Written by Seth Silverberg
Why was Stonewall considered such a pivotal moment in the history of LGBTQ+ rights? We will examine this by looking at four factors – the order of which is in approximate chronological order rather than in order of importance – that might have contributed to Stonewall’s legendary status. We will first look at events that happened pre-Stonewall, and at what the political climate was like at the time. Then we will explore what made Stonewall different, and why this event rather than any other was remembered, before moving on to how Stonewall was covered by the media, both mainstream and alternative. Finally, we will consider the impact the commemoration of the riots had in making Stonewall such a cornerstone for the gay rights movement.
Let us first, then, explore events and influences that happened leading up to 28 July 1969. Indeed, it could be argued that without these, the Stonewall Riots might not have happened – to the same degree or at all – or might not have had the impact it did. Although Stonewall is now said to be the symbol for the birth of the gay rights movement, the latter is a political movement that had been slowly building for a century. Furthermore, from the mid 1960s, the movement saw itself move towards radicalisation. There were more direct-action protests – like the ‘Gay-Ins’ in Los Angeles, where hundreds of homosexuals gathered in parks and using ‘flower power’ to shower the released after a police bar raid. Indeed, from 1965 to 1969 (before Stonewall), there were over thirty gay rights demonstrations around the US. This radicalisation of the movement could be said to show gay rights activists catching up with other activists’ movements. Indeed, the civil rights movement, Black Power, women’s rights movement, anti-war movement, etc., were already organising sit-ins and loud demonstrations, and gave gay rights activists examples to follow. Lastly, in the weeks before the Stonewall Riots, Greenwich Village saw a lot of gay places raided and ransacked by police, as well as gay men being attacked – two of them being killed by an off-duty policeman. This and other political events (like the election of Richard Nixon as President) might have led to the LGBTQ+ community – including the patrons present during the Stonewall Raid – to see “their status suddenly take a turn for the worse after a long period of improvement.”
How was what came to be known as the Stonewall Riots different from previous events of gay protests? This can be broken down into three differences: the violence, the duration, and how activists used it to their benefit. All three of these led to the Stonewall Riots having a high commemorational value – i.e., being more likely to be commemorated.
Let us delve deeper into why the violence seen during the Stonewall Riots was considered unprecedented, and why it had such rippling effects. It could be argued that the police themselves were angrier when they raided the Stonewall Inn. Indeed, this was the second raid led by the police in a single week, and they were frustrated that the bar had reopened without a hitch the following night. We might infer from this that the police officers were rougher with the patrons during the raid, which in turn might explain their unusual resistance. Indeed, it was noted that gay men refused to show identification, and transvestites refused to go through the humiliating bathroom examination: they were acting up, instead of staying silent. While those who were released from the bar, instead of dispersing, gathered outside, the crowd snapped after one too many shows of police violence, and turned the habitual police humiliation into an outbreak of violence that forced the police officers to barricade themselves in the Inn. This show of violence could be considered a “moment of re-education,” showing the police that their stereotypical thinking of “the fairies were not supposed to riot,” as Bob Kohler said, was wrong, and that gays could and would defend their rights with violence if needed.
The Stonewall Riots were also different due to how long they lasted. In total, the riots and demonstrations lasted for six days in and around Christopher Street. Indeed, the night after the police raid, a spontaneous rally formed, and for the next two nights, there were thousands of demonstrators showing their support for what became the keystone for the emergence of Gay Power.
The most important difference with prior events might be how activists themselves used the Stonewall Riots to the advantage of the movement. Indeed, Stonewall was not the first gay riot. There had been the Compton’s Cafeteria disturbance in San Francisco in the summer of 1966, and the Los Angeles’ Black Cat raid in early 1967, but neither were publicised much, even within the gay movement, as they were not seen as worth remembering (San Francisco’s gay movement did not agree with the idea of riots, and Los Angeles’ considered theirs a failure). By contrast, Stonewall had activists that wanted – and were able – to use the riots to promote the gay agenda. The main activists mentioned is Craig Rodwell, who capitalised on the riot by contacting mainstream media at the time the riot started, and then decided to memorialise the event with an annual celebration. As such, this aspect also shows that Stonewall had a high mnemonic capacity (i.e. activists had the resources to make the event commemorable). These three aspects of what made the Stonewall Riots different show us but a few reasons as to why Stonewall was a pivotal moment for the gay rights movement.
Linked to the above factor of what made Stonewall different, and especially how activists used it, is how Stonewall was portrayed in the media. Indeed, contrary to most gay demonstrations, Stonewall had a large media coverage. The most detailed accounts on Stonewall were found in the alternative New York weekly paper The Voice and in the eponymous gay political monthly periodical the Mattachine Society of New York Newsletter. The Voice readers might have been the first to see gays described in a positive way, when journalist Lucian Truscott reported Allen Ginsberg had said that “the guys were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.” In addition, the riots were mentioned in the mainstream medias, although it did not make the front-page of the main daily New York newspapers, and national magazines like The Times reported on the riots only months later. Furthermore, it can be argued that the impact of Stonewall had more to do with the millions that heard about it via the media, rather than those that had participated in the riots. Stonewall did not become legendary due to the damage and the violence that happened during the riots, but due to the shock held by those that heard about gays being violent.
How did the commemoration of the riots increase their status to what it is today: a cornerstone to the gay rights movement? This can be answered by looking at two different aspects: the mobilisation, and how it was done. By mobilisation, we mean the support garnered to organise the first commemoration event, and the snowball effect it had in the month and years following. Indeed, as mentioned above, Craig Rodwell – the New York-based gay rights activist – was the one to decide to replace an existing low attendance annual event with the annual commemorative demonstration that became Pride. However, without the Los Angeles and Chicago movements agreeing to support the New York commemoration with their own, and all three events being successes, it could be argued that it would not have gained such national (and international) importance. In addition, organisers insisted that the events in each city have police support, to protect the marchers, and official permits, which was both seen as a sign of change, and to force cities to make space for gays on their agenda, which also contributed to the lasting success of the commemoration.
Furthermore, during the days, weeks, and months following the Stonewall Riots, there was an influx in demonstrations and new organisations. From only a dozen organisations with participants in the hundreds, the number grew to hundreds of the former with thousands of the latter. Indeed, the Gay Liberation Front was created only a week later, the Queens Liberation Front a few months after that, and the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries was born a year later, influenced by co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Hey Newton’s public statement supporting gay rights – all transforming the movement, mobilising thousands of new activists, and giving life to the legend of Stonewall. The fact that the commemoration was done through a parade is important to the success of the Stonewall Riots gaining such a pivotal role in the movement. Indeed, a parade can be expanded and have different levels of participation, making it the ideal way to commemorate Stonewall due to its versatility. And thus, as the parades grew larger both in size and geographical participation, so did the legendary status of the Stonewall Riots.
By exploring events and the political climate pre-Stonewall, some of the aspects of what made the Stonewall Riots different from other demonstrations, how they were covered in the media and how they were commemorated, we can see some of the reasons why Stonewall was such an important moment in the history of LGBTQ rights. Demonstrating this, as Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage have argued, Stonewall might have become Stonewall simply because it had a high commemorability and mnemonic capacity compared to previous events.
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Featured image credit: Gay Liberation Front women demonstrate at City Hall, New York (c. 1969 – 72). Photograph by Diana Davies. Image accessed via the New York Public Library Digital Collections: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/586bb210-27f1-0137-17de-679df9c790c6.