The heritage of Stonewall
By Michael Schembri
The night of June 27, 1969, could have been just like any other in a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. Except that it wasn't. Judy Garland had just died.
Soon after the news spread, the police raided the Stonewall Inn. Again this could have been nothing new. Police raids on mafia-owned gay bars were commonplace: a few arrests, some extortion, closing the bar down for a while. The usual police wank of wielding power over the powerless. Except that this night turned out to be different.
The Stonewall clients fought back. Four police officers were injured. Thirteen people were arrested. The bar was smashed up. The riot squad had to be called in. Sheridan Square was closed off and besieged. The riot spread and lasted three whole days.
Protests against police raids were not a new phenomenon, but this time it was not just a protest. It was a case of homosexuals fighting back — literally. And it lit a spark which soon blazed up and raged into a huge fire — the new gay liberation movement.
Who were the rioters? Not the liberal, moderate homophile leaders. Not the so-called respectable homosexuals. They were the typical clientele of bars like the Stonewall Inn: lesbians, drag queens, poorer gay men, hustlers and street kids. Many were non-white. In other words, the lowest in the social and homosexual hierarchy.
Vito Russo, a prominent gay activist, journalist and movie critic, now dead, wrote: "It is probably true that the drag queens threw the first rock".
"They are the people who have to know how to fight", he wrote, "because they're always protecting their visibility on the streets. These are the people who made Stonewall their home, they're the people who were not hiding in some nine-to-five job in a business suit and then going down to the Village to suck cock on the side. These are the people whose lifestyle was gay, and they were out as far as everybody was concerned."
What was the homophile's response? Edmund White, a gay novelist and activist who was a witness to the events, wrote:
"Two white, middle-class men in Lacoste shirts came up to me shaking their heads in disapproval. 'This could set our cause back decades', one of them said. 'I'm not against demonstrations, but peaceful ones by responsible people in coats and ties, not these trashy violent drag queens'."
Sounds very familiar.
The gay lib movement which appeared on the scene did not grow out of a political vacuum. It grew in the midst of the antiwar struggle, the black liberation movement and the women's liberation movement. Gay liberationists shared the critique of these other movements and extended it to the realm of sexuality. They thought of themselves as revolutionaries, striving, alongside the other movements, to overthrow the establishment, to set up a free society based on participatory democracy free of class exploitation, racism, sexism, militarism and heterosexism. In Barry Adams' words:
"Gay liberation never thought of itself as a civil rights movement for a particular minority but as a revolutionary struggle to free the homosexuality in everyone, challenging the conventional arrangements that confined sexuality to heterosexual monogamous families. For gay liberation there was no 'normal' or 'perverse' sexuality, only a world of sexual possibilities ranged against a repressive order of marriage, oedipal families, and compulsory heterosexuality."
This new, radical, gay liberation movement spread throughout North America and to other continents. However, due to internal problems of the movement as well as due to the demise of large-scale social unrest and of confrontational antiwar and anti-establishment politics, the gay lib movement had lost much of its momentum by the mid-'70s. On the other hand the civil rights gay and lesbian organisations gained more importance. And they have continued playing an important role in fighting for and winning legislative and social changes.
However, one thing that gay liberation taught us is that sexual oppression is linked to other forms of social oppression. Fighting for gay and lesbian rights should be part of the overall struggle. So unless we link up with the other struggles to go beyond the inequalities of class society, unless we go beyond satisfying ourselves with a few limited reforms, then we will unwittingly maintain the existence of the same society which oppresses us.
It is up to gay men and lesbians to fight for our own sexual liberation. But to do so we must work with all those who have a stake in destroying the capitalist state — the root cause of all our oppression. This political vision is the heritage which Stonewall has bequeathed to us.