Forty-five years ago on this date, New York City Police officers burst into the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village, conducting an early-morning raid to hassle the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) patrons who frequented it.
Feeling they had been harassed far too long, those present at Stonewall challenged police officers by flinging bottles, rocks, bricks, trash cans, and parking meters used at battering rams. They continued to do so over the next five nights.
Even before these historic events at the Stonewall Inn, a little-known action preceded Stonewall by nearly three years, and should more likely be considered as the founding event for the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, asexual, and intersex (LGBTQAI) movement. In August 1966, at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, in what is known as the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, trans* people and gay sex workers joined in fighting police harassment and oppression. Police, conducting one of their numerous raids, entered Compton’s, and began physically harassing the clientele. This time, however, people fought back by hurling coffee at the officers and heaving cups, dishes, and trays around the cafeteria. Police retreated outside as customers smashed windows. Over the course of the next night, people gathered to picket the cafeteria, which refused to allow trans* people back inside.
Out of the ashes of Compton’s Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn came a number of militant groups organized primarily by young people in their teens and early twenties. One of the first was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The Gay Liberation Front was not a formalized organization per se, but rather it consisted of a series of small groups across the U.S. and other countries. Members held meetings in people’s living rooms, basements in houses of worship, and storefronts. They insisted on the freedom to explore new ways of living as part of a radical program of social transformation. The Gay Liberation Front adopted a set of principles emphasizing coalition-building with other disenfranchised groups — feminists, minoritized ethnicities, people of color, working-class people, young people, elders, people with disabilities —as a means of dismantling the economic and social structures they considered inherently oppressive.
I was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front DC. For the men, we came to consciousness how we had been stifled as males growing up in a culture that taught us to hate the feminine within – that taught us that if we were to be considered worthy, we must be athletic, independent, assertive, domineering, and competitive. Most of all, we rejected the idea that, to truly be men, we must bury our emotions deep within the recesses of our souls.
It soon became apparent, however, that ideological differences among Gay Liberation Front members were too significant for all to remain in one organization. Some formed a new organization called the Gay Activists Alliance: a non-violent militant organization working for the civil rights of LGBT people often through direct actions. The organization took its logo from the Greek letter Lambda, a symbol for wavelength in quantum physics suggesting dynamism.
While some women remained in the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, many considered their issues and concerns different from those of men. Many separated and formed groups and created publications along feminist principles. They argued that the fight against sexism required all women to band together to challenge male privilege and heterosexual institutions. Others who separated included, for example, trans* activists who founded the group STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which offered shelter and support to homeless youth.
Reflecting Back & Looking Forward
Today, on the forty-fifth anniversary commemoration of the Stonewall Inn-surrection, I reflect back to where we have come and look forward to imagine where we might go in the not-to-distant years to come.
The histories of minoritized sexual and gender people are filled with incredible pain and enormous pride, of overwhelming repression and victorious rejoicing, of stifling invisibility and dazzling illumination. Throughout the ages, same-sex love and relationships and gender non-conformity have been called many things: from “sins,” “sicknesses,” and “crimes” to “orientations,” “identities,” and even “gifts from God.”
During my lifetime, post-World War II America signaled the beginning of “Cold War” and a swing back to political and social conservatism. On the floor of the U.S. Senate the brash Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin sternly warned that Communists corrupt the minds and homosexuals corrupt the bodies of good Americans, and he proceeded to have them officially banned from government service. During this era, police frequently raided gay bars, which were usually Mafia owned, the U.S. Postal Service raided our organizations and even published the names of their mailing lists in local newspapers, and people lost their jobs. We were often involuntarily committed to mental institutions. Some were forced to undergo painful and damaging electro-shock therapy, and some were lobotomized.
In 1951 a new group formed in Los Angeles for the purpose of unifying primarily gay and bisexual men. The Mattachine Society took its name from Les Societes Mattachines, a theater company of unmarried men who, in 13th-14th-century France and Spain, dressed as women and performed songs and spiritual rites for the citizenry.
One of the founders, Harry Hay, believed that gay and bisexual men must join with other minoritized groups in defeating Capitalism, which was the root cause of their oppression. Soon other Mattachine chapters formed throughout the country, and by 1953 a struggle over leadership took the organization in a more conservative direction. By this time, members of the growing movement adapted the self-descriptive term “homophile,” (“love of same”) preferring it over the rather clinical and sex-focused term “homosexual.”
In San Francisco by 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon formed a lesbian organization calling it the Daughters of Bilitis. They took the name from the 1894 poem, “Song of Bilitis” by Pierre Louys in which Bilitis is a lesbian poet who lived with Sappho in ancient Greece on the isle of Lesbos. Soon other chapters formed around the country, and they published The Ladder serving as a link and resource for lesbians. The group’s stated purpose was to educate what they referred to as “the variant” to “understand herself and make her adjustment to society” by leading public discussions, and “advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society,” which they hoped would shatter negative myths and lead to the elimination of prejudicial laws.
Though the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis increased, somewhat, homophile visibility, their membership was relatively small, for these were extremely conservative times. Adding to the chill was President Dwight Eisenhower who issued Executive Order 10450, excluding those who engage in so-called “sexual perversion” from obtaining government jobs.
Even in this climate, a coalition of groups, including chapters of Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, sponsored a public demonstration in front of the White House on October 23, 1965 to protest the federal government official policy of “discrimination and hostility against its homosexual American citizens.” In addition, they sponsored an “Annual Reminder” on July 4, 1966 – 1969 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia as a visibility action.
During the 1960s, the country underwent tumultuous social change as growing numbers of people began to challenge basic underlying assumptions concerning authority and relationships of power. Sparked by the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and from the growing gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, and feminist movements, the first officially recognized college student group organized as the Student Homophile League at Columbia University in 1967 in New York City, followed closely by groups at MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and others. Today, literally thousands exist.
The decade of the 1970s was nearly at an end when a New York doctor discovered a patient with a number of unexplained maladies including an extremely rare form of cancer and pneumonia. By the end of 1980, at least fifty patients had been identified —the overwhelming majority being gay and bisexual men. Not knowing what else to call this constellation of diseases, medical researchers initially gave it the name “Gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID), but soon changed it to “Acquired immune deficiency syndrome” (AIDS) following objections from young gay activists who argued against naming a syndrome of unknown origin after an already stigmatized group.
LGBTQAI people were on the forefront of a coordinated effort to provide care and support for people with HIV/AIDS. Existing gay and lesbian community centers expanded services, while establishing new centers dedicated to serving the needs of people with AIDS and their loved ones.
To fight governmental and societal inaction, in 1986, the direct-action group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) formed in New York City largely by young activists. A network of local chapters quickly grew in over 120 cities throughout the world. ACT UP groups, based on a philosophy of direct, grass-roots actions, conducted highly visible demonstrations, often involving acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in which participants on occasion placed themselves at risk for arrest and even injury. AIDS activists, which primarily included young people, not only challenged traditional ways that scientific knowledge was disseminated, but more importantly, questioned the very mechanisms by which scientific inquiry was conducted, and they have even redefined the meanings of “science.” They won important victories on a number of fronts, including assisting people in becoming active participants in their own medical treatments, having greater input into drug trial designs, expanding access to drug trials, and expediting approval for certain drug therapies. In addition, Community Advisory Boards now hold pharmaceutical companies more accountable for the prices they charge.
While many activists focused primarily on HIV/AIDS, organizing around non-AIDS-specific concerns also continued. A new generation of LGBTQAI youth activists came of age a decade into the AIDS crisis. Activists began to reject many of the mainstream movement’s more assimilationist strategies, which emphasized a commitment to electoral politics and claims that we were “just like everyone else.” Queer nationals, as many called themselves, reclaimed the word “queer” — turning a term of oppression into one of empowerment by proudly asserting their difference, and by rejecting assimilationist strategies. They chose the term “queer” as one of inclusion, and encompassed LGBTQAI people and even heterosexual allies who supported liberation and the limiting societal notions of “normalcy.”
Using direct-action, confrontational strategies similar to those of ACT UP in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and Feminist organizations of the early 1970s, the group Queer Nation formed in New York City in 1990 with independent chapters soon appearing in local communities around the country, including college and university campuses, and in other countries. Organizing under the motto, “We’re here. We’re queer. We’re fabulous. Get used to it!,” Queer Nation members stressed “queer visibility” and an end to heterosexual privilege and heterosexism.
Another significant component of the emergence of queer nationalism is academic scholarship that has channeled major theoretical labor into issues of identity, sexuality, and corporeality on college and university campuses. What has come to be referred to as “Queer Theory,” “Gender Theory,” and “Queer Studies,” has since had enormous impact in the “academy.”
Queer theory is founded on the notion that “identities” are not fixed and are instead socially rather than biologically determined. Queer theorists insist that identities comprise many and varied elements, and that it is inaccurate and misleading to collectively categorize people on the basis of one single element (for example, as “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual,” or as “woman,” “man,” and others).
A variety of theorists argue that the notion of “gender” is a concept that is taught and learned and sustained in the service of maintaining positions of domination and subordination. Not only are the categorical man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual and bisexual, and gender conforming/gender non-conforming binary frames inaccurate and constraining for the complexities and diversity of human bodies and lives, but also they leave no space for intersex people–the estimated one in 2000 people born with either indeterminate or combined male and female sexed bodies–and trans* people. In the case of gender, the binary imperatives actually lock all people into rigid gender-based roles that inhibit creativity and self-expression, and therefore, we all have an interest in challenging and eventually obliterating the binaries.
Trans* people are increasingly coming out of another closet in large numbers. Many include young people emerging from a new generation of activists who are on the cutting edge in the movement for equality and pride. They are making the links between trans* oppression, heterosexism, and sexism. The increased visibility and activism of trans* activists has had the effect of shaking up traditionally dichotomous notions of gender and sexuality. They are creating a vision of social transformation as opposed to mere reform by contesting and exploding conventional gender constructions, most notably the limiting and destructive binary conceptualizations and definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity.”
Youth are transforming and revolutionizing the society and its institutions by challenging overall power inequities related not only to sexuality and gender identity categorizations and hierarchies, but they are also making links in the various types of oppression, and are forming coalitions with other marginalized groups. They are dreaming their dreams, sharing their ideas and visions, and organizing to ensure a world free from all the deadly forms of oppression, and along their journey, they are inventing new ways of relating and being in the world. Their stories, experiences, and activism have great potential to bring us to a future where people across the gender and sexuality spectrums will live freely, unencumbered by social taboos and cultural norms of gender and sexuality. It is a future in which all the disparate varieties of sexuality and gender expression will live and prosper in us all.