Let's finish the fight for LGBT liberation that the Stonewall riots kickstartedThe Stonewall Riots of 1969 heralded the birth of the fight for LGBT liberation in the US and Britain says Ellie May.
Published Tue 10 Feb 2015
Issue No. 2440
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 heralded the birth of the fight for LGBT liberation in the US and Britain.
There had been successful protests before, such as Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966.
But Stonewall was the watershed and kick-started a mass movement.
The Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village was a well known bar where gay and trans people could meet away from public condemnation.
They were predominantly black and Latino working class, often in low paid jobs or sex work.
At that time, gay people were treated as “deviants”, and forced to live in secrecy and shame.
Those who refused could lose their job or be arrested and imprisoned.
So the police frequently raided bars such as the Stonewall Inn. But on 28 June 1969, young gay and trans people resisted the police alongside other patrons.
For three nights, gay people and their supporters fought the police with Molotov cocktails, bricks and bottles.
But the riots had support. More and more gay people and left wingers joined the confrontation with the police.
In the late 1960s, there was an upsurge in people fighting back against war and oppression.
The Black Power and women’s liberation movements were emerging, alongside a powerful movement on the campuses against US imperialism in Vietnam.
Transgender activist Silvia Rivera was involved in Stonewall. She explained, “All of us were working for so many movements at the time.
“Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement.”
“We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it about.”
Many of the rioters set up the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) afterwards, which was a crucial step in the struggle.
This is partly why the Stonewall Riots had such a big impact.
The GLF aimed for sexual liberation. Carl Wittman’s A Gay Manifesto, written in 1969, points to many of the differences the GLF had with previous gay rights organisations that aimed to be “respectable.”
He wrote, “We want to make ourselves clear—our first job is to free ourselves.
“If straight people of good will find it useful in understanding what liberation is about so much the better.”
This liberation would be won through revolution—but there was no agreement on what revolution actually meant.
The GLF was able to make gains because it linked up with other oppressed groups and the left.
When the Black Panther leader Huey Newton declared in 1971, “Homosexuals are not enemies of the people,” it was in part because of the solidarity from the GLF.
Wittman wrote, “Right now the bulk of the work has to be among ourselves. But we can’t change Amerika alone.”
However, the GLF’s alternative vision of a “coalition of the oppressed” is not enough to achieve lasting gains and preserve what has been won.
The retreat of the movements led to defeats and fragmentation. What underpinned this was the low level of clashes between US workers and bosses.
The Stonewall Riots were part of a bigger ferment in society. And its revolutionary ideas remain relevant today.
But they also show why it’s crucial to link the fight for liberation to workers’ struggle.