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Raising the Rainbow - the Stonewall Riots

Updated on June 21, 2014

The Stonewall Inn

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Introduction

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York are remembered annually as the tipping point for the gay rights movement in the fight for equality nation-wide and around the world. Instead of dispersing after a customary police raid on a notable gay bar in New York, patrons and friends gathered across the street and felt a uniting sense of outrage at the way they were being treated by the authorities. Thus the Stonewall riots and a sense of gay pride began. Contrary to popular belief, Stonewall was not the first time that homosexuals fought back against persecution and oppression. There were many similar events on the west coast that failed to gain the notoriety that Stonewall eventually claimed. However, it is in fact Stonewall that opened up the inevitable flood gates for the gay civil rights movement. The time, the place and the political climate all contributed to Stonewall’s incredible impact, as did the way it was perceived by those involved and affected by it. As word of the riots spread virally across the community as a testament to unfair treatment and practices, it gained the notoriety that it would ultimately be known and remembered for in future generations. By comparing the events of the Stonewall riots with similar demonstrations across the country, it's possible to argue that what made them special was not their unique place in the gay counterculture that existed at the time, but the collective memory and continued commemoration of the events.

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Former Raid: Compton Cafeteria

Stonewall did not corner the market on violence and rioting in regards to the gay liberation movement. The police in San Francisco raided a locale known as Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighborhood in August of 1966. (Armstrong & Crage, 2006, p. 729) Like Stonewall three years later, people in drag and patrons being herded by police refused to submit quietly. Coffee was thrown in the face of one of the police officers when he attempted to manhandle someone too roughly, and the patrons began throwing everything in the cafeteria they could find at the raiding authorities. (Broshears 1972; Stryker 1998:356, 2002) Stonewall cannot, therefore, be considered the first gay riot. Although this rebellion was one of the first gay riots, it was not remembered or commemorated. It did not fulfill a place in collective memory for gay culture, and failed to propel the movement forward exponentially in the way that the Stonewall riots eventually did. Although the homosexuals in the café did fight back against the police, the arrest were not legally challenged or publicized. The lack of notoriety allowed this riot to sit on the sidelines and not take a place of prominence in the community.

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The Black Cat Raid

The Black cat raid, also on the West Coast helped the gay community to gain momentum, but failed to gain the notoriety that the Christopher Street riots eventually held. The raid on the Black Cat bar was one in a string of several bar raids made by plain-clothed police officers in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve in 1967. The police in these incidents beat several bar patrons and employees both male and female. In one case, a waiter was beaten so severely that his spleen ruptured, yet the waiter was booked for assaulting a police officer. (Highland 1968:6) The relationship between gay activists and the police department was particularly tenuous, and much more hostile in comparison to the gay scenes of San Francisco and New York. One activist from the East Coast was quoted as saying “If there’s any large city in the country whose homosexual community has done more than its share of crying (with good cause) and less than its share of remedial acting, it is Los Angeles” (Kameny 198, cited in Clendinen and Nagourney 1999:36) Although the actions of the LAPD sparked demonstrations and protests around Los Angeles and were inclusive of many different groups and nationalities, it did not gain support from the gay movement overall. Time and interest passed, and the incident slipped into memory instead of outrage, and failed to make a lasting impression on gay rights activists nation-wide. Ultimately, the demonstrations afterword did not feel triumphant or successful. Instead, it evoked feelings of fear and uncertainty, which made it less impactful than the Christopher Street riots two years later.

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Stonewall, New York, 1969

Despite continued resistance from the Moral Police – or perhaps because of it – the New York City gay scene was primed and ready for an uprising, or a revolution that was simply waiting to happen. There was certainly something brewing beneath the surface on that hot night and the tensioned seemed almost palpable. Author David Carter portrays the events of that hot night as “lancing the festering wound of anger” in his countless interviews with eyewitnesses and participants. In an interview with Michael Fader who had been there throughout the riots, Carter wrote “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration. It was spontaneous. That was the part that was wonderful” (Carter, 2004) Although the riots began on a single night and were similarly dispersed, they continued for the next two days as more and more participants joined in open defiance to the public patrols in the area. As Toby Marotta notes in his essay “What Made Stonewall Different” (1996), the open rebellion sparked a surge of organization that made the movement more public and publicized in ways that the gay community had attempted but never seen come to fruition. Ultimately, it was this collective effort combined with its notoriety that allowed Stonewall to claim its prominent place in the history of the gay civil rights movement. Stonewall was propelled into the spotlight of collective memory that still lingers on to this day. The mentality of the rioters on Christopher Street did not fade into memory. Instead, the outrage of the incident festered and the anger and resentment built up gradually over decades, eventually springing out of its boundaries and into the greater community as a whole. The several days of rioting on Christopher Street grew into a movement-wide phenomenon as gay people throughout New York and across the nation began to recognize that a change was happening. The gay community became invested, they were a part of something bigger and they made a conscious decision to move forward and not let the momentum slip into obscurity. Fliers from the days of the Christopher Street riots maintained that rioters felt that they were participating in a historic moment (Carter 2004:164) but it’s uncertain whether or not they realized how pivotal the movement would become in the coming decades – or where the fight for equality would ultimately lead.

Moving Forward

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Conclusion

It’s doubtful that the rioters from Stonewall could have foreseen just how effective their actions would become. In less than 40 years from the riots, the fight for equality is no longer solely about fighting against police brutality against homosexuals. It’s no longer about being able to be open about sexual orientation in public. Now the fight is about marriage equality, and as of 2014, 17 states have legalized gay marriage outright. Marriage recognition for same-sex couples has been granted at a Federal level. Despite pockets of resistance, more and more states are joining the battle and standing firm for marriage equality. There has been a very real, demonstrable shift in the public and legal perception of the gay community over all, and this shift can at least in part be traced back to that hot, muggy night in front of the Stonewall Inn; that seminal night when hundreds of gay men and women decided that they were tired of hiding their identities. The people decided to spontaneously to fight back, to claim a small part of the pride that they wanted to feel so badly. They presented one face in public, where they were closeted and repressed, and another face at the gay bars where they felt they could truly be themselves. As gay pride celebrations take place all across the country in the month of June, gay people all over the country are commemorating the events of Stonewall – many without even recognizing what they’re celebrating. The legend of Stonewall continues, despite the fact that many involved in the movement today fail to remember the significance of the event itself. The gay movement needs to remember where it came from, and what prompted its ability to fight back against oppression and discrimination in the first place. Recognizing and remembering where the movement started and the steps that it took to gain ground towards equality is essential to continuing the battle for equality for this and future generations.

References:

Armstrong, E., Crage, S. (2006). Movements and memory: the making of the Stonewall myth. American Sociological Review, 71, 724-751.

Broshears, R. (1972). History of Christopher Street West-sf. Gay Pride(June 25), 8.

Carter, D. (2004). Lancing the festering wound of anger. Stonewall (p.160). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Clendinen, D., Nagourney, A. (1999). Out for good: the struggle to build a gay rights movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Highland, J. (1968). Raid! An article. Tangents, January, p.4.

Marotta, T. (2006, March 1). What Made Stonewall Different?. . Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.glreview.org/article/article-1012/

Marcus, E. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Smith, Howard. Full Moon Over Stonewall (view from Inside). Village Voice. 7/3/69

Styker, S. & Van Buskirk, J. 1996. Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.

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