Why Stonewall still matters after 50 years
By Don Gorton
The Stonewall Uprising of June 28 to July 2, 1969, did not begin the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Much happened earlier. Drag queens, sex workers, and gay, lesbian and transgender individuals put up resistance in Los Angeles in May 1959 after a police raid at the Cooper Do-nuts shop. Transgender people and drag queens rioted when police raided a favorite late-night gathering spot, Compton’s Cafeteria, in San Francisco in August 1966. And activism predated these riots. The “homophile” movement had been active since the 1950 founding of the Mattachine Society. 1955 saw the creation of the first lesbian organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis. The general public discovered Christine Jorgensen, who became the first trans woman to undergo gender confirmation surgery in Denmark in the early 1950s. The first gay and lesbian protest at the White House occurred in 1965, and on every July 4th for the rest of the decade, an “Annual Reminder” gathering voiced the demand for equality at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Stonewall was thus the culmination of the early struggle rather than a “big bang” birthing a movement ex nihilo.
But even in historical context, the Stonewall Uprising is a singularity. The summer of 1969 was the decisive point at which a community coalesced and forged a collective identity. The brazenness of the riots, which lasted nearly a week, was unlike anything that had ever happened in the history of homosexuality and gender variance. The movement that followed represented a sharp break with the past; the impact over time would transform the world in ways previously unimaginable. What, then, was so special about Stonewall?
First, it electrified the lesbian, gay, and trans activists who would lead a historic wave of community organizing, for example, Craig Rodwell, organizer of the first New York City Pride March in 1970. Within a month of Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had been formed. Soon after, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) broke away from the GLF to focus specifically on civil rights issues. Unlike pioneering organizations in California, such as the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), the GLF, and GAA, became models for community organizing countrywide. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson gave impetus to the trans political movement with the founding in 1970 of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The Stonewall Uprising turned what had been a cautious and invisible campaign aimed at improving the public image of sexual minorities into a mass movement that would take the issue of LGBTQ rights into the mainstream of American culture.
The Stonewall Uprising turned what had been a cautious and invisible campaign aimed at improving the public image of sexual minorities into a mass movement that would take the issue of LGBTQ rights into the mainstream of American culture.
Second, the Stonewall Uprising inspired pervasive LGBTQ visibility. LGBTQ people faced immense social pressure to pass as straight, even to the point of marrying someone of the opposite sex. Homosexuality and gender variance were something to keep hidden. Stonewall marked the beginning of a decisive shift in consciousness, when ever-increasing numbers of gays, lesbians, and trans people defied stigma to publicly embrace who they were. “Coming out” became a civic obligation. It was possible to demand some respect, which could never have been claimed by people skulking about in closets.
Third, after the Stonewall Uprising, a broad political program began to take shape. Raids on gay bars were met with spirited demonstrations until they stopped. Activists chipped away at extralegal police impositions, like the New York rule that individuals had to wear three items of clothing “appropriate” to their birth gender. Same-sex dancing was effectively legalized in New York in the early 1970s. The GAA launched in 1971 a drive for laws to ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, which finally passed in 1986 as NYC’s civil rights ordinance. Groups like Community United against Violence in San Francisco and the New York City Anti-Violence Project mobilized against hate crimes. Activists began working state-by-state to repeal sodomy laws, which were finally dispatched nationwide by the US Supreme Court in 2003 in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas.
While the early movement was centered on New York and California, Massachusetts moved to the forefront of change in the post-Stonewall era. In 1974, Elaine Noble became the first openly lesbian or gay person to be elected to public office, winning a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Massachusetts was the second state to pass an LGB anti-discrimination law in 1989, and stood as a national leader in empowerment of LGBTQ youth in the 1990s. In 2001, Massachusetts became the first state to cover gender identity in a hate crimes law. The advent of marriage equality in the Commonwealth in 2004 went on to sweep the nation: The Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 States in 2015. Transgender civil rights won legislative victories on Beacon Hill in the 2010s and were resoundingly reaffirmed at the ballot box in 2018. And just this past month, Massachusetts outlawed conversion therapy for minors after seven years of hard work by community activists!
The Stonewall Uprising was truly epochal. Over the last 50 years, the event has taken on transcendent meaning because visionaries invested it with a symbolic power that would spur widespread community organizing. Openly gay, lesbian, and transgender intellectuals like Arthur Evans, Kay Tobin, and Donn Teal propagated liberationist ideas that would transform the lives of LGBTQ people everywhere. Untold millions have since come out worldwide. As author Edmund White observed in a 1969 letter to his friends, poet Alfred Corn and his wife Ann, Stonewall is our community’s equivalent of the Storming of the Bastille. In 1969, our forebears confronted oppression and the course of history was forever changed. •
Art: Khalid Hussein, Stonewall (2017).
A Mississippi native, Don Gorton has been an LGBTQ rights advocate in Massachusetts since his days as a student at Harvard Law School. Don led the Greater Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance 1988-94; the Governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes 1991-2003; and the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts from 1994 forward. He co-chaired the campaign to ban conversion therapy for minors, which secured legislation in 2019. He was involved in passing the 1989 Lesbian/Gay Civil Rights Law; the 1996 Hate Crimes Penalties Act; anti-bullying legislation in 2010; and trans civil rights legislation in 2011. Don has also served as Clerk of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, where he is a contributing writer focusing on history and LGBTQ culture. Gorton is a former tax judge and presently a tax counsel with the Massachusetts Division of Local Services specializing in municipal finance law.