Stonewall Riots Spark Gay Rights Movement
There was nothing unusual about the police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a bar that catered to homosexuals in New York City’s Greenwich Village, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. Police raids on gay bars were common, and the bar’s patrons, many of whom knew the routine from prior experiences, lined up to show their identification. A few would be arrested, most would be dispersed, the bar would be temporarily shut down—this was the way these things went.
Not this time, however. This time, something very different—something that turned out to be historic—happened: the gays fought back.
A large crowd gathered outside the Stonewall Inn to watch the police conduct the raid, began heckling the officers, then hurled coins, bottles and garbage. The police, unaccustomed to resistance from homosexuals, barricaded themselves inside the bar. When police reinforcements arrived they charged into the crowd, and a full-fledged riot ensued. Confrontations continued over the next six nights. A spark had been lit, and the Gay Rights Movement was born.
Within six months of the Stonewall riots, activist organizations and newspapers were established in New York City to promote the civil rights of gays and lesbians. Soon after, there were gay rights organizations in cities across the United States. On June 28, 1970, the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the first Gay Pride marches took place—marches that have now become annual events throughout the world.
To fully appreciate the significance of the Stonewall riots, the historical perspective presented in the following newspaper article is helpful. This was published to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a look back at what the first decade of the Gay Rights Movement had accomplished. This copyrighted article was published by the Mobile Press Register (Mobile, Alabama) on July 8, 1979:
Gay Rights—A Decade of Strides and Setbacks
Editor’s Note: Ten years ago, a police raid on a homosexual bar in Greenwich Village precipitated a small riot. For gay rights militants, the disturbance at Stonewall Inn has become their Lexington. It was the first stride toward an activism that has wrought many changes in the decade since.
By Tony Ledwell
Associated Press Writer
One of the more volatile and emotional social movements in the nation’s history emerged on a summer night 10 years ago at a ramshackle bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
At 3 a.m. on June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, investigating alleged liquor violations. Until then, raids regarded as routine harassment of bars catering to homosexuals had met only token opposition.
Within minutes, however, more than 400 people had gathered in nearby Sheridan Square and a riot erupted. More disturbances followed the next night.
A minority shrouded in mystery, fear, self-deprecation and widespread loathing decided it had had enough. It was the Lexington of the homosexual rights movement, a gathering of forces and the beginning of a tumultuous march.
Scorned by religion, diagnosed as sick by doctors, branded as criminals by the law, they moved from the shadows in the decade to follow, into the courts, legislatures, city councils, voting booths and streets of America.
They persuaded two-fifths of the states to drop laws prohibiting homosexual conduct between consenting adults, won ordinances banning discrimination against them in housing and employment in more than 40 cities, garnered protection from the federal Civil Service Commission and challenged the military’s ban on homosexuals.
They established their own churches, forged their own neighborhoods in some big cities and embraced political activism.
Central figures in stormy public debates, they also met resistance and defeat. Four cities repealed gay rights ordinances. Legislation barring them from certain occupations such as teaching went on the books. Oklahoma is the latest to adopt such a law.
Today, gay activists estimate that two-thirds of the nation’s homosexuals live in states where their preference is still illegal.
Nevertheless, their visibility and militancy would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
Nobody knows for sure how many Americans are homosexual, but Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research estimates as many as 20 million are. Certainly, millions of families have been touched by it.
Pollster George Gallup, in a 1977 survey, found that 66 percent of the people questioned believed homosexuality was more widespread today than 25 years ago.
“Not necessarily true,” contends John de Cecco, director of the Center for Homosexual Education, Evaluation and Research at San Francisco State University. “People in general are more open about sexuality now. A heck of a lot of gays are out and visible and people are talking about it.”
City councils, legislatures, courts and the voters have struggled—often with baffling results—with the question of gay rights, either with laws prohibiting homosexual conduct or with ordinances forbidding discrimination against gays in housing and employment.
Detroit and Tucson, Ariz., for example, have ordinances prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in housing or employment. But Michigan and Arizona state laws forbid homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.
“It’s a sexual ‘Catch-22,’” says one lawyer. “You’ve got the protection, but if you assert your rights, you are admitting that you are breaking state law.”
Boulder, Colo., voters repealed that city’s gay rights ordinance in 1974, drawing little national attention.
Miami, however, repealed a similar ordinance three years later in a tidal wave of emotion and world headlines. Singer Anita Bryant, saying her religion compelled her to speak out, led the successful campaign against the law.
St. Paul, Minn., Wichita, Kan., and Eugene, Ore., quickly followed suit, and gay activists, fearing a backlash, staged voter registration drives and created speakers’ bureaus.
The tide shifted a bit in November 1978 when Seattle voters became the first in the nation to refuse to repeal a gay rights law. On the same day, California voters trounced an initiative requiring the firing of homosexual public school teachers.
Before 1969, homosexual practice was legal in only a handful of states. Today, 19 have decriminalized private sexual conduct between consenting adults.
“The priority matter for the whole movement is to have laws prohibiting private, consensual sex acts declared unconstitutional,” says Donald Knutson, professor of law at the University of Southern California.
“Before Stonewall, virtually all court cases involving gays dealt with criminal matters. The defendant would hang his head in shame, plead guilty, then leave town and try to build a new life elsewhere.
“Now, we are no longer just the defendants. We are the plaintiffs, the aggressors. We are hauling people into court and demanding an end to discrimination,” Knutson says.
Court battles have drawn mixed results. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the mid-60s that homosexual aliens could be deported because of their sexual orientation. But since then, the high court has declined to consider any gay rights cases, leaving lower courts without definitive guidelines.
Legal ambiguities reflect the temper of the past decade, which has been sometimes hostile, sometimes conciliatory, sometimes confusingly mixed.
“The first step is always confrontation,” the late Harvey Milk, first acknowledged gay elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, once said. “After that, you can sit down and talk about it.”
Homosexuals have drawn controversy by attempting to link their movement to other great civil rights struggles, such as the blacks and the Jews.
“Hogwash,” the Rev. Thedford Johnson of Miami said during the debate over Miami’s gay rights ordinance. “When you’re black, it sticks. You’re segregated for the way you look. No one has to know what these people are unless they want it.”
Actor Ed Asner taped a television appeal to Miami voters to keep the ordinance, asking when oppression of minorities would stop. “As a Jewish American, I remember a time it didn’t stop,” he said.
The one question hovering over the debate: Why do homosexuals feel the need to reveal that most personal aspect of their lives?
“We got tired of the public perceiving gays as just hairdressers and interior decorators,” says Dr. David Kessler, a member of a nationwide group called Physicians for Human Rights.
Gay activists argue that “kids should know there are homosexuals in every walk of life: doctors, lawyers, judges, clergymen.”
The late Dr. Howard Brown, former New York City health commissioner, said he came out “to help free the generation that comes after us from the dreadful agony of secrecy.”
In his book, “Familiar Faces, Hidden Lives,” Brown bemoaned the lack of openness while he was growing up. He recalled:
“Homosexuals were mysterious, evil people, to be avoided at all costs. And I was one. Often, when I thought of this, I would break out in a cold sweat. I couldn’t be. I shoved the idea aside. When it cropped up, I thought: I must be the only homosexual in northern Ohio. It took me five years to discover that I wasn’t.”
Brian McNaught saw his weekly column for the Archdiocese of Detroit’s newsletter dropped when he came out. “Regrets? None. I have never been happier in my entire life. There is nothing to compare with the freedom which results from being totally yourself…of knowing that you have nothing to hide, no games to play, no lies to tell.”
The American Psychiatric Association stepped into the controversy in 1973, striking homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. The APA said that “homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability or general social or vocational capabilities.”
Some professionals disagreed. Psychoanalyst Herbert Hendin complained in an interview a couple of years ago:
“‘Anything goes’ is a legitimate attitude for consenting adults toward each other, but for a culture to declare it as a credo is to miss entirely the stake all of us have in the harmony between the sexes and in the family as the irreplaceable necessity of society.
“This is a society that is increasingly denying its impotence by calling it tolerance, preaching resignation, and naming all this progress.”
The public debate, for the first time ever, drew the attention of a president.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 1977, President Carter said:
“What has caused the highest publicized confrontations on homosexuality is the desire of homosexuals for the rest of society to approve and to add its acceptance of homosexuality as a normal sexual relationship.
“I don’t feel that it’s a normal interrelationship. But at the same time, I don’t feel that society, through its laws, ought to abuse or harass the homosexual.”
The Rev. William Baucus of San Francisco noted that Carter “was the first president in history to even recognize our existence.”
He could hardly avoid it. Years of political activism, the changing laws, the ordinance battles and the increasing ranks of avowed homosexuals permeated society.
Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich and Navy Ensign Vernon Berg III challenged the military’s automatic mustering out of homosexuals.
In 1975, the Civil Service Commission issued guidelines prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in federal government, exempting certain agencies like the FBI and CIA.
Several governors, from Pennsylvania to California, have issued executive orders pertaining to employment in state governments.
“For most of us, being out does not mean that you’re flaunting it,” says John de Cecco. “It’s sort of like not making excuses at office parties.”
But for many, being out means political involvement. Elaine Noble was elected to two terms in the Massachusetts Legislature while openly lesbian. Allen Spear once served in the Minnesota senate. Mayors of some large cities have openly gay staff assistants.
Despite the gains after Stonewall, activists feel that the full acceptance they seek is still remote.
“We are at a crucial time for gay rights,” says San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt. “The past 10 years have given us the stage, so to speak. People know we are here now.
“There will either be a serious reevaluation of sex roles or a terrible backlash against us. If we don’t play it right, we may all end up in jail.”
Says an activist attorney: “Enormous progress has been made and will continue. But we have to assert our claims with knowledge and dignity.”
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