Many people believe that gay and lesbian activism and our fight for GLBT equality began the night of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. But as early as 1895, a group of New York “androgynes” called the Cercle Hermaphrodites united “for defense against the world’s bitter persecution.”
In 1924 in the Old Town Triangle District of Chicago, Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights. And in 1951 two groups — the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis — formed with a common goal: to fight discrimination against gay men and lesbians and to prove to all that we were no different from heterosexuals. (In those days transgendered and bisexuals were covered under “gay and lesbian.”)
Early groups such as these were helpful in Illinois in 1962 becoming the first state to decriminalize homosexuality, and they also openly demonstrated for civil rights in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1965.
But it wasn’t until 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, when eight New York City police officers arrived at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village that our battle began on a much larger scale. Gay and lesbian activism stopped being about small clandestine groups and became about us as individuals standing up and fighting for our rights.
Since then, the cause has undertaken different forms. An angry queer in a T-shirt and jeans might have symbolized the gay activism of the 1970s, but the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s caused a significant change in approach. By the end of the ’90s, gay advocacy was symbolized by wellgroomed people sitting on boards, issuing press releases, asking for contributions and hosting galas.
We now donate instead of protest. We sign countless petitions and then sit behind our computers and bitch and moan about our oppression instead of doing something about it ourselves.
Our cause has been splintered, fragmented and hijacked into specific issues such as gay marriage, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act and introducing hate crime laws instead of what we should be doing: standing together as one and fighting for federal recognition and protections.
Stonewall starts it all
It’s been 40 years since that fateful night when four undercover policewomen and policemen entered the Stonewall Inn to gather evidence while the Public Morals Squad waited outside. Of the roughly 200 people in the bar that night, those who realized what was happening tried running for the doors and windows in the bathrooms. Police locked down the Stonewall, and confusion spread.
Back then, the standard procedure was to check identification and have customers dressed as women to go to the bathroom to verify their sex, but something changed that night.
The drag queens refused to go to the bathroom, and the men in line refused to show their identification. The police decided to arrest everyone.
A crowdgathered. Within minutes, between 100 and 150 people had congregated outside. The police began escorting the prisoners out of the bar to the paddy wagon. A bystander shouted, “Gay power!”
An officer shoved a transvestite, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse, and the crowd began to boo. People threw pennies and then beer bottles at the wagon, while rumors spread that those inside were being beaten by police.
A scuffle broke out when a lesbian in handcuffs was escorted from the bar. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting. She was hit on the head by an officer with a billy club and shouted at bystanders, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd did do something.
The Stonewall Riots lasted for four nights, the first of which ended only after New York City’s Tactical Police Force arrived to back up the 12 police officers who barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn and spent most of the night chasing protesters, only 13 of whom were arrested. More than 1,000 people showed up for the second night, with more rioting and street battles overnight.
Activity in Greenwich Village over the final two days was sporadic, partly due to rainy weather and the fact that every major paper had picked up the story and the whole world was watching. But the point had been made and our first battle won. We weren’t invisible any longer, and we wouldn’t be walked on without a fight.
The movement grows
Within two years of the Stonewall Riots, gay rights groups formed in every major American city and in Canada, Australia and Western Europe. The Gay Activist Alliance of New York City was founded by Columbusborn G. Donn Teal, and it and other groups took to the streets and college campuses demanding a place beside Black Power, Women’s Lib and the anti-war movement.
The ’70s were a remarkable time in gay history: So much was accomplished, and so much changed. Gay activism for civil rights flourished as never before or since. But with the coming of the ’80s, gay activism was tragically sidetracked by a terrible epidemic.
AIDS reared its ugly head and changed our culture forever. We lost so many, and our activism became focused on trying to stop the disease’s spread and pushing for research from the federal government, which at that time barely recognized the disease.
ACT UP and other groups picked up the gauntlet and took to the streets, and activism slowly turned into advocacy. The energy and raw emotion of the streets transformed into air-conditioned offices, corporate conference rooms and spreadsheets.
As the years passed, these groups grew. The part-time unpaid activist became a full-time professional advocate. Business models and yearly plans replaced manifestos and impromptu protest. Today, Web sites and politically correct lobbying have replaced picket signs and passion.
Power in protest
The immigration rights movement achieved more over a period of several days in March 2006 with nationally coordinated mass demonstrations and the threat of a national work stoppage than the gay rights movement has achieved in a decade of polite negotiations.
We have achieved remarkable visibility, but visibility didn’t end slavery, segregation or give women the right to vote. Visibility doesn’t give us our rights to sit by a dying spouse in a hospital, protect us from workplace and housing discrimination and allow us to build loving families with the full rights and privileges enjoyed by straight couples.
We all need to become activists once again. Every GLBT individual and supporter needs to pull together and become activists for each other. We need stand up and be proud of who we are and fight in whatever way we can against those who oppose us and demand what should rightfully be ours.
Citizens for Community Values, Focus on the Family, National Organization For Marriage and countless other groups with their hatred and ignorance ban together to demean, lie about and defile us at every opportunity. They work together as one with just one goal — to deny us our rights.
We can’t allow that to happen any longer. We must stand up to them and show the world how heinous their hatred and bigotry really is and that we’ll no longer accept being treated as second-class citizens.
We’ll never have a better time than this. Too many years have passed and too many of our friends have left us without knowing what true equality is. Let us not forget the words that started our journey on that warm June night back in 1969: “Why don’t you guys do something?”
WILL KOHLER is a local writer who maintains a blog dedicated to GLBT news and activism at www.back2stonewall.com.