POV: Taking the Measure of the Stonewall Uprising 50 Years Later

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What is it we’re really celebrating? It depends on who you ask

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Stonewall Riots, although the event is more accurately described as a rebellion or an uprising. In the decades since, the word “Stonewall” has become shorthand to refer to anything relating to rights or social inclusion for gender and sexual minority people. Yet Stonewall was not the first time gender and sexual minorities fought back against law enforcement encroaching into queer spaces. In fact it wasn’t even the second or third time.

The events of that night did not get coverage in the national news, although some reporters covered the story in the local New York press. In the 50 years since June 28, 1969, Stonewall has become mythologized, commodified, and exported in a rainbow flag across the globe, often described as the beginning of the Gay Rights movement, even though it was not. That historical periodization erases decades of activism and distorts a complicated history that must not be ignored or forgotten. As a transitional moment, Stonewall was important in the way it empowered early activists to organize and take to the streets. In the half century since then, members of LGBTQ communities have won significant legal and social gains and since the 1970s have drawn strength and solidarity from the Stonewall narrative. But what is the legacy of Stonewall and why are debates about it so contentious among activists and academics?

We remember Stonewall, but not the Cooper Donut riot, the Tay-Bush raid, the Compton Cafeteria riot, the “sip ins,” or the Black Cat Tavern raid. One reason is because Stonewall occurred at the end of the 1960s, after women organized second-wave feminism, after the anti-war movement was well underway, and at a time when the Black Power movement was loud and clear. Social expectations had changed even for gender and sexual minorities and a supply of combustible materials came together that mobilized people to commemorate Stonewall. The second reason we remember Stonewall is because in July 1969 activists began planning the Christopher Street Liberation Day march to commemorate the uprising the following June, an annual event that marks the gay high holy day of what has became known as Pride. This sheds light on what I think is one of the most important lessons of Stonewall, which is that rage is not enough. Breaking windows and fighting the police in and of itself did not win legal rights for the community. Lasting change came from the hard work of planning, organizing, and articulating a vision for the future.

By the 1970s, an explosion of group organizing, writing, demonstrating, protesting, marching, running for office, and continued legislative and legal pressure grew and expanded around the country. For example, the decades-long project led by homophile activists since the 1950s to remove homosexulality as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders came to fruition in 1973. Radical lesbians created new communities and communes for women, and Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly gay person elected to public office when she won a seat on the Ann Arbor city council in 1974. Later that year,  here in Massachusetts, Elaine Noble became the first openly gay person to win a seat in a state legislature. The list of victories—and setbacks—goes on and on. And every June, without fail, the community, growing in numbers and boldness, gathered to remember the events of a hot New York City night in June 1969.

What exactly are we celebrating in 2019? The answer to that question lies in who you ask. Many academics, myself included, feel a sense of ambivalence about what Stonewall means today. The historian Martin Duberman, author of one of the first books about Stonewall, published a book last year titled Has the Gay Rights Movement Failed? Duberman reminds us that gay rights activism in New York in the early 1970s did not demand equality, but rather liberation. Members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) did not demand marriage; they wanted an end to marriage and an opening up for a variety of relationships and family structures. The GLF did not want the right to serve as openly gay people in the military, many of them were anti-Vietnam War activists who demanded an end to the military industrial complex and an end to war. Members of the GLF did not want to sell merchandise at national chain stores—rather, they called for an overthrow of capitalism. With this in mind, Duberman argues the demands made by the modern gay rights movement have been conservative and narrow, rather than transformative.

The movement hasn’t achieved the goals articulated in the early 1970s and doesn’t seem to be concerned about them. Today a person can buy rainbow-themed merchandise at Target to show their support for the LGBTQ community. Not everyone celebrates this change. The animosity towards the corporate takeover of Pride is more obvious this year as New York is hosting not only World Pride, but also a competing event called the Queer Liberation March to protest the corporate takeover and to bring attention to the stuctural inequalities marginalized people still face.

Is this perspective too cynical? After all, isn’t visibilty and the chance to participate as an LGBTQ person in the public domain without fear of violence or jail time a victory? Isn’t seeing people like yourself in the media or even running for president evidence of serious social progress? Isn’t RuPaul’s Drag Race an entertainment triumph? Doesn’t marriage equality make us equal? Again, the answer to these questions lies in who you ask.

History is an ongoing conversation. It is a witness to the inevitability of change and the strangeness of the past, but also to the presence of the past in our lives today. For LGBTQ youth, the Stonewall story can help one see themselves as an active participant in history. For an older generation of LGBTQ people, Stonewall serves as a marker to measure how far the country has moved (or not moved) on acceptance of gender and sexual differences. For straight allies, the story can serve as an entry point to a subfield of American history they have likely never heard. As a culture we have certainly flown somewhere over the rainbow, but exactly where we have landed is an open and essential question.

PhD history student J. Seth Anderson (GRS), who studies 20th-century American history, with a focus on the history of sexuality, can be reached at [email protected]

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at [email protected]. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.