In June 1969, when I was 12, I walked into my mother’s bedroom late one night when news broke on her radio that homosexuals were rioting in Greenwich Village. She was incredulous that people she viewed as physically reticent could be knocking over garbage cans and rocking police cars. “Now, they’re rioting? Even them?” My mother did not mention who “they” were and certainly did not know that her own son was one of “them.” And no one knew that night that a bunch of runaways and street kids who hung out at a gay dive bar called The Stonewall Inn, would inspire LGBTQ people and others to this day.
With a few decades of perspective, we now know that the Stonewall Uprising was one in a long line of LGBTQ protests. As early as 1897, Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay German-Jewish doctor and sexologist, established the world’s first gay rights organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. In his lectures, Hirschfeld taught that human sexuality was innate and not a choice and that there were many sexual identities across a wide spectrum. By the late 1920s, Nazis routinely assaulted Hirschfeld and broke up his lectures. He escaped to Switzerland and then to France where he died in 1935, his work largely forgotten.
In 1951, Jose Sarria, owner of The Black Cat, a gay bar in San Francisco, successfully sued the State of California for the right to serve “known homosexuals.” In Los Angeles, Harry Hay formed the Mattachine Society for gay men in 1950 and in 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons founded the Daughters of Bilitis for lesbians in San Francisco. These were the first gay civil rights organizations in the United States.
In 1965, the Compton’s Cafeteria riot occurred when drag queens and other queer people refused to leave an all-night eatery in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district because of a “service fee” the management imposed on cross-dressing patrons. The next night, queer patrons were seen on TV picketing Compton’s, but the cafeteria refused to back down.
In 1966, a “Sip-In” occurred at the Julius bar in Greenwich Village when three men challenged the New York State Liquor Commission’s ban on serving gay people, classifying them as “disorderly” whether they were or not. The Commission backed down.
So, why did Stonewall galvanize queer people across the globe when these prior incidents failed to?
It was a combination of demographics, location, and the right timing. After World War II, queer people moved to cities, especially New York. They wanted to be around each other and to enjoy the freedom that urban anonymity provided. Sheer numbers helped. The largest generation in American history generated the largest number of young queers. Plus, the Stonewall Inn was in New York, the media capital of the world. The rioting began on a summer night when the news was slow.
At first, media coverage was not that widespread but as unrest continued over the next few nights, news outlets around the world captured photos of young people battling police.
This spurred teach-ins and marches around the US a year later in commemoration of Stonewall. But the most important shift occurred within queer people themselves. They were more than a collection of bar flies with similar desires who found each other clandestinely. They were a people with a culture who deserved political rights and social acceptance.
LGBTQ people have won rights across the nation and around the world in the last 50 years. The right to marry and to serve openly in the military are capstones to a long list of victories since that summer night. While AIDS continues to devastate queer and non-queer people, the world saw LGBTQ people come together to care for each other and to fight for their lives against entrenched political and religious organizations who shunned and even demonized them as they died by the thousands.
There’s a lot more work to do. Trans people are coming out in greater numbers and as they do, become easy prey for politicians looking for the cheap cable-news notoriety that comes with bigotry. Trans people were at the Stonewall Uprising and Compton’s Cafeteria, and have always been at the forefront of the queer rights movement. They deserve our support.
If progress has seemed fast for LGBTQ people, it’s because the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 is commonly marked as the movement’s beginning. But instead of a beginning, it was more of a coming out for a silenced community that had fought with little notice through the decades.
Even if it wasn’t the beginning, Stonewall is still a monumental moment for human freedom. It can’t be denied that a ragtag group of queer youngsters who’d never be welcomed at the better parties on Fire Island, stopped the silence outside the Stonewall Inn. Their voices reached millions, including a 12 year old gay kid listening to his mother’s radio who knew from that night on, that he was not alone. We honor their courage by continuing the struggle for human dignity for everyone.
This month, LGBT Pride Month, use our lesson, "LGBTQ History and Why It Matters," to help your students explore whose experiences are included in the history taught in schools, whose are often left out, and how that may reflect and perpetuate the “in” groups and “out” groups in our society.
Photo Credit: By Johannes Jordan - photography taken by contributor, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4567328