Summer 2019 marks 50 years since the iconic rebellion against the police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The LGBT+ patrons and locals, many of them people of colour, and most of them working class, fought back against the police in 6 days of rioting. Then they organised, revolutionising the LGBT+ rights movement, and sparking Pride.
In honour of Pride month, WCH are releasing a series of episodes about LGBT+ history. We begin with a double episode telling the story of the Stonewall rebellion, in the words of participants.
After the rebellion, participants in it, along with others, set up the Gay Liberation Front, and then organised a protest on its first anniversary, 28 June 1970, which became Pride.
This podcast is funded entirely by our listeners and readers on patreon. You too can support us, get exclusive early access to episodes and bonus audio, like a bonus episode about Stonewall, at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
They are part of our new wave of episodes we are spending a lot more time on. We are doing this for all of 2019, but we will only be able to keep spending this amount of time beyond this point if we get more support from you, our listeners on patreon, so do please consider supporting us if you can. If you can’t, no problem, please just share our episodes on social media!
In these episodes, we speak with Martin Boyce, who took part in the rebellion, with John O’Brien, who took part in the rebellion and the GLF, and Martha Shelley, who was involved in the GLF.
- Part 1
- Part 2
- Bonus episode – with more info about homophobia at the time, about Martha’s activism before Stonewall, about Martin’s time hanging out at the Stonewall and more is exclusively for our patreon supporters.
We’ve produced a range of merchandise commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, and the ensuing Gay Liberation Front and Pride. Proceeds help fund our work, as well as activism today by original participants in the riots and the GLF. Check it out here: shop.workingclasshistory.com
Martin Boyce with his friend Bertie Rivera, c1969
- The most detailed historical account of the rebellion is in the book Stonewall: the riots that started the gay revolution by David Carter (although readers should bear in mind that it was written in 1993, so some of the language in it would now be considered transphobic)
- You can also learn more in this PBS documentary about Stonewall
- This documentary has more information about the life of Marsha P Johnson
- Interview with Stormé DeLarverie
- For more information about John O’Brien’s radical history archive, or if you are interested in donating materials, money or space please contact WCH and we will put you in touch. Email us on info at workingclasshistory.com
- To read Martha Shelley’s blog go to ebisupublications.com/author/martha/
- You can buy Martha Shelley’s books here on Amazon
- In part 1 we mistakenly refer to the US government as “post-colonial” instead of “post-independence”
- We also refer to “gender reassignment surgery” as opposed to “gender affirmation surgery”.
We apologise for these errors.
Here are other sources used in addition to the links already given in the More information section:
- Timeline of US “cross dressing” laws
- Bermuda gay marriage repeal
- Countries where homosexuality is illegal
- First-ever Antarctica Pride
As always, huge thanks to our patreon supporters who make this podcast possible.
Theme music for this episode was Stand up for Your Rights by The International Gay Society courtesy of Chapter Records from their excellent album from the gay liberation movement. You can stream it here or buy it here.
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In the summer of 1969, half a century ago, police violently raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Police raids on gay bars were common. But this time, something changed. The LGBTQ patrons and passers-by, many of them people of colour, fought back, sparking days of rioting, then began organising. They birthed the modern gay liberation movement, and Pride, which is now global phenomenon. This is Working Class History.
The Stonewall riots, or Stonewall Rebellion took place in 1969, 50 years ago this June. Though there had been protests against police raids of gay bars in the US beforehand, for example at Compton’s cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, and in LA in 1967 outside the Black Cat bar, Stonewall was different. Firstly because of its militancy, and the extent of the violence, in terms of confrontation with the police and destruction of property. Secondly it wasn’t just a one-off, it lasted for 6 days. Thirdly it was reported about at the time in the mainstream press, and had a couple of photographs taken, unlike previous protests. And most importantly, the participants, and the local LGBT community used the event as a springboard to organise. They set up the Gay Liberation Front, which revolutionised the LGBT rights movement, and they organised a demonstration on the anniversary of the first night of the riot, which became Pride, a huge event each June, which takes place all over the world.
We were very pleased to be able to get in touch with a couple of people who were involved in the Stonewall Rebellion, who were happy to speak with us about their experiences. One of them was Martin Boyce:
Martin: I was born into the working class. My father was a cab driver, and I grew up with an Italian family. My father married an Italian, so I almost consider myself Italian even though my name is Boyce because I was raised with them. And my father is an English American, Catholic, so I’m from a Catholic background, culturally. I was born in the Village. I was born in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, but I was raised on 43rd Street and 2nd Avenue near the UN. My life situation in 1969 was that my mother was an invalid and my father wanted to work to gain his pension, so they sent me to college, and also, I would take care of my mother – in return, take care of my mother, I went to college. Also had a great deal of time, when my mother was asleep, to go out, so that was my connection to the streets. You know, I always knew I was gay, so I just studied straight people as a child to learn how to act, to fool them.
Also growing up in New York City at that time was John O’Brien. The group he mentions, the NAACP, Is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People:
John: I was born in Harlem, New York, and grew up in Harlem, New York. My parents were labourers. My mother was one of thirteen children born in Ireland, and the parents of hers could not afford to feed and clothe and take care of thirteen kids, so the majority to the United States. So, basically, she worked as a maid her whole life, and my father was a custodian. So, Irish ancestry, very poor, horrible housing in old walkups built during the Civil War of the United States in the 1860s. There was no bathroom in several of these places we lived. The bathtub was the kitchen sink, and you walked down the hall to where there was a toilet. So, these were old, old buildings, and they were tearing them down, so I got radicalised because of that. Because of the conditions that I saw around me, particularly on how people of colour were depicted as being – what’s the word I want to use? – abused locally, discriminated, and watching the news, what was going on in the South. So, at the age of thirteen, on my own, I went up to the Harlem branch of the NAACP on 125th Street, and I went in there to join the group, which surprised a lot of the people in the office. So, I got involved in 1962, in the Civil Rights Movement, and basically learned a great deal. One of the things that happened is that I came into contact with other social classes, because that movement saved my life. All the kids in my neighbourhood grew up with no hope, no future. Many of them turned to drugs. It’s because I cared about helping people that I actually helped myself. I’m self-taught. I never finished high school because I went to Parrott High School, which was the second-worst high school in New York, and basically, there you didn’t learn much at all.
Over the river in Brooklyn was Martha Shelley, who was 5 years older than John.
Martha: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My father – well, his family were immigrants, but he was also born in Brooklyn, and working-class people. My mother was an illegal immigrant, but when her family came, there was an immigration quota, so they couldn’t get in. They went to Cuba instead, and at that point, she was seven. And then, when she was sixteen, she got on a boat, came to the United States, and went to work in a factory in New York. She met my father, and he was a citizen, so they got married and she was able to become a citizen.
Martha’s mum was Jewish, and from Poland.
Martha: Those members of her family that did not leave Poland were killed in the Holocaust.
While the 1960s is often remembered as a time of freedom and sexual liberation, for LGBTQ people, this was not the case at all. Persecution of gay and gender nonconforming people was rife, both by the state and the general population, although the extent of this depended on class.
John: It differed depending upon who you were and where you were. So, class-wise, if you didn’t have a great deal of money, it was worse for you. When I was a kid growing up, I understood that I was a criminal, I was religiously sinful, and mentally sick at the same time. There was nothing available for me to learn about me, because there certainly were no billboards, no television shows, nobody who was out who was in any way positive, who was a role model. So, when I went to the public library, there was nothing in the public shelves. The only thing for sexuality, that stuff was closed stacks, and if you were young, you weren’t allowed access to it, so there was nothing there for me. There was no organized gay community. There was no support system. When I went out looking for sex, I went to places where they said that’s where the degenerates and perverts were.
Martin: Oh, the oppression was ubiquitous. I mean, it was everywhere. The oppression could come up twenty times a day. You just lived with it, just hoped you would get out of there. Sometimes it was dangerous, sometimes it was merely humiliation. I remember going to the hardware store. Even though I wanted something completely different, the man showed me how female and male electrical sockets worked. That the prongs go into the – he called it the “female part,” just to show me, give me a lesson on life, in front of all these other people just to humiliate me. That was just minor, ‘cause there was no violence or stuff like that, but the incidents like that would occur all day. There was no such thing as pride, ‘cause pride could get you beaten. But we understood where the pride was: it was below the surface. It was our ability to resist. It was like being in the French Résistance. It was a lot to deal with, and dealt with very well. New York was the most liberal city in the entire country, but that’s, er… I think Ralph Ellison, the Black writer, on his monument uptown, where he lived, it said that New York was the freest city, but that’s different from being a free city. But it was the freest city you could live in, as far as being gay, and a number of other kinds of people could live here, or manage to live here pretty well. It had a pretty good reputation for gay people to live, but that was not saying much when living, at the time, was very, very dangerous. Very difficult. I mean, beating up gay people was a city sport! And there were certain days when they were just given the green light to do it, and Saint Patrick’s was one of those days. So, if you went to a policeman, or you were in trouble or something, you would get no help. In fact, they would blame you, or sometimes hold you for them to beat you up, so it was pretty horrible. But still, it was very exciting, at the same time. The city was like a film noir city. It was much darker than it is now. It was sort of like a film noir life. We were called the twilight people, but sometimes with good reason, because our lives really were lived at night.
John: There’s a long history here of how gays were mistreated, fired from their jobs, hounded, abused, and murdered. Nobody was ever being convicted of murdering gay people! You were rarely charged if you murdered a gay person. If you physically attacked a gay person, no charges were ever brought against you. If you go back, you’ll find that people were not brought up on charges for assaulting, or hurting, or murdering gays. I was lucky because I lived in Manhattan. Now, if I had lived in Alabama, or Ohio or some other place, it was much worse. People came from Cleveland, Ohio to New York City to go to gay bars, the few that were open, occasionally. There were generally very few gay places, and those that did have those places were generally attacked by the police. And not just nicely, in raids. People would be losing their jobs, et cetera, as well as being in prison. It’s far worse than what the official records are because when I was a kid, and for many long years after that, parents could take their children, that they discovered were gay, and commit them to a mental asylum. Others would be rounded up and locked up as criminals for violating various laws. A year before I was born, in the state of Alabama, these police broke down a door in a house that two adult males were living in, in their bed. They were found in bed together. They were arrested, and within a year they were electrocuted to death underneath the sodomy law.
As in much of the world, homophobia in US had its origins in British colonialism. As in all of its colonies, Britain introduced sodomy laws, and introduced the death penalty for it in Jamestown, its first permanent settlement. And as in much of the British Empire, post-independence authorities didn’t repeal homophobic laws. Up to 1963, consensual sex between adult men was a crime in all 50 states with penalties of up to 60 years imprisonment. Some states also interpreted laws to prohibit lesbian sex. If you were convicted under these laws, not only would you probably lose your job, you would lose most types of professional registration, and depending on your state you could also be locked up in a mental institution for life, given electroshock therapy, lobotomised or chemically castrated. From 1963, a small number of states began repealing these laws, but in the late 60s most states still had them, and they were only eventually completely struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003. “Homosexual solicitation” and wearing clothing for other than your gender designated by the state were also illegal, and police entrapment was rife. In New York in the late 60s, police were arresting over 100 men a week for solicitation after entrapment operations. Facing all of this repression, from the state and the general population, most LGBT people hid their sexuality.
John: You were hiding in the closet. In fact, almost all were hiding in the closet. There were very few that were out. There were very few that were out, who were very flamboyant, couldn’t do anything about being out. They didn’t hold regular jobs, and they lived as sex workers on the street. When I was a kid, as I said, not only wasn’t there any support, there was lots of oppression. It was organised, in terms of government oppression, in terms of religious institutional oppression, and societal oppression at all levels.
For many lesbians, life was even harder.
John: Lesbians were particularly isolated at that time, far more than gay men, ‘cause for the gay men, it was easier to go out and have sex and to hang around in cruising areas than women, for obvious reasons at the time.
Martha: Women, just for being women, have always had the problem of male violence. In fact, before I left home, one of the first things I did was study judo, in hopes that that would be some protection. I think there was always additional violence against anyone who was perceived to be gay or lesbian. The culture was such that when I told a therapist that I was a lesbian, she said, “Well, you shouldn’t be a lesbian, because you’re cutting off half the world,” and, therefore, I should be bisexual. Now, she did not apply that to herself; she was hetero. All the people in that group of people that I knew who were involved in this – it was kind of a therapy cult – if you were straight, that was fine, but if you were gay, they pressured you to be bisexual. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t interested in whether I was cutting off half the world. I only wanted one person; I didn’t want to go to bed with the whole world. There was a lot of psychological pressure, even in New York City, where you were less likely to be killed than other places at that time.
Homophobia was even widespread amongst supposedly revolutionary socialists:
John: I was a member of the Young Socialist Alliance, which was the youth group of the U.S. Socialist Workers’ Party. I had been a member of it for several years, and I was called into the organisers’ office, because they had heard from a person they had found out to be gay, who then gave my name to them and said I was gay. They asked me if I was gay, and they were hoping I would say no, because I had these big muscles. I couldn’t have possibly been gay, from their view. And I was one of their few actual working-class kids, ‘cause most of them were college kids, professionals and stuff. So, I told them I was gay, and they kicked me out because I said I was gay. They kicked me out ‘cause they said I would be a security risk. I said to them, “How can I be a security risk if I’m openly gay?” But they kicked me out only for that reason. Not because I was doing something with somebody that somebody complained about. The person who I fooled around with, he was found out to be gay. They suspected him, and he then turned my name in, and that’s how these things worked at that time. This is a left-wing, socialist group. So, the anarchists at Alternate U on 14th Street, having heard of that, welcomed me in and let me join their board of directors. Because, my comrades, not only did they kick me out of the YSA, the leaders went to the anti-war groups that I was active in and tried to get those groups to not allow me to participate in their activities as well, which they rejected. Their own members rebelled against them because I was very active against the Vietnam War, and was, for years, committed and dedicated, et cetera. But the leadership, Jack Barnes, was absolutely upset that I was allowed to stay in the student mobilisation committee against the war and these other groups.
We’ll hear more about alternative U, which John mentioned, in part 2. At this time there also wasn’t much of a gay rights movement. What there was called itself the “homophile movement”, deliberately not using the word “homosexual” in order to try to combat the idea that gay people were obsessed with sex.
John: And there was a difference between the East Coast and the West Coast. They had a different philosophy and views on the homophile movement. On the West Coast, it was more personal, supportive. Building a community, identity, et cetera. On the East Coast, it was only around legal rights, not about identity and building community.
The main homophile group for women was called the deliberately innocuous-sounding Daughters of Bilitis, Bilitis being a fictional lesbian from 19th-century French poetry.
Martha: The Daughters of Bilitis was what you might call an assimilationist group. The idea was that we were trying to prove to the world – and gay men’s organisations did the same – that we were just as good as the rest of America, only somewhat different, and that we all wanted the same things: the nice job, the house with the white picket fence, the pension, that sort of thing. It was all focused on gay civil rights. We would have speakers coming to the Daughters of Bilitis to tell us that we were OK. There was this one woman who you could on to, once a year, show up and make a little speech about how we were OK psychologically, and there was nothing really wrong with us. We were just different, like left-handed people are different from right-handed people. And there was this lesbian couple that lived in suburban New Jersey that would come in and tell you how to make your lesbian marriage work.
For men, the main homophile organisation was called the Mattachine Society, named after troupes of masked French Renaissance performance societies, and it had the same assimilationist vibe as the Daughters of Bilitis. In general the groups were anxious not to make a fuss, but they did organise one protest per year:
Martha: Every July 4th, for several July 4ths, the gay organisations had had a demonstration at Independence Hall at Philadelphia, in front of the Liberty Bell. The women would have to put on skirts and the men would have to put on suits and ties, and here it is, July 4th. It’s hot, and we’re marching along, looking like middle Americans, walking around with picket signs. “Equal rights for homosexuals.” I went to that once. It was the July 4th before the Stonewall riots, and I felt like a complete idiot, because in my normal life, except for having to go to work, I did not dress like that, and the guys didn’t, either. We were pretending to be middle Americans. And then these tourists who had come to Independence Hall would stand around and look at us like we were creatures in a zoo and eat their ice creams. I thought, “I’m not doing this again.” It was just too phony!
John once tried to attend one of these protests as well.
John: My previous experiences with the gay movement organised was not a good thing because it was very class-oriented. It was people who were professionals looking for respect. They didn’t want kids like me. In fact, if you have time, I can tell you: I went to a couple of demonstrations where I was rejected because I was too young. In 1967, they had their annual walk around Independence Hall protesting discrimination, and there’d be about a dozen pickets. I went down there to protest against the Vietnam War, and they kept us in these little police corridors with wooden horses at that time. They kept us across the street from this. And Johnson was President. He was going to be speaking at the Independence Hall. This was July 4th, ‘67. They had this annual-day reminder where they had a dozen gay men and women marching around in a little picket line in an enclosed wooden horse. At the same time, with the same amount of space that they got, there were 4,000 of us who were squeezed into the wooden horses to protest the war in Vietnam, and if you did not fit in that wooden horse, you were not allowed to be part of the demonstration. It was a way of keeping the numbers down in opposition to the war. Well, two people, David McReynolds and myself, we went over to join the gay protest. David was open, so he had his suit on, he joined, he was in his thirties or forties then. I was 18, no suit, wearing jeans, and it was very brave for me to go over and join the protest, because I’m in front of all my friends. I’m not really out at that time. I was in the closet. I went over to join the demonstration. They wouldn’t let me join, because one, I was underage. You had to be 21. Two, I wasn’t wearing a suit. Women had to wear dresses and men had to wear suits. You had to carry a sign and you couldn’t say anything. In those demonstrations, you had to remain totally silent and let only the spokesperson do the talking. No yelling, no slogans. Walk around in a circle and if you were underage, you’re not allowed.
A year or so later, John tried to attend an event of the Mattachine Society, at a hotel, but he couldn’t afford the entrance fee.
John: When I went to the hotel, I found all these professional men in their suits! Of course, there was a charge to go in. I didn’t have any money. They looked at me like I’m from another planet, class-wise. They didn’t know I was gay, ‘cause as I said, I had a lot of muscles then. I was tough. They saw me as somehow the help when I showed up at that hotel, but it was this hostility, like “who is that?” Of course, when they weren’t in the hotel, when they were out on the streets, they’d be more than happy to pick me up. These were the guys I met who were more than happy to take me to bed, and once they have their sex over with, I’m out the door and there’s no communication. They were scared to death of seeing me. Just to give you a little thing to understand the time: people I met for sex would not acknowledge knowing me or seeing me on the street, not because I was working-class, but because people would think that they would be spotted as being gay. That was the fear. You don’t even stand with somebody who’s also gay, because then, you could be identified as such. That was the fear. That was the internalized self-oppression that was going on then. The great fear.
Laws against gay and gender nonconforming people basically meant that the only bars which could cater for them were run by organised crime.
Martha: There were raids in the bars, and the bars for both men and women in New York were owned by the Mafia. They paid protection to the cops. That didn’t always work because at times the cops would just raid the bars in the pretence of “cleaning up the city.” In order to get into the bars, you sometimes had to pay an entrance fee. You had to pay an entrance fee to get into an interior room where you could dance with another woman. You got to get five watered-down drinks. There was a lot of pressure to buy drinks. It didn’t suit me at all. I didn’t dress right. I didn’t look like the right kind of butch or femme, and I never had any success in the bars in getting to meet other people.
John: At the time, it was against the law to allow gay people to congregate in your business. If you allowed gay people to congregate in your business, you are basically aiding and abetting criminal activity, so the bars that allowed gays to congregate at different levels were mainly in New York, where I was, operated by the mob, because they paid off the cops, and this was nothing new. Paying off the cops was not just in New York, but it was in most countries and most cities that had such places, but regularly, there would be police raids, to keep clear who’s in charge and to keep us in our place. I was too young to go into the bars, but the other reason I didn’t go into those bars is that I had no money. I was a working-class kid; I had no money at all. I was hanging out on the streets, on Christopher Street, and down at the piers and have sex in the trucks and go to the open parks, because that was the thing that was common for most working-class kids. It still goes on today. If you don’t have money, you are more limited in access for many things in life, which includes sex.
Unlike John, Martin was old enough to go to bars.
Martin: The street queens were my crowd, scared drag street queens. They were interesting, they were fascinating, they were great raconteurs. They were just fascinating. I was absolutely obsessed with them and glad to be part of them. It looked like, in a very oppressive world, we had created a comfort zone amongst us and around us, ‘cause we understood each other very, very well.
The Stonewall Inn was in Greenwich Village, a historically bohemian neighbourhood on the lower west side of Manhattan which was the centre of gay life in the city. The Stonewall is actually still there, although it’s not the same as it was. After it was shut down, it later reopened in 1990, occupying half of its original space. It’s situated on Christopher Street, near its intersection with 6th Avenue, which runs west to the piers, which at the time were full of delivery trucks at night, and were a popular cruising spot. The Stonewall was Martin’s favourite place, because it had one key difference with almost every other bar in the city.
Martin: Oh, yes, because Stonewall was the only dancing bar, so everybody went there just to dance. I mean, it was such a novelty. It was such a wonderful thing to do, one of the freest things you could do was be on a dance floor in a gay situation. It was unheard of, publicly. Stonewall was centrally located in the Village, so people that would come to the village could stop by. You could check it out. It was easy to get to. It was a gay-friendly neighbourhood, the most gay-friendly in the whole city, and we would go there at maybe eleven or later, especially more in the winter than the summer. It was a completely mixed crowd. There was only one bar for dancing, and everybody had to share it. And the bar was not a very attractive place. They didn’t have any running water, so if you knew, you would order bottled beer, because you would not get sick that way, in case that could happen. It was really a job that was controlled by the Mafia, but it was wonderful for us, because it was our place. Since there were so many groups of people in there, you would find your own crowd mixed in with all these other crowds in the bar, which made it a very exciting place to see other lifestyles within the gay community, even if you were sometimes hostile to those lifestyles. But things would break down. We’re all gay, and we’re all friends.
Something worth pointing out at this stage is about language. At the time terminology about transgender people was different to how it is now. So the general term for people assigned male at birth who were gender nonconforming to varying degrees was “drag queen”. So this term included men in drag, but also people who in current parlance would be trans women. At the time the only people who were generally considered trans women, then more usually called transsexual, had undergone gender affirmation surgery. So these were the only people legally allowed to wear women’s clothes, whereas for drag queens, and trans women who either did not want or could not afford gender reassignment surgery, it was illegal. So police would check people’s genitals during police raids to determine who they could arrest. Due to recent disputes between people who oppose rights for trans people – transphobes – and supporters of trans-rights, the identity of numerous people involved in the Stonewall Rebellion has been disputed. Again, because of the time this took place, many of the participants didn’t refer to themselves as trans because that term wasn’t in use, but other participants later described themselves as trans when the terminology came into use, so it’s clear that many trans people were involved in the riots, as were non-transgender gay men and lesbians.
Anyway, here, Martin explains more about the different subcultures represented at the Stonewall.
Martin: One of the biggest ones was the Black drag queens. They were very, very important, because they were very, very hip. There was no doubt about it. They controlled the jukebox, so they were always around the jukebox and if you went to the jukebox and you played something they didn’t like, you would never get the jukebox again. It was sort of like the way people used to control the telephone at prison. I mean, that was the very centre of the bar. Its nerve centre was that jukebox, and they controlled it, and they would vogue to songs, and they would always be entertaining. They were always on. Everybody agreed that they could control that. The part of the bar in which you walked in, which did not face the dance floor, was more like a regular bar as opposed to an open dance bar. That was the A-gays, the guys in suits who were very hostile to the scare drag queens. And by “scare drag queens,” I mean queens that look like Boy George. They weren’t in full drag. They were just gender-benders, so to speak.
As well as providing music to dance to, the jukebox at the Stonewall served another function.
Martin: The jukebox is also used to answer people. If you had an argument, you could always find a song on the jukebox that could answer that person. I remember two drag queens were having a fight over who looked better, and one of them triumphantly went up – the first one couldn’t get there – to the jukebox to play “There Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby,” and would snap her fingers and let the song talk for her, and you would assume that she was the real thing. So, the music was used in many different ways, not just for dancing, but for this kind of communication or expression, maybe I should say.
Police raids on gay bars in New York were common. However usually they gave advance notification to the Mafia, and undertook the raid at a mutually convenient time so as not to cause much disruption. But this raid was different. This time authorities wanted to shut down the Stonewall for good. And they planned to raid it at its busiest time in the early hours of Saturday, 28 June, 1969.
As is quite common in historical events, there are multiple different narratives about what exactly began the riot, but Stonewall is quite unique in that its specific trigger is hotly debated, basically because of transphobes trying to erase the role of trans-people in the rebellion, and on the flipside others try to highlight it. So some say it was started by Marsha P Johnson, a legendary black trans activist, although she herself said she arrived after it had started. Others credit Puerto Rican trans-woman Sylvia Rivera, although she wasn’t actually present on the first night of the rioting. Multiple first-hand accounts, supported by journalists from the Village Voice who were on the scene, state that a key trigger outside the bar was a lesbian described as a “typical New York butch” being arrested and calling on the crowd which had formed around her to “do something”. In 2008, biracial drag king performer Stormé DeLarverie, known as a guardian of lesbians in the Village stated that she was this individual. Other people credit an unnamed Puerto Rican drag queen outside the bar putting her fist in the air and yelling “gay power”. The police officer in charge of the raid stated that what started the oppositional atmosphere inside the bar was trans women and drag queens resisting the genital checks, and still others credit lesbians resisting intrusive body searches. In a chaotic situation involving lots of people in various locations, different people will see different things. Fifty years on, there is no way of knowing what the exact first trigger of the riot was, and most likely there was no single event from which everything else followed. But what is completely clear is that trans people, lesbians, gay men and gender nonconforming people, many of them people of colour, and pretty much all of them working class, were involved, and fought together. Anyone who has been involved in the riot knows that it is not an individual act, it is a collective act, where lots of people start acting as one. So, bearing all that in mind, this is what Martin saw himself that night.
Martin: What happened was me and my best friend, who was like a platonic lover, Birdie, Birdie Rivera, we were going to go to Stonewall. I forgot what time, but we were going there, and that was our plan. But the point with Stonewall is you could never be sure you were going to get in, because they controlled the bar from the door, and they didn’t want the bar to tip too many drag queens, too many butch, too many this, too many that. They wanted to keep the bar open so that it would not tip and become a certain type of bar. It seemed like it welcomed everybody, but it really didn’t. They really were controlling who was in the bar, and who could be there that night. And one of my friends, who was very similar to me and Birdie couldn’t get in, so we knew we weren’t going to get in. So, we were on the stoop up from the bar deciding what we were going to do, and there was a ruckus. Someone behind me said something about a raid, and the crowd behind me got thick and was heading toward 6th Avenue, many people just to get out of that area. All of a sudden, the street was ablaze with what used to be called the bubble lights, the police cars, the paddy wagons, and turmoil and confusion, so we ran over to the bar and they were already taking people out to put in the paddy wagon. As soon as I got there, a queen kicked one of the policemen in the shoulder from the paddy wagon. I only saw her high heel, and he went in and just kept beating on her, ‘cause you could hear flesh and bone against that metal, which was a brutal thing to see right off the bat. We knew they were brutal, but they usually weren’t brutal in front of us, in front of a large crowd, in an important intersection. This was unusual. What happened was, we formed a semicircle around the bar and around the police, and was watching the proceedings. The drag queens were coming out and waving. Other people were coming by with jeers, coming by with shame, all the people that were usually caught in there. But this was not an unusual thing. When there was a raid, we normally went to see who was in there. It was almost like a schadenfreude. We were glad it wasn’t us, and now we could watch a show. There was no sense of unity as there would be within a couple of hours, which was new. The paddy wagon went away; the crowd was just lulling. This huge policeman – very ugly man – in front of me turned around to us and said, “Alright, you saw the show,” ‘cause this was routine, “Now get the fuck out of here.” Then he turned around again because he knew we were going to leave, because that’s what we always do. But this time we didn’t. Nobody communicated. Nobody said a word. Everybody took a step forward. I couldn’t see the expression on anybody’s face, ‘cause we were all looking at him, but something must have happened in the crowd. Something must have happened to our faces, because as he turned around to repeat the order – for the last time, as far as he was concerned – he blinked, gulped, and we knew we got him. He moved back. The riot was on. The riot was on in different sections at different times in this semicircle around the amphitheatre, because there was enough provocation for every small group among the line, and that was our provocation. When he ran, it was almost instinctual, like the way animals think to give chase. And we did. And the officers, they locked themselves into the bar. The crowd went crazy. We started throwing pennies at first, because they’re coppers, and they’re made of copper, as an insult to them. And then it got worse.
So just to clarify here, at this point there were around 6 male police officers in the bar, as well as 2 women undercover officers whose job it was to identify who various people were in the bar to be arrested beforehand. The male officers had been searching and taking IDs from people inside the bar. But now the officers outside had fled into the bar, and they barricaded the doors shut to try to keep out the now angry crowd which had formed outside. The 2 journalists from the Village Voice, which back then was a very homophobic publication, hid inside as well, fearing for their safety.
Martin: And then, bricks started appearing, and stones started appearing. Everything we had in our pockets that we could afford to lose was thrown at the bar. Someone got lighter fluid and poured it on the door and set it on fire.
At this same time, John O’Brien was nearby.
John: I had normally spent every Friday and Saturday night on 8th Street and 6th Avenue, the Avenue of the Americas, talking politics. I would spend several hours there and then go down Christopher Street and have sex. Well, on that night was the police sirens you could hear, and people were making their way down the street towards the subway. Of course, I ran to it [laughs] because I was political! I wasn’t there when they first pulled people out. I wasn’t there. I was still down the street. When I got there, the rebellion had already started with the cops running against the bar. They locked themselves in the bar because they were freaking out over the anger. What they had never had before was gay people coming together, united, and focus their anger on the cops. The cops before them were able to pick off people. There was no response. They would be easy victims. They would just go along with whatever is being dealt to them because of that psychology of accepting being a victim. That night, there were people who didn’t. It started with yelling at the cops, and then pushing the cops, and then throwing things at the cops. First some loose change, and then some cobblestones, which were big and heavy, taken out of the street.
Martin: In a riot, it’s very hard to see anything. It’s like a kaleidoscope. You’re always moving. It’s kinetic. One queen, which I’ll never forget, Miss New Orleans, was on top of this window ledge. I never saw a face of determination like that. Only the face of abolitionist John Brown, that’s what she reminded me of. The intensity in her face to right the wrongs she felt was amazing. I just couldn’t believe how determined she was. She was one of the great heroes. She jumped down from the ledge, went down to a parking meter, started pulling it out. Almost did it herself, but other people helped, then, and they started trying to break the door down. I didn’t really realize they really were trying to get into that bar. I thought this was merely something we could do to relieve the anxiety and frustration, but they were really trying to get in. It would have been a disaster, had they. But the riot kept going.
Inside the bar, the police experienced what it was like to be on the other end of the type of power relationship they were used to, where instead of them being able to intimidate and be violent towards others, they were the ones outnumbered. And they were shitting themselves. A couple of them were war veterans, and later said it was the most scared they had ever been. But they were armed, and were prepared to fire on the crowd if they managed to get inside the bar. One of those people trying to break-in, was John:
John: I got involved with the parking meter, where we took the meter out of the ground. It was then partially loosened by a car who hit it. It was basically already dead, so we took that out, and we used it on the doors at Stonewall to try to get the cops in inside. I was not an average gay guy [laughs] I was pretty butch. The other people included on that parking meter, I don’t know all their sexualities, but I do know that they were angry, and they had enough. It was the right time, the right place. It was at a time when people were challenging government authority at all levels. It was because of the ‘60s, and especially because of the civil rights movement, that we were able to do what we could do there. Taking a parking meter and using it as a battering ram to try to kill the cops would today be a shocking thing for most people. Fifty years ago, it was even more shocking that gay people were willing to do this.
Now that a fightback had started, it took on a momentum of its own.
Martin: The whole point of the riots, somehow we all realized without having leadership, was to keep it going. This is what the police did not want, but the geography favoured us and we were like the American Indians. We knew the forests and the plains better than the police did, ‘cause we really knew the Village. Every time they chased us to try to break the riot up, we were able to evade them and come back to the same spot, because of the geography. It was also because we were attacked so much that we didn’t realize that we had become pretty well-trained in some aspects of being urban guerrillas. If we were attacked uptown, or going to the movies, we could always break up and find each other. Nine out of ten times, we’d find each other. This came in very handy for when we were dispersed and then we had to regroup.
The police inside the bar called for backup, and eventually it arrived in the form of the Tactical Police Force: riot officers with clubs, guns, helmets and shields
Martin: I think the most famous incident in the riots – and nothing is louder in a riot than silence – is the entire area went silent, except for this – there was a marching sound, a thumping sound, a storm-troop sound. The crowd opened up and there was a tactical police force, and they were really designed to fight real riots. The riots that were plaguing America all over the country. Righteously so, but nonetheless, they didn’t know what to do. Here, they confronted a bunch of queens, and we didn’t know what to do. Here they were, decked out in shields and head masks and everything you could think of. At that moment, we had to do something. There was always having to do something to keep the show going. We all linked arms and started singing “We are the Village girls, we keep our hair in curls,” and we did a Rockette kick. That shocked them. That forced them to charge, and they did charge, and they did break us up, but it was very, very campy. An amazing part of the riots was seeing the two groups looking at each other in absolute wonder.
John: They got the Tactical Patrol Force to come. It’s like today’s SWAT teams, et cetera, without the guns. It was the police who normally deal with rioting and political demonstrations, et cetera. A large crowd was watching. In that crowd were many gay and lesbian people, and allies. They consciously blocked the streets the first night and over the next few nights, preventing the police cars from getting down the streets to us.
In addition to the telephone interview we did with Martin, we went to the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding streets and had a really fascinating chat about what happened over those nights. One of the questions I asked him was if he saw people got injured. The street was quite busy so there is a fair bit of background noise, but hopefully it’s still comprehensible.
Martin: The trouble was that it was mostly friendly fire. We weren’t exactly baseball players, so when you saw a queen throw a brick, it didn’t land over there. It landed on some other queen’s head! And nobody minded. We did help bandage them, do whatever we could do for them. It was actually really funny. They were escorted out of there, tears in their eyes, they heard “Sorry!” No one was sorry. We stopped throwing bricks, and we threw orange peels and things like that, because we were just having fun. The cops weren’t hitting us, but we were certainly knocking these queens out like bowling pins!
On that first night of the riots, property damage was pretty much limited to the Stonewall Inn itself, as protesters broke all the windows, tried to batter down the door, set fire to it and tossed bottles of burning liquid, like improvised Molotov cocktails, inside, which the police had to keep putting out. Other than that people focused on resisting the police, and would reform kick lines and sing, wait till the police charged, then break at the last moment and reform elsewhere. Clashes continued until the small hours.
Martin: The riot kept going on. They didn’t catch us. It just died down. I remember switch to notepad sitting on a stoop and I saw a queen across another stoop, exhausted, head down, on her knees, and six feet away a cop, also exhausted, not bothering with her. The street was smoky from fires that were set, broken glass that was smashed, stores that were swiped. All this glass, like diamonds glittering the street. They took the effect of diamonds when the sun came up because it all glittered. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Sadly, it came out of such a tragic event. But nonetheless, I went home. I had thought we were going to pay dearly for this. I thought, we are going to just pay for this, but when I got home, my father congratulated me! It must have been on the radio. The next day word of news travelled throughout the city. The whole city knew, whether it was in the paper or not. This is the kind of thing that people were interested in, generally. And things had already changed.
Unlike a lot of LGBT people’s families at the time, Martin’s dad always supported him.
Martin: My dad was very supportive. My dad had seen the streets, knew the streets, and understood the streets. He was a cab driver since 1933. There was a cookie jar with cash in it, and he told me, “If you’re ever arrested,” ‘cause he was sure that I was going to get arrested, “just call, and here’s the money to get you out. I’ll leave it in here so you know that we have it.” So, he was very supportive, because I could go out, and if there was a confrontation with the police, I could be the least worried of all my friends because I had support when I got home. My dad said – you know, the terminology was different then – he said, “It’s about time you fags did something,” ‘cause he had seen all this oppression for all these decades, and never thought we were doing anything really wrong, since it was consensual and private and nobody’s business, he thought. He was an amazing man for that. As a working-class man, as a man who trained boxers and trained guard dogs. Very, very butch man. Was very sensitive to me. He never held it against me. He never thought it was all that, you know, being butch and being what society thinks a man should be. And I must say that the Stonewall riot was not an anti-straight riot. It was an anti-police riot. So gays, in their hearts, didn’t have it in for straight people. They really wanted a better world, even if it was just better for themselves at first. They were in the right trajectory, their hearts in the right place.
After that first night, Friday night, rioting continued until Wednesday night. Then, LGBT people who participate in the riot, as well as others started organising, forming the Gay Liberation Front and a protest on the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, which became Pride. All of that is in part 2. Our patreon supporters can listen to part 2 now. For everyone else it will be out next week.
Speaking with Martin, we put together a playlist of tracks which people were listening to at the Stonewall around that time, so give it a listen to get more of a feel for the time. Link to it in the show notes.
We’ve been working on these Stonewall episodes for several months. Putting together this podcast takes a lot of work, which may not always be obvious, so we thought we might explain a bit about how it works. At any one point we are working on several episodes at once. We spend lots of hours researching a subject, getting hold of and reading books, watching films and documentaries, and everything we can find online to read. Then it sometimes takes a long time to find people to interview. Some people are happy to be interviewed right away, but it can take us months to build a relationship with someone to the point where they are happy to go on the record and be interviewed. Then after the interviews the editing process begins, which can be really time-consuming. And we generally have to do 3 or 4 runs through before we get it right. Finally, we write our narrative, record that and do a final draft edit, which we then listen through and make final changes, which we then listen through one last time to doublecheck. Anyway it’s quite time-consuming all told. We are taking time out from our day jobs through 2019 to be able to devote enough time to this to try to do a good job. But ultimately we will only be able to keep dedicating this amount of time if we get more support from you, our listeners on Patreon. Patreon supporters get early access to episodes, bonus content, free and discounted merch, and more. So if you can, please consider supporting us at patreon.com/Working Class History. If you can’t, that’s cool too, please just give us a review on Apple podcasts, or share our episodes on social media so we can get more listeners.
Thanks so much to our existing patreon supporters for making this podcast possible.
Catch you next time
Hi and welcome back to part 2 of our podcast on the Stonewall riots and Pride. If you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, I’d go back and listen to that first.
After the first night of rioting, word got out of what had happened, partly through word-of-mouth in the gay community. So the following night, Saturday night (technically in the early hours of Sunday morning), an even bigger crowd gathered, and rioting reignited. Things died down a bit on Sunday night, but clashes continued on Monday and Tuesday, and there was a final confrontation, which again was a big battle, on the night of Wednesday 2-3 June.
Martha Shelley was actually in the Village on the Saturday night, and saw the clashes but didn’t realise what they were about.
Martha: It was Saturday night and there were two women from Boston who wanted to start a Daughters of Bilitis chapter, and they were visiting New York City. The women who were running DoB asked me to give these women a tour of Greenwich Village and so on. I took the women down to Greenwich Village and gave them a tour and that night, we passed by the Stonewall. I saw these young people throwing things at cops, and the women from Boston were taken aback, and they said, “What’s that?” I said, “That’s a riot. We have them all the time.” I thought it was an anti-war riot, which we did have all the time at that point. I didn’t realize it was a gay riot, or I would have stopped and participated.
Martin Boyce was one of those who felt compelled to go back the next night.
Martin: I went back because that was my hangout. One thing that I would like to explain is that, if anybody’s ever seen West Side Story, New York in the ‘60s was a city of turfs. Everybody had their turf that you didn’t go into very easily. Latin turf, Black turf, White ethnic turf. We were the only people who didn’t have a turf, except finally, Christopher Street finally did become our turf. And that invasion of our turf, invasion of the one place we didn’t have to look behind us, didn’t have look in front of us, didn’t have to worry because of the safety in numbers, the one street that was really open to us – and was a street, not an alley, not a park, not a highway – was invaded! The bar that was the most popular there, the bar that had an opening to living like other people and dancing, expressing ourselves like other people was gone. The reaction to the raid, which was a very foolish raid, because it was a raid in the middle of the city. Most raids occurred – and most bars were – on side streets that were not so available, or so easy to get to, or so noticeable, or so public. But this was right in the middle of the Village. It was worth the fight to hold onto some sort of dignity.
John O’Brien felt the same way.
John: The heterosexuals had every place else in the fucking world. Only street was Christopher Street, going down, and we were determined that that was our space. We weren’t going to give it up, so it became a turf battle. It involved many wars, because they identified Christopher Street as their street, too, for the same reason: because people had gotten tired, we were pushed into an area called the meat rack. These were areas where nobody wanted to go to. It was smelly and dirty, like the back of trucks that normally would be moving dead animals for the slaughter. These were the only places we had to socialize and to meet other people who were gay. We were in these areas that nobody else would want, and they were picking on us there, too. We just had it. There was no place else to go. We were going to stand there, no matter what happens.
As well as protesters, the police were also back the following night, but this time they were prepared, and they wanted revenge for their humiliation.
John: The violence got worse over the night, but we came back every night because it was the thing to do. It was the scene. It was the place that was happening. It was like going to a rock concert every night and waiting for something to happen. And every night something did happen, with the police insisting that it was their street, and that we get off the sidewalks, that we get off the streets, and they grabbing and pushing, and of course, that started the resentment and people started fighting back. The police’s patience was less. They knew there were gays down at the trucks and having sex in the bars, but they never knew that all these other people were gay, a lot of the time. They were frustrated with the amount of support. People gathering around constantly, not moving if they didn’t have to, and the police tried to push through these crowds, where the police got it. They figured it out. These were not just innocent people just happened to be standing there, blocking because of wanting to see what was going on, even though there were some of that because on Friday and Saturday night and Sunday, the Village was a place that people went to party. They would go out to bars, et cetera. They got that a lot of people there were opposed to the police. They were just freaking out over the whole thing, and getting more pissed off because they weren’t controlling the streets and the sidewalks, which they had been used to. When they told people to move, people would move. Here, they were not moving.
On these subsequent nights of rioting, there was also widespread property destruction
John: But there was a bank on the corner of Sheraton and Christopher, and there was another bank down on 6th Avenue and 8th Street, and those windows were smashed by people who were protesting the police raids and brutality. The rebellion grew in the area. It was no longer around Stonewall alone. It was all over Christopher Street, and up and down 8th Street and in the areas around it. It was mobile. Basically, the rebellion was us, and we were on the move.
While the fighting was ongoing, some rifts opened up within different elements of the gay community
John: There was a bar right around the corner called Julius which was fairly famous in the Village. That bar is a gay bar, always packed with these professional guys. When we were running around the streets, fighting the cops, and the cops were chasing us, people from Julius came out and grabbed some of our people to haul to the police. These are gay people. That was that mentality of being subservient to hetero laws, hetero rule and oppression, and accepting it to the point where you came out of a bar and you grabbed people who were challenging the police.
Some straight people also joined in the rioting against the police
John: David Van Ronk, who was a fairly well-known musician, who was an anarchist – and he was heterosexual! – was arrested that first night by the police. And a lot of the people who took part in the rebellion, I don’t know their sexuality. It was not Rock Hudson, and it was not Liberace. The people who fought the police were people who could not do anything about that, because they had nothing to lose. They didn’t have to worry about jobs, they didn’t have to worry about a future career, and who would find out, whatever. It was the street kids. Kids like me. A lot of the kids were sex workers. I was not. They were working-class kids, so mainly people of colour. Was about, I would say, half the crowd. The ones who were actually rebelling. Not the ones standing around. The ones standing around and observing, that crowd was mostly White. Professionals, et cetera. The actual troublemakers, the kids, the people fighting the cause were only working-class, with no jobs, generally. A few may have had jobs, but they joined in. Their jobs would probably be working in manual jobs, nothing in terms of any kind of professional occupation. You didn’t find them there. The first night had older people who were the ones who sat around on the benches who were substance users and homeless people of all ages, but there was a number of what I call older people. For me, then, I was twenty. Older people to me were in their thirties [laughs]. Among the gay kids, there were White kids, like Jackie Hormona, there were Black kids, like Marsha Johnson. But we didn’t allow people, generally, to photograph us. The big troublemakers like myself, we smashed cameras. There was none of that. What we were doing would get us into trouble, so there’s not much film footage of Stonewall, the rebellion. The photos that exist are mainly people who were posing for pictures who were not actually fighting the cops in those parts. There were a few kids who took pictures where kids that were actually fighting the cops were in also, but they certainly weren’t showing them. They were standing with a group of other kids, but the biggest fighters were not wanting to be seen by the cops, having evidence against them. We didn’t know if we were going to get arrested.
the term used by John just then, “lumpen” is short for “lumpen proletariat”, which is basically an old Marxist term for people who many didn’t see as being part of the working class as they were often long-term unemployed, sex workers and hustlers, that sort of thing. At WCH we see this group as being part of the working class, because we are all people who don’t own capital or property, and so have to sell our labour power, to survive. Dave Van Ronk, the folksinger mentioned by John, was arrested for punching a cop on the first night of the riot. His life was the loose basis for the Coen brothers film, Inside Llewellyn Davies. Sitting in Christopher Park the other week, just opposite the inn, Martin also told us about solidarity he witnessed from straight people:
Martin: There were two really big football-looking types. Two Black guys. Straight. Football types. They looked, and one of them said, “Hey, what’s going on here?” The other one said, “I don’t know.” “So let’s go in.” “Hey, they’re gay!” He said, “They are fighting the police!” And they went in, like tanks. You never can judge an individual. My father, who saw so much oppression from the cab, and these two guys saw someone fighting the police, and you’re allied now in that moment. You’re not just allied; you’re aligned at that point. They were good people, strong people, straight people who really had a heart and knew when to band together. So, there were straight people the first night that did help. To support, to cheer. And then later, later in the week, I was walking down my street, I was very loud and there was a sanitation worker. Big, strong guy throwing all the garbage in, and he looked at me, I said “Oh, God, he’s going to say something.” And he came with this look, and then he raised his fist! I couldn’t tell you the thrill. Such a man, who you would assume is so anti-gay, really recognizing something that was done. That was amazing to me. That’s when I knew the world was changing, and it changed. Amazing. Probably Italian, really rough guy. No one to play around with. I could have kissed him and he would have murdered me. But nonetheless, it was like “wow!”
Martin also told us about of some of his friends who participated:
Martin: Just the names of those fighters, like Dead Frog Jerry, Conga Woman, Mary Queen of the Scotch The Old Salty Dog Captain Faggot, Miss New Orleans, Black Twiggy, White Twiggy… These were queens of the John Waters syndrome if you want. This was the beginning in culture, too, of this world of John Waters, which was a world out there that he captured in part, but it was often conscious, it was happening at many different places. This new kind of humour was new to the world, it seemed. It was kind of sharp, the amazing cynical humour of those kinds of queens who were really fighting for sexual freedom, merely. All they really wanted was for the New York indifference to hit the police, and that would have been fine, but the police wouldn’t even give that much. It was exasperating.
After the first night of rioting, the demographics on later nights changed
John: The politicals came at the second night and third night and fourth and they had learned from the experiences of watching television and seeing how the police were abusing people in the civil rights demonstrations, the peace demonstrations, et cetera. They had that awareness at that level, but they didn’t have that experience except for a couple who had been in those movements. Fortunately, I was one of those people. Most of the kids that were on the streets on Stonewall were not even really drag queens. There was a little bit of makeup, couple of earrings. It was kind of punk, kind of in between. It was more genderbending. None of these people were wearing bridal gowns. All of these kids that took part in the Stonewall rebellion could not afford a bridal gown. They didn’t have enough money for that kind of stuff. Whether they were drag queens or female impersonators, none of these kids were into that. They couldn’t afford that. They didn’t have regular jobs to pay for that kind of dress. It was usually some slight makeup, rouge, earrings. Those are the kids that were into drag and it’s as far as it went. If you put on a dress, it was a second-hand thrift shop dress, ‘cause that’s all they could afford. They weren’t making big money as sex workers. They weren’t getting what women sex workers were getting because they were considered of less value as people, so they got paid less for it. If they made $5 for a trick, that was big money. These kids were all street kids. There was no living in a fancy apartment. It was not J Edgar Hoover, playing Mary. None of that. They didn’t have a place to sleep, a roof over their head, let alone a place to keep the wardrobe and the dresses. Almost all these kids were living on the street. If they found a hotel for the night, they were lucky. They would pick up a john, they would have sex with them in a hotel, which was not usually the case. Usually, these johns would go down to the piers or the parks and have a quickie and that was it. But when they were lucky, these kids could get a hotel room where they could sleep all night in the bed, even if they were dirty old hotels. They would bring their friends in. If they got the room, they’d invite their friends in to sleep, too, instead of on the sidewalk. Instead of in the alleyways. Instead of under the steps and on top of the steps, like most homeless people do today.
On the Wednesday night, large numbers of people turned out once more, many in response to the incredibly homophobic article which was written by the Village Voice journalists who were present on Friday night which was published earlier that day. In it there was liberal use of the “F” word, as well as snide comments about “limp wrists” and the like. As well as LGBTQ people, large numbers of others from the political left, the counterculture movement and the black power movement came to show solidarity.
Martha, who at the time was active in the Daughters of Bilitis lesbian civil rights group, read about the riots in the New York Times, and realised what she had witnessed on Saturday night, and thought there was an opportunity to build on what happened.
Martha: I called Jayden Powers – she was the one running Daughters of Bilitis – and I said “We have to have a protest march,” and she said “Well, if the Mattachine Society, the gay men’s organization, will co-sponsor it, we can go do that.” So, I go call the head of the Mattachine Society, a man called Dick Leitsch, and proposed the march. He didn’t seem terribly enthusiastic, but he said “Come to a meeting we’re having at town hall and propose it. We’ll see what the membership thinks.” I went to the meeting. There were 400 gay guys and me. Everybody was talking about the riots, of course. They had rented town hall to talk about it. It held the capacity of 400 and it was packed. I proposed the protest march and Dick was at the podium. He said, “How many people want to support this?” Every hand went up. Then he said, “Those people who want to organize it, meet in that corner after we’re finished talking.” I went to that corner, and there were a few guys there, and we talked, and agreed to meet at the Mattachine Society office to organize the protest march. Then, the next thing that happened was that we met at a place called Alternate U – alternate university and alternate Y-O-U, where they taught things like Marxism and karate and had various kinds of courses and groups that met that were basically radical socialists and stuff.
Other people who had been involved in the riots were also keen to capitalise on the momentum, including John, who was involved in Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, probably the most prominent new left organisation in the country at that time:
Jason: We put out a notice in Rat Newspaper, which was an SDS high school paper to organize a meeting at Alternate U. We gave out fliers for that meeting. Literature was given out, and we put an ad in Rat Newspaper. It was in the Rat. You can see it. I decided to be the chair and the reason was because we had an agenda to not just have a gripe session where we come together and complain, and nothing comes out of it. We wanted to form an organisation that’s ongoing because we feared and worried that people would just come and complain, and nothing would happen. There were about 30 people at the first meeting. It was the same number at the next meeting. There were a couple women at the first meeting, and then a couple more at the second. Then it grew, and more women came.
Martha: The meeting was those of us who were gay people in gay organisations, but were very much to the left, and left people who were gay but who had been encouraged or urged to keep their gayness secret within the left organisations because they didn’t want to be smeared as a bunch of communists and queers. Of course, the gay organisations wanted to be seen as middle-of-the-road Americans and not a bunch of commies [laughs] those of us who were commies and queer met together and formed the Gay Liberation Front and we had our march. It was just a month after the Stonewall riot, and we marched around Greenwich Village and ended up in Sheraton Square Park just across from the Stonewall Inn. Marty Robinson, who was part of Mattachine Society, jumped up on the water fountain as we had planned and made a speech. Then I made a speech. It was like one for the guys, one for the girls. At the end of it, I looked around and saw, I guess, a couple hundred – I’m not sure how many people – looking and expecting something, and I thought, “We’re not going to start a riot now.” So I said, “OK, I think that’s it for today. We’re going to go home in peace now, but this is just the beginning. This is not the end,” and that was how it was. It was the beginning of the Gay Liberation Front and our whole radical movement.
The GLF was to be a completely new type of organisation for the LGBT movement.
John: We changed that movement, the Gay Liberation Front. I was one of them. I chaired the first meeting. We were open to all ages. We didn’t care what you dressed as. We wanted people to come out of the closet. Stonewall, in the ‘60s, was what we came out of. It was a different attitude, for me, when I was fighting the cops, who had been messing us over. The Gay Liberation Front was organised as a basically progressive left group of gay people. It was multi-issue. We adapted our name to be in solidarity with the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, fighting US imperialism. That was a conscious decision on our part to do that. We had progressive politics, and something very, very important that we promoted – and it became the name of our newspaper – Come Out.
In a sea change from previously, the GLF wanted gay people to come out, and finally live their authentic lives out in the open.
John: ‘Til Stonewall, the homophile movement was advocating privacy and to be left alone. That’s all they wanted. They wanted the government to stop harassing them and to allow them to be themselves in privacy. We argued that people needed to come out of the closet. Until people knew us, we could not change people to learn how many of us there were. Our view of coming out of the closet was totally opposite of the homophile movement, which was privacy and secrecy. GLF created a support system. We supported each other and we said we were a community, and we identified with them, and we did something else: we identified who we were. We said we were gay. We took the word “gay,” because that’s what we called ourselves, and we made that name known to the mountains in Nepal, to the oceans around this world. Everybody knows what the word “gay” means now. That was an important historical point, that we created an identity, because until then, there was a small number of people who said they were homophiles, but nobody knew what the hell that was [laughs]. Homosexual, more people knew that, but a lot of people didn’t even know what that was. We got out the word, we got it from out of the closet, we got it out clearly, people’s identities and awareness that we were around.
Martha: The difference when we became the Gay Liberation Front was that we weren’t trying to assimilate. We weren’t trying to become part of an America, from the point of view of what was going on in Vietnam and civil rights and all of those things. We wanted to change America, not become a part of the way it was. We wanted to overturn the system. GLF, we had a platform of sorts. We made contacts and alliances with the Black Panthers, and also with a Puerto Rican liberation group called the Young Lords that were in Spanish Harlem in New York City. We made alliances with the feminist movement and with various socialist organisations. The idea was that we weren’t just focusing on civil rights for gay people; we were focusing on an entire social change in the United States.
In addition to organising protest activities, the GLF started to try to build a radical, gay, self-organised counterculture.
John: We approached the bars demanding that they put up bulletin boards, and that we could post literature on them. That also changed the gay community, because until then, not only the mob bars, but even the non-mob bars, none of them had space for putting up bulletin boards and allowing fliers to kept, et cetera. We saw these bars as places that we wanted to organise, and of course, there was a lot of resistance to that by the bars, as well as the customers. But what we did is we got a community and we started organising around having gay centres and taking care of each other. We needed to build that community, build organisations. Within a year, the whole previous homophile movement was no longer around. There were now a thousand gay groups around the world. So from a handful of a dozen, it because a thousand, and it’s grown since then. I remember I went to the last conference in the North American Conference for Homophile Organisations. I was elected as the last president of it, and my goal, being elected, was one thing: to never meet again [laughs]. That’s what I ran on. That’s what they elected me for. No more meetings of the Eastern Regional Conference for Homophile Organisations were held. That’s what we did. We put an end to the homophile movement consciously, deliberately. We didn’t want the assimilationist, accommodation, acceptance level. That’s what GLF did. It got into urging people to come out of the closet, which was unheard of. Nobody has ever advocated that before. Never. Never throughout the entire history of the gay movement. Nobody was ever advocating that people should come out. The Gay Liberation movement’s ideas spread. Publications were coming out more, people’s attitudes were changing, because we got in people’s faces. We wouldn’t accept it, what they were doing. We changed a lot of things, as you may have recognized over the years. We did not have a name for when we first started. There was a group of us, and apparently, we came from different places. There was other people who were with Mattachine, but I was with a group that was on the street with the kids. A couple of us were political, like Bill Casper and myself, who were in SDS.
Martha: What we did was form different committees that did different things. I was part of a group that did the newspaper, Come Out. I typeset it in the typesetting office I worked at. I went in there at night and typeset it. I wrote articles for it. Other people did the layout and did the artwork. That was what I did, and I sold it on the streets. Other people ran dances for gay dancers at Alternate U, and that was kind of an alternate to the Mafia, too. You didn’t have to go to the gay bars. You could go to these dances. Instead of buying watered-down drinks, you could buy a beer, or a soda, or nothing if you didn’t want to buy a drink, and dance with people, and you didn’t have to pay extra to get in. One night, some of the Mafia people showed up and we had to face them down. They were trying to be threatening, but they actually ended up going away [laughs]. They weren’t happy because we were taking business away from them. We also went on demonstrations one time or another. There would be peace demonstrations, and there was a peace march that was covered by the New York Post, which was a left-wing paper at the time, and now, it’s an extreme right-wing paper. Pete Hamill, who was one of their columnists, referred to us as the slim-waisted creeps of the Gay Liberation Front [laughs]. He was a “liberal,” but when it came to sexual politics, he was still a troglodyte.
Some other liberals who didn’t approve of the GLF was the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU
John: I went to the ACLU in New York, asking them to please provide legal observers, and they said they wouldn’t, because it was a criminal issue, not a civil liberties issue. When I went to the National Lawyers’ Guild, which was a left-wing legal group, Klaus Lamont who headed it, a big homophobe said “Absolutely not. We won’t defend perverts.” The reason that’s important is because when we did the Gay Liberation Front, if you a lawyer, you would be disbarred if you were known to be gay or lesbian. The American Bar Association had it as a rule that you could not be gay or lesbian and practice law.
On the other side of the law, due to the stranglehold organised crime had on gay bars, militant gay activism inevitably led to conflict with the Mafia. One example of this was following an incident in a mob-run lesbian bar:
Martha: There were a couple of women dancing and a couple of straight guys, businessmen, came in for a drink. They were not happy with these two women dancing together, so they demanded to cut in and dance with the women, and the women didn’t want to, and one of them punched one of the women and knocked her to the ground, and then the guys went out. We were really upset, because there were these women in this bar who were paying extra to be in a Mafia bar, and the Mafia guys weren’t even protecting them. So, a bunch of Gay Liberation Front people, me included, men and women, went to the bar one evening and we put on the jukebox, we danced around, we did not buy drinks. We danced in circles rather than as couples, then I was selected by the group to be the spokesperson. I went up to these two big guys – now, I’m a short person. I think I was 5’4” at the time and I’ve shrunk a bit in my old age – and I went up to them and I told them why we were doing what we were doing. They were not happy, because we weren’t buying drinks or anything. They were, I guess, scared that we were going to break up the place. They scowled at me and said, “Do you know who we are?” I said, “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care. We are the Gay Liberation Front.” Then I walked away. Of course, I was scared. I was scared they were going to do some Al Capone thing and take out machine guns and shoot us. I had no idea what they were going to do and they had no idea what we were going to do. I think that was successful because we never heard about women having trouble in that bar again.
Now the term “intersectionality” many people used today to describe the connections between different types of exploitation and oppression didn’t exist back then, but the GLF fully embraced an intersectional approach, making links with other social movements:
Martha: We demonstrated for the Black Panther when they were in jail. We demonstrated for Angela Davis when she was in the Women’s House of Detention. When any gay person was harassed, there was this guy, Diego Vernales, who was arrested during some police raid and he was terrified because he was here illegally and jumped out of a police department window and ended up impaled on a fence and in the hospital. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but we had a huge demonstration about that.
And GLF members didn’t just join these other movements uncritically, they fought to change them, like for example the mainstream feminist and black power movements:
Martha: There was this women’s organisation called the National Organisation for Women, which started well before Gay Liberation Front. Betty Friedan started it. It continues to this day. It’s still an organization. They were very uptight about lesbians. Betty Friedan certainly was. She called us “the lavender menace.” We would essentially tar the feminist movement by having everyone say, “Oh, they’re lesbians, they hate men, that’s why they’re feminists.” Lesbians didn’t feel welcome in the National Organisation for Women, although some of us were there. They were having a conference at a public school in New York City. They had rented it on a weekend. It was called the Second Congress to Unite Women. A group of us went in there, scouted the thing around, and had printed T-shirts that said “lavender menace,” and we made some signs, and we put the T-shirts on and then other shirts on top of it, went into the meeting, and at one point, one of the women went behind the auditorium where the light switches were and doused the lights and threw the room into darkness. When that happened, those of us who were part of the Lavender Menace Action who were members of the Radical Lesbians, an offshoot of the Gay Liberation Front, took off the outer shirts, and there we were with our “lavender menace” T-shirts. Some people posted signs on the walls, funny signs like “Take a lesbian to lunch,” “Lavender gang loves you,” et cetera. As soon as the lights were on, and there we were in our “lavender menace” T-shirts, I jumped up on the stage, where there was a group of women who were a panel discussion group, and they were a Black woman, and a union woman, and one representing this organisation and one representing that. I said, “Here we are. We have not been asked to be part of this discussion. The question is, do you want to go on with the panel as it is, or do you want to hear from us?” I put that question to the entire audience, and they all voted that they wanted to hear from us. We spoke about what it was like being lesbians and feminists. That changed the National Organisation for Women, which then took up the cause of lesbian rights, too. The same thing happened when there was a Black Panther convention – and I don’t remember the name of it because I wasn’t there, but I did hear about it afterwards – where gay people went to the Black Panther convention to convince the Panthers to change their position on homosexuality.
Out of GLF, numerous other groups emerged. Some of them came about from splits by people who supported LGBT rights but not necessarily its revolutionary objectives. But they still maintained the spirit of direct action and militancy:
Martha: There was one group that split off from Gay Liberation Front called Gay Activists’ Alliance, and they were a civil rights organisation for gay people, but what they did was instead of quietly petitioning, they would go to city council meetings and demonstrate. The tactics had changed for them, but the long-term goal was still the same: change the politics just for gay people. They weren’t interested in changing it for everybody.
The atmosphere and attitude of the GLF was totally different to the pre-Stonewall homophile movement. And the GLF basically revolutionised the whole movement:
Martha: There was a conference – I think it was again in Philadelphia – the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organisations, which is what the assimilationist gay groups called themselves. There was the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society representatives. There were representatives of little groups that consisted of maybe two people, a gay couple and maybe a graph machine [laughs]. They all met to talk about whatever it was. Gay Liberation Front sent people, too, including me. I was both a member of Daughters of Bilitis and the Gay Liberation Front. Two of my friends, one of whom had been my lover, were representing Daughters of Bilitis. Gay Liberation Front put forth a platform and asked the conference to endorse it. It was the right of two consenting adults to have sex with whoever of their own choosing, the right to inject the drugs of their choice – this was in the “marijuana is bad” kind of society, where it was all illegal – there was the right to control their own body, which was the basic thing, the right to not be drafted to be sent overseas to get your ass shot or kill somebody else, and then there was the right to abortion and control of your sexuality if you’re a female. One of the little gay organisation guys – I guess it was him and his partner – he was a Catholic. He was for gay rights, but he was not for women’s rights in terms of abortion. He got up and made a speech – an anti-abortion speech. I said, “He couldn’t possibly support that,” blah, blah, blah. The two women from Daughters of Bilitis jumped up in fury. They were older women, and one of them had been raped and had an abortion when she was younger. That was the one who had been my lover. They raised hell. As a result, the conference voted to endorse the entire Gay Liberation Front platform. The guys particularly didn’t want to alienate women. Some of us had had abortions or were lovers with people who had abortions or knew people who had abortions. The pressure was on. You’re either for women’s rights or you’re not. That was, I thought, an important stage in connecting the gay movement with feminism.
John: They never said they were gay, and all that was in there was a hundred guys packed in together. Not a woman in place [laughs]. That’s what it was. That reflects today’s politics of people looking to assimilate, accommodate. Gay pride at the Pentagon. Let’s all be in the FBI and the CIA. We’re more pro-patriotic than anybody! We’re more pro-war, we’re more whatever. They’re all trying to be accepted by the very worst, because the history of gay people is that many of our people, desperately looking for acceptance, go to the very worst enemies to get identity and support from. Our view was, we saw this society as bad. Full of wrongs. Totally hypocritical and lacking any kind of value. We didn’t want that society. We rejected that society. We wanted to end that society. What happened is that people join the Gay Liberation Front Meetings, a lot of them didn’t understand where we were at, and they just came there looking for friendship and friends and stuff. They watered down the politics. All they wanted was a safe space. Living with feminists, as I called it where basically, they wanted shelter and they were scared to hell of people like me who still wanted to go out and have demonstrations and protest and take on the establishment. They wanted, instead, just the parties, the dances. Now, I was on the dance committee for GLF because I was on the board of Alternate U. That’s where we raised our money. But I saw it as a money-maker to pay for our political activities, not as a place for hiding [laughs]. So, a division occurred in the GLF between the people who wanted to maintain a political focus and those who were looking for a family.
The Stonewall Rebellion led directly to the creation of the GLF. But the most crucial thing which led to its place in history being recognised was the decision by a number of LGBT people in New York City to hold a commemorative protest on its anniversary the following year
John: Craig Roswell is the one that came up with the idea to have an anniversary celebration for the Stonewall rebellion. Now, Craig was not a left-winger at all. He was the owner of the Oscar Wilde Book Shop, but he was a militant. Had organised demonstrations for years before Stonewall, and was looked down upon by a lot of the homophiles because he was so “militant,” wanting gay power and all. He suggested that we have a march to commemorate the rebellion, which, of course, horrified Mattachine and the homophiles who, for respectability, didn’t want anything to do with Stonewall. They thought that was a terrible thing that happened. It set them back years, their work with the police department. We didn’t have any permits, of course. The police refused to let us march. We assembled on Christopher Street in front of the Stonewall. The plan was to march up 6th Avenue to go into Central Park. Most of us didn’t think we’d get there. The police refused to allow us to march. People don’t know this. They put up wooden police barricades across Christopher Street that goes into 6th Avenue. They blocked it off. What we did was march the other way. We went up 7th Avenue, and then down 10th Street, and then got back on 6th Avenue and marched north. We physically fought and pushed against the police at 14th Street, and 23rd Street, and 34th Street to keep marching because the cops didn’t want us to march. We didn’t have permits. They weren’t going to give a bunch of faggots permits to be marching over a rebellion against the police.
Martin went to the march with his Puerto Rican friend, Bertie Rivera
Martin: The clinching thing was not the riot, to me. It was the first march when we clinched Pride. They said it was going to be a march, and I went with Bernie, and there weren’t very many of us. I was very disappointed. We didn’t 5th Avenue; we got a small section of 6th Avenue. We were supposed to march to the park, and I had imagined there was going to be a lot of people, and there weren’t, so we were starting already to call it already the first run. We were talking one year later, there was going to be a march, word of mouth. The people that formed now are very well-known, but we didn’t know them then. It was just that the word of mouth occurred. We did assemble. We did start the march. It was lonely at first. We were told to go single-file to stretch us out a little more. I was very nervous. It was problematical because the city was very violent at the time. That same year with Kent State, and there was a riot of the hard hats against the hippies and peace lovers. We didn’t know what to expect. It was a very brave thing to do, but it was an amazing thing because as it kept going, it became thicker. All of a sudden, there were people on each side of me. You could see – it was an amazing thing – as you looked up at windows, just occasionally, you could see someone giving their full support. There was a maid. Sometimes a worker. Sometimes they lived in the area with their fists raised. You could see individuals shouting out. They thought that we were right. It wasn’t the majority, but it was enough to make my heart smile. I remember this one very good-looking guy, blond and gorgeous, it looked like he was fighting with himself. He was just watching us. He looked weird. He was fighting with his desire to join us, and he broke through. He jumped the line and came in with us and grabbed somebody’s arm and they were marching. It was amazing. Then, the crowd kept growing, and growing. By the time we were into the 50s, it was quite a crowd. Then, around 57th Street, the police told us to stop. We couldn’t move anymore. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “After all this, you’re going to stop us from going to the park?” He said, “I’m not stopping you from going to the park. There’s too many of you. You have to go in and wait. Some of you have to wait.” I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. Sure enough, when I went in, the park was covered with a multitude of gay people. It was the most beautiful thing. On top of this hill was this Latin drag queen or transvestite, doing this amazing dance that really did represent freedom. First time I really understood modern dance. She expressed the whole thing, as we all looked up and watched her. It was an amazing event, because what started out as a question mark in the Village ended up as an exclamation point, as I would say, in the park. After that, there was Pride.
Martha: I remember marching and I remember being in Central Park. I remember these hordes and hordes of people, all dressed differently, and there was one guy who was dressed in a white sheet. Not like a Ku Klux Klansman, but sort of like a bedsheet was wrapped around his head, and he had an enema bag taped to his sheet and a sign that said “Penn Enema Club.” That was his sexuality. He liked to get enemas. We looked at him like he was weird, but then one of my friends shrugged her shoulders and said “Well, it’s all-inclusive. We’re all here, however weird we are.” I guess that was kind of the feeling. No matter who you are, however weird, however different, you were welcome here and you’ll be treated with respect.
John: We amazed ourselves because we thought there’d be, if we were lucky, a couple hundred, and there was a couple thousand with us. A lot of people walking on the sidewalk in support, who didn’t have the guts to get out on the street. When we got to Central Park, we went up to the Sheep Meadow, the Great Lawn, and we had a little get-together there. Nobody had speakers. We didn’t have any rallies. We didn’t think we were going to get there! There was no speakers at the end. It was just people coming together and we were delighted that there were several thousand of us! Several thousand! Way beyond anything we expected. It was an instantaneous success. In fact, Mattachine organised a counter-picnic in New Jersey to discourage people! This is New York Mattachine. Now, Washington, D.C. Mattachine with Frank Kameny, he joined our march. Barbara Giddings joined our march. People who were homophiles, but recognized how much better it is with our approach than that approach. Imagine organising a counter-picnic in New Jersey so that your members would be kept away from those militants and troublemakers. Because we would not accept anything less than full respect and rights, we pushed against the cops to get up the street.
Annual commemorations continued and spread to more and more cities around the world, and through the 1980s and 90s the term “gay pride” and “pride” became more commonly used than the original language like “gay freedom” or “gay liberation”. Now many places observe Pride month in June, a month long celebration of LGBTQ people, history and culture, usually culminating in a Pride parade or demonstration around the anniversary of the first night of the Stonewall riots. Pride in London in 1984 and 1985 came to be really important both in the great miners strike that year, and in the gay liberation movement in UK. Our next 3 episodes are going to be about that. And In 2018, Pride finally spread to every continent, with LGBT workers on Antarctica organising an event.
John thinks that there is an important lesson to be learned from all his experiences at this time:
John: There needs to be an independent LGBT movement because of corporate interests who oppose independent movements, and they want to destroy them, or disable them, make them ineffective. It’s very important for those forces that they subvert and take over and eventually destroy independent movements. Having an independent, grassroots, democratic-based movement of self-empowerment is very important to the future of gay and lesbian people. For all people, in fact.
When we met up with Martin at the Stonewall to talk some more, I asked if he was still in touch with any of his old friends from those days.
Martin: Half those queens died by 1975 from drugs, and the other half died mostly from AIDS. There are very few left. That’s why I started speaking. I never spoke about Stonewall ten years ago because I didn’t realize it was my duty because there’s so few left. It was very tragic. They had tragic lives. There was no happy ending to them, not at all. And yet, look what they did. It’s global now. It’s amazing. You should see these queens. They would bring a tear to your eyes. How mistreated, how miserable their life was. How poor. How off the cuff, living day to day, meal to meal, trying to find a place to sleep that night, sleeping with someone just so you could. It was not a good life.
Tragically many activists from those days are now no longer with us. Marsha P Johnson herself was found dead in the Hudson River shortly after pride in 1992. While she had a massive head wound, police ruled her death a suicide, despite all who knew her telling police she was not suicidal. It took until 2012 for activists to pressure police into reopening the case as a possible homicide. But today her death still remains a mystery.
Looking back now, 50 years on, Martin reflects on what that period meant for him
Martin: We had changed. Everything had changed for gay people already in 1969. If you look at the gay press, it had changed completely by the end of 1969. Gay pulp fiction changed by 1969. We had all changed. We just didn’t know it. What we’re really trying to think about now, we didn’t think about it at first. It was just the beginning. We didn’t dwell on it. There was so many issues to deal with in the ‘70s that Stonewall wasn’t, I don’t think, appreciated the way it is now. Now I can see myself how amazing this thing was. Then, to me, it was just a riot that put us on the map. We were different. Gay people were different. Everyone was different. Everything that came around, even the winning of hearts and minds, only could have been done because gay people were different. We were all different the next day. We didn’t even know it. That’s what changed everything. I went to school the next week and every paper I did was gay. I mean, some of them were challenged by the professors. I insisted, that’s what I did, and everybody else did it their way. We all pushed forwards in the smallest ways, but it meant much more for the larger picture. The ‘70s became interesting. All of a sudden, there were gay patrols to stop gay-bashing, which was amazing. Lots of posters and signs announcing lots of things. Gay news, not just word of mouth anymore – which was often very accurate, but now it was in print. Something was going on. Every month added something. It was too much to take in, too much to analyse, so I think now that all these years have passed, it’s easier and better to analyse it, because it’s the only time you could do it. The worst thing back then was not only to be oppressed, but to be ignored. That can’t happen now.
For Martha, that time period marked a shift from timidity to pride, both in the LGBT community and in herself
Martha: The difference, I think, was that we did develop pride. Instead of feeling cowed and feeling like we were less than, ‘cause with that kind of message happening all throughout society, you can’t help but internalise it. It was the beginning of shaking that off, of beginning to feel like we’re OK, we’re just as good as anyone else, and we have the right to be who we are. And that made a huge difference. That did mean pride. That did mean a certain confidence in what we did. For me, I know I went through that, too. I stopped trying, in some ways, to assimilate. I had been trying to relate to guys sexually, and it never really worked. It worked in the sense that I was able to enjoy the sex, but I never fell in love with a guy, and that’s a huge difference. With a woman, I would fall in love and feel emotional passion, not just sexual pleasure. After Stonewall, it was like, “I’m not even going to bother to try. I don’t care anymore. I don’t care what the straight world thinks.” It kind of freed me to be angry, and use the anger to try to change the world in ways I hadn’t before.
For John, confronting the police was something he had done before, but at Stonewall, everything was different
John: I was in heaven fighting the cops and having other gay people out there, too, doing it. It wasn’t a new experience for me, dealing with the cops. What was a new experience was seeing other gay people joining and doing the same thing. That, I’d never seen. I’d never experienced that camaraderie. I’d never seen gay people standing up instead of being victims. The hurt look ended that night. The acceptance of being repressed, of being abused, that ended the first night of Stonewall. That’s why Stonewall’s important. It’s not only because we formed the Gay Liberation Front, which was absolutely essential. Stonewall would have been nothing if we didn’t do two things. One, form the Gay Liberation Front. Two, hold a march on the anniversary of it, which became the Pride marches worldwide.
Martha: We have won, at least temporarily, because with the current administration and the backlash, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. You never do. We’ve won gay marriage in this country and in a lot of other countries. We’ve [laughs] won the right to join the military openly and go kill other people at the behest of our corporations. I am not thrilled about that. We have won certain protections depending on what part of the country you live in. We don’t have national equal rights yet, but what we didn’t get, and what I feel is now the biggest and most important thing: we did not overturn the empire. We did not overturn the capitalist system, and it’s gotten a lot worse, as you know, the economic inequality. We are living in an empire that continues to kill people around the world en masse. I have been writing articles and blog posts about what the empire has done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and now what we’re doing in Venezuela. We didn’t change that. And to me, right now, that’s the most important thing.
While huge improvements in LGBT rights have been won in recent decades, there is still a long way to go until everyone is free to have the absolute most basic human there is, of just being who they are. And of course any type of discrimination is also a class issue, because if you’re not rich, you are always more at risk, for example from dismissal or mistreatment by your employer. In the US, there is still no federal prohibition of discrimination against LGBT people, although as we finish this episode the US Supreme Court is currently considering this. But considering its conservative bias it is probably unlikely to do so. Trans people, especially trans women of colour, continue to be at risk of extreme violence and murder. And murderers of LGBTQ people continue to get acquitted or get reduced punishments because of gay or trans panic defences. Around the world, only around 25 countries recognise same-sex marriages, while homosexuality is illegal in 72 countries, and subject to the death penalty in 14. And things aren’t getting better everywhere. Brunei only just introduced the death penalty by stoning for homosexuality, and the British territory of Bermuda became the first place to repeal gay marriage in a measure recently signed into law by the British Governor John Rankin. Meanwhile a backlash against trans rights is growing, aided by the mainstream media, a re-emboldened extreme right, and shamefully many of those who consider themselves feminists, socialists and in the UK at least, even some anarchists. But Martha takes hope in what happened at Stonewall:
Martha: It is possible. It did happen, that a small group of ordinary, working-class people could change the world, if you’re determined and you’re willing to take the risks. We did, and it’s possible to do that now. We just have to keep doing it, and I hope young people will continue to do it, and I am inspired by some of them, like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the environmentalist, or Asmaa Mahouz in Egypt, who started that that Arab Spring. Unfortunately, I believe she is currently under house arrest and the Arab Spring got squashed, but they made a difference and it doesn’t mean that if you try, you’re guaranteed victory, but sometimes you are, and you have to take that chance.
… And of course if you don’t fight, you are always guaranteed to lose.
That thought brings us to the end of our episodes on Stonewall, the GLF and pride. We hope you enjoyed them, at least half as much as we enjoyed speaking with John, Martha and Martin. They told us a lot of really fascinating stuff which we couldn’t fit into the main episodes, so we have put some of it into a bonus episode for our patreon supporters.
You too can support us on patreon from as little as US$2 per month, and get benefits like exclusive early access to episodes, bonus audio, free and discounted merch and more. Were are spending loads more time on our podcast through 2019, taking time out from our day jobs. But this will only really be sustainable beyond that if we get more support from our listeners on patreon. You can find out more and signup at patreon.com/Working Class History. If you can’t afford to support us, that’s totally fine. Instead please give us a review on Apple podcasts, share our episodes on social media or tell your friends about us.
As always, we’ve got more information, photos and the like of our interviewees and some of the events we’ve spoken about on our website, workingclasshistory.com, and linked to in the show notes.
John O’Brien is still as active as ever, doing a lot of work in radical history, and has amassed a collection of ¼ of a million items related to social movements around the world. John is always looking for more items for his collection, as well as financial contributions at any offers of space to store or display the items. So if you can assist with any of this, drop us an email on email@example.com and we will put you in touch.
You can see Martha’s writings, and buy her books, including her forthcoming novel, a Meteor Shower, the 3rd book in a historical fiction trilogy about the ancient Middle, on her website, link in the show notes.
We have produced some Stonewall 50th anniversary merch to help support our work, as well as Johns and Martha’s, so check that out on our website, linked to in the show notes.
As always, thank you so much to all of our patrons, whose generous support enables us to keep making this podcast and running WCH.
Catch you next time