2009

8 July 2009: Stonewall inspired gay liberation movement

Stonewall inspired gay liberation movement

Forty years ago in the summer of 1969, two historical events, each occurring over a span of days and, took place.

The second of which, Neil Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon, is the far better known and recalled. After all, it’s no easy feat to put a human being on the moon, and, besides, it is an apogee of American pride because we “kicked their—the Soviets—butts!”

With his declaration to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade, President John F. Kennedy, not accustomed to coming in second, entered the country in the race against the Soviet Union, which, up to then, had been kicking our butts in the space race.

It wouldn’t do for capitalism to be bested by a decidedly non-capitalistic system.

The other event, the Stonewall Riots, however, would have far greater implications for us as Americans, for they were the penultimate—atheism will be the last—challenge to the original dominant culture of America since the Puritans and their brethren—straight (predominantly) white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males—migrated to these shores

The lunar landing was a technological triumph, to be sure, but ultimately it was more of an in-your-face event as noted above. While we still enjoy some marvelous by-products of the pursuit such as Velcro and Tang, which I wonder if it remains a favorite among American kids, since the Apollo program, we haven’t returned to the moon causing one to wonder what the fuss was about.

Stonewall, if found at all in American history texts, even though it has been designated a national historical landmark, would likely be an aside or footnote. But here we are 40 years later, and two great issues of debate, which have rightwingers, secular and religious, in apoplectic fury and Barack Obama in a state of confusion, are about same-sex marriage and gays and lesbians serving their country openly and honorably in the military.

A brief account: In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, undercover cops smacked down on the employees and patrons of the gay bar. It was routine, a game in which the more “outrageous” characters—drag queens—and employees were hassled and hauled off and the owners hit with a fine that enriched some coffers. The bar usually re-opened the following day.

This time, however, the crowd stood its ground. Things got heated and reinforcements were called by the panicked and outnumbered cops. The action would re-erupt over the span of the next week, and the Gay Liberation Front was born.

As a riot, Stonewall hardly rose to the level of violence and destruction one associates with rioting. Think Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967.

Other than bruises to the victims’ bodies and the club-wielding cops’ pride, the damage was more about property and that was largely contained to police vehicles and the bar itself in, unsurprisingly, a failed attempt of being torched.

Prior to Stonewall, there had been other organizing attempts and actions by what would become known as the GLBT—Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender—community

In the 1950s, the Mattachine Society for men and the Daughters of Bilitis for women organized. They tended to be conservative in nature, more like social groups or societies as they did not advocate for drastic social change

In the previous few years, there had been uprisings in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, but not having the lasting impact of Stonewall, which has become known as the “hairpin drop heard around the world.” From thereon, the GLBT community found it had power and would learn to use it effectively.

In The Gay and Lesbian Review, David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, writes about how the dominant culture, especially during the witch-hunt of Joseph McCarthy, effectively destroyed any worthy self-image gays and lesbians had of themselves.

“The minds of the gay people had been so colonized by the heterosexual world that almost no one could imagine a positive gay identity, let alone a positive gay culture,” states Carter.

That self-reinforcing thought pattern would work its destructive effects on both the victims as well on the perpetrators. The former had been relegated to second-class citizenship and the latter felt they could on a whim indiscriminately “kick ass” of a compliant and fearful people in order to assuage their personal insecurities. Bully-prevention interventions were not in vogue at the time, on the school playground or at the police academies.

Stonewall changed all that thinking, not at once, because what has become so ingrained, acculturated into the zeitgeist does not change overnight. But here we are 40 years later witnessing history on the gay liberation front that all began with a few “nellies” and “drag queens”—with whom no one should mess—on that muggy New York night.

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