The Beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement

To celebrate Pride Month, we are highlighting excerpts from books that explore the lives and experiences of the LGBT+ community. Nathaniel Frank’s Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America tells the dramatic story of the struggle for same-sex couples to legally marry, something that is now taken for granted. Below, he describes the beginnings of the gay rights movement.

For homophiles of the 1950s, identifying as gay was almost always a risky and radical act, even if their ensuing demands were “merely” to be treated like everyone else. The first gay Americans to picket the White House without hiding were bluntly challenging the status quo even if their suits and dresses marked them as conventional, as did their engagement with traditional centers of political power. Defying views of gay people as sick, immoral, criminal, and disloyal was revelatory, but it could be undertaken with the goal of replacing such views with approval by churches, doctors, politicians, and the law. Conventional tactics do not always mean limited goals, and vice versa, since an activist can adopt an incremental approach as a strategy with the ultimate goal being radical change. Liberating Americans from traditional constraints on sex and other roles had the potential not just to be transgressive, disruptive, and destabilizing but also to serve as a safety valve for social pressures, thus spurring reform instead of revolution. There was a fine line between self-respect and respectability, and the process of throwing off internalized shame was often helped along by winning the imprimatur of others. And legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, some early advocates recognized, could be transformative, even as it also reaffirmed the role of the state in both governing private relationships and neglecting the needs of single people.

Such ideological and strategic tensions help explain the context for what happened on the hot summer night of Friday, June 27, 1969. A motley bunch of 200 drag queens, cross- dressing lesbians, hustlers, students, tony gay men, and what one admirer called “flaming faggot types” had gathered, as they often did, at the Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York City’s West Village. That afternoon and into the night, 20,000 fans and well-wishers had lined up outside the Frank Campbell funeral home uptown to say goodbye to Judy Garland, the gay icon whose life had ended with a barbiturate overdose in London the previous week. Some at the Stonewall Inn may have been toasting her memory (more than one had used “Judy Garland” as a nom de plume when signing in at the door, a practice required because the bar branded itself a private “bottle club” instead of a public establishment that would need a liquor license) when, just after midnight, a group of police officers filed in to raid the place. Normally the authorities gave the owners, who were associated with the Mafia, a warning before their raids, but for whatever reason, that night’s intrusion was a surprise. And for whatever reason — the cumulative weight of decades of derision and persecution, the inspiration of a new generation of youthful protestors, the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, the collective sadness and anger over Judy Garland’s death — this time the patrons fought back.

As the police began hauling off a few employees and drag queens in paddy wagons — wearing gender-atypical clothing was still illegal in New York — the crowd spontaneously erupted. The city during this period was not the well-kempt model of urban luxury it later became, and the small park across the street was littered with bottles and other debris that the throng gleefully converted into weapons. They hurled whatever they could get their hands on — including a parking meter they yanked from its socket — shattering windows and driving many of the raiding police inside for cover. When other officers turned a fire hose on the demonstrators, someone cried, “Grab it, grab his cock!” while others yelled, “Gay power!” The protestors taunted the raiders with references to the regular payoffs the corrupt police took from the mob bosses who owned the bars. Early on, a cross-dressing, biracial lesbian, Stormé DeLarverie, struck a police officer in retaliation, she said, for being hit. By the end of the night, four officers had been injured and many others had been terrorized. “There was never any time that I felt more scared than then,” recalled one of the leading police officials, who said their guns had been trained on the door from inside. “You have no idea how close we came to killing somebody.”

No one died, but a movement was born — or reached its rebellious adolescence. It was no doubt indebted and deeply connected to the rudimentary efforts of Mattachine [Society] and Daughters of Bilitis during the previous decade, but it was newly emboldened in palpable and ultimately enduring ways. The unrest continued for several nights that summer, as hundreds of additional gay and non-gay participants and curiosity-seekers, including press, made their way to Christopher Street. One was the gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who noticed right away a change in gay men’s bearing and poise. “The guys there were so beautiful,” he said. “They’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.” Other gay observers echoed the sentiment, calling the event a “homosexual revolution” that young activists should study and carry forward into the anti-gay churches, psychiatric offices, “councils of the U.S. Government,” and city and state legislatures that “make our manner of love-making a crime.” Many saw Stonewall, even then, as part of something bigger, “a larger revolution sweeping through all segments of society” that carried the promise of upending long-standing forms of repression and prejudice.