In the late 1960’s, sexual minorities in America endured a level of oppression which is all-too-often forgotten, even by those of us who were alive at the time. I remember, for instance, as a college freshman in 1966, going on a field trip to observe the municipal courts in action. I watched as a young black man – right here in progressive San Francisco – was sentenced to thirty days in jail for the crime of “impersonating a female.” In those days gay sex was illegal in every state but Illinois, and, even when it happened in private homes, it was punishable by jail time. The American Psychiatric Association officially classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. New York City had the largest gay population in the country, but it was also the city that most aggressively enforced anti-sodomy laws. Late-night raids on gay bars were routine. The names and photographs of those arrested were published in the newspapers, resulting in job losses and social ostracism. And so on and on.
The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was nothing like what the term “gay bar” means today. It was operated by the Mafia and served watered-down drinks without a liquor license. Even its regular customers described it as a dive. It had no running water — just a tub where the drinking glasses were rinsed for reuse. But it was one of the only places where gay people in the city could socialize, drink, dance to the jukebox, and commit “lewd and lascivious acts in public” – that is, hold hands or kiss each other. Its customers were the marginalized: poor people of color, drag queens, members of the newly self-aware transgender community, sex workers, and homeless youth who slept in nearby Christopher Park. The bar had two dance floors and the walls were painted black, making it very dark inside. It was lit with pulsing black lights, and when police showed up, regular white lights were turned on to let everyone know that they should stop dancing or touching.
The early morning of June 28, 1969 was hot, muggy and tense in the Village. Judy Garland had just died at the age of 47, and 20,000 people had attended her funeral in New York the previous day. The drag queens at Stonewall were in no mood to be pushed around. Previous raids there had resolved peacefully. Typically, after police made some arrests, the bar shut down, and reopened a few hours later. But June 28th was different: when eight police officers arrived and started arresting people one lesbian complained that her handcuffs were too tight and was hit over the head with a billy club. The incident sparked a riot and the police quickly lost control of the situation. A crowd gathered on the street outside, forcing police to barricade themselves in the bar. Riot officers wearing helmets and armed with nightsticks descended on the scene and it took them hours to regain control of the street. The confrontations and demonstrations that erupted that night continued for almost a week.
There had been uprisings before: for instance, in San Francisco in the same year that I witnessed the drag queen being sentenced to jail, transvestites, young street hustlers, and other down-and-out regulars were sitting in Comptons Cafeteria in the Tenderloin when police arrived to harass and arrest transgender and transsexual customers. A riot ensued, with the customers slinging cups, plates, and saucers, and breaking the windows in the front of the restaurant. They returned several days later to picket, and smashed the windows again. The event was the first known militant outburst of the modern transgender movement, and there, as later at the Stonewall Inn, the despised and marginalized led the way.
Stonewall was unique because it sparked a national movement. For the most part, activism until then had been mostly about striving for respectability and acceptance. The message was “we’re just like you” and the goal was assimilation. When demonstrators marched – courageously — in front of the White House or the State Department, the women wore skirts, the men wore suits and ties and everyone did their best to look just like the government workers in the buildings they were picketing. But after Stonewall there was a new mood of defiance and rebellion. The name of the Gay Liberation Front, which organized right after the uprising, sounded communist in Cold War America, and that was deliberate. One of its fliers proclaimed “Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!” People who had been oppressed suddenly felt empowered, and they saw no reason to be polite and tasteful about it.
And so overnight it was on: the resolute march, out of the closet, by the tens of thousands, of men and women who’d had enough and weren’t going to be pushed around anymore. Veteran gay activist Frank Kameny was amazed by the sudden sea change. He wrote later, “By the time of Stonewall, we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there was at least fifteen hundred. By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was twenty-five hundred.”
I never met anyone who participated in the Stonewall uprising, but they lifted me out of a life of shame and secrecy, and I owe them a personal debt of gratitude that I can never pay. We’re all connected more than we can ever know. Never doubt that when you live with courage and authenticity – whatever that means in your life — the effects ripple outward and profoundly affect the lives of people you will never meet. That is as true today as it was when I was young. This month, as we celebrate, young people all over the country and the world — still trapped in fear and still hiding — will be aware of us. Remember them. They will be with us in spirit, and we will never know how many of them will find the inner strength and the hope to continue to live because of what we do.
We create the kind of world we want to live in by living the lives we want to live. Our journey to full equality remains a work in progress, but the world we’re building and will leave to those who follow us is light years distant from the world I knew in 1969. This month, may all my brothers and sisters everywhere celebrate the gift of their lives with dignity and pride and joy.