male “breadwinners” for economic survival. This caused a problem for the capitalists because they derive enormous benefits from the modern nuclear family. The family provides, free of charge — primarily through women’s unpaid labour — the next generation of workers, care for the aged and sick and the care of the present generation of workers.

Moreover, the family is one of the primary institutions for instilling conservative values in the young. The fact that working class women found during the war that they could do any job and that there was more to life than being a breeder and domestic servant, threatened the family. The ruling class had to push women back into homes by waging an ideological campaign promoting the nuclear family and “family values” throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Postwar crusade against homosexuals

The family was declared to be natural, god-given and the key to happiness, social acceptance and success. Homosexuality stood in contradiction to this ideological promotion of the family and women’s oppression. The conservative defenders of capitalist society in the 1950s and 1960s branded homosexuality unnatural, contrary to the commandments of their gods, a sickness, “un-American” and even some sort of Communist plot. Increased oppression and persecution of homosexuals arose from the material need of capitalism to put women “back in their place”.

This increased oppression included the systematic expulsion of homosexuals from public service. Between 1947 and 1950, an average of 60 federal administrative employees and 1000 military personnel were dismissed each year as a result of investigations into their sexual histories. By 1951, these numbers had dramatically increased: federal workers were being dismissed at a rate of 60 per month, and homosexual discharges from the military amounted to 2000 a year. When Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953, he issued Executive Order 10450, which codified homosexuality as sufficient and necessary grounds for denying or dismissing persons from federal employment. Homosexuals were to be eradicated from government positions, and they could be fired on the basis of anonymous accusation.

In the 1960s, bars were about the only places gays and lesbians could gather in public, and it was common all over the United States for police to raid gay and lesbian bars. While they were purportedly looking for liquor law or other legal violations, patrons were arrested and dragged off to jail with no legitimate charges. The names of those arrested were often published in newspapers, and many people were fired from their jobs as a result. Most times when the police raided a bar, the gay and lesbian clientele would slip out the back or cower in the corners. In the last years of the 1960s, however, there was a rise in working class militancy and social movements, including the African American civil rights movement and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. These influences, along with the progressive environment of Greenwich Village, served as catalysts for the Stonewall uprising.

Gay power erupts

The Stonewall Inn was one of New York’s largest and most popular gay bars. On Friday June 27, just before midnight, four police (two male, two female) and two detectives entered the Stonewall. It was the second police raid in a week. All the patrons were trapped inside the bar and released one by one by the police. Soon a crowd of onlookers and those released formed outside. Eyewitness Lucian Truscott IV reported in the July 3, 1969, Village Voice: “It was initially a festive gathering, composed mostly of Stonewall boys who were waiting around for friends still inside or to see what was going to happen. Cheers would go up as favorites would emerge from the door, strike a pose, and swish by the detective with a ‘Hello there, fella.’ The stars were in their element. Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic.” The mood of the crowd changed with the arrival of a paddy wagon.

Truscott reported: “Three of the more blatant queens — in full drag — were loaded inside, along with the bartender and doorman, to a chorus of catcalls and boos from the crowd. A cry went up to push the paddy wagon over, but it drove away before anything could happen. With its exit, the action waned momentarily. The next person to come out was a dyke, and she put up a struggle — from car to door to car again. It was at that moment that the scene became explosive. Limp wrists were forgotten. Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows, and a rain of coins descended on the cops.”

In the middle of this, a well-known folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, was arrested and taken into the Stonewall, leaving no cops present on the street. The crowd, now about 2000, erupted: rubbish bins, bottles and cobblestones were launched at the windows of the bar and the police inside. An uprooted parking meter was used as a battering ram against the door, and a fire was started via one of the broken windows. The police inside put out the fire and beat back the crowd with fire hoses. By the time the crowd was able to regroup for another assault, several carloads of police reinforcements had arrived, and in minutes the streets were clear. By the time the last cop was off the street Saturday morning, a sign went up announcing that the Stonewall would reopen that night.

The Stonewall did open but was now a sideline. The next night protesters’ main focus was the street. Friday night’s crowd had returned and was being led in “gay power” cheers by a group of gay cheerleaders. The crowd became larger than the night before, and for two hours protesters rioted in Christopher Street outside the Stonewall Inn, until the police sent a riot-control squad. The crowd came out again Sunday night, and while it wasn’t as combative as on previous nights, it was significant in that large numbers of people were being openly homosexual. Around 1am the cops broke up this display of militant gay pride. The following Wednesday approximately 1000 protesters returned to march on Christopher Street.

A movement had begun. Within six months, two gay activist organisations were formed in New York, concentrating on confrontational tactics, and three newspapers were established to promote rights for gays and lesbians. On June 28, 1970 the first gay pride marches were organised in New York and Los Angeles in commemoration of the Stonewall uprising. In New York between 5000 and 10,000 men and women attended the march. Organisations for gay and lesbian rights inspired by the Stonewall example sprang up around the world. In honour of Stonewall, many gay and lesbian pride celebrations around the world are held in June.

Persisting discrimination

Despite changing many working people’s attitudes and winning some concessions, homosexual, bisexual and transgender men and women still face social, legal and state-sponsored discrimination to differing degrees around the world. Neither the state nor society should interfere in any way in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured or coerced. Sexual relations between women or between men should be treated in exactly the same way as sexual relations between men and women, and this should be reflected in laws on marriage and de facto relationships. Sexual preference should be recognised as a matter of individual choice, a basic democratic right. The age of consent for homosexual sex should be lowered from 18 to 16, the age of consent for straight sex. Sex education for young people and the broader community should stress the variety of non-coercive sexual relations that exist, without moral judgment.

Forty years on, Stonewall provides all working people an example of the importance of mass struggle and what it can achieve. On August 1 there will demonstrations around Australia calling for the repeal of the federal government’s ban on same-sex marriages. For more information on this national day of action, visit www.caah.org.au.