There had been similar incidents in the past, especially in California. The gays and lesbians from the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Billitis had already resisted state and police repression. They were fired solely for being homosexual, arrested in bars and in public meeting places, were not allowed to be served in cafés and bars, and doctors declared them “sick and deviant.” Homosexuals were often troubled because of their unwanted sexual preference and suffered from what is now called self-hatred. Edmund White in “The Stonewall Reader,” for instance, writes that he visited a shrink “to go straight,” which is something many people did. Martin Duberman even wrote a book about not wanting to be gay with Cures (1991).
There is much uncertainty about the events that took place around the Stonewall Inn. Who participated in the riots? Caucasian or African-American gays, lesbians or transvestites? Probably more young gays than transvestites and lesbians; they were white, Latino and black and not “upstanding citizens,” nor old. Although more queers were involved than dikes or transsexuals, the emphasis in New York was put on the latter groups, as male-female relationships were evened out, which in turn led to historic misrepresentation.
What were the consequences of these riots? On this, there is more unanimity: it was the move from “homosexual” (medical) to “gay” (cultural and political), from in to out of the closet. It was the start of a new phase in the fight for gay rights: the abolition of anti-gay laws and schemes, a world that changed from straight to gay and other sexual colors, a sense of sexual freedom. All the obstacles that existed for gays and lesbians at work, in the family, with housing, with friends, with sexual contacts, in what they wrote and read, slowly disappeared. A new world emerged, as things in present time are changing with more attention paid to gender identities than to sexual opportunities.
It was a joyous occasion to be at the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York. At its twenty-fifth anniversary, there was one exposition at the New York Public Library alongside a catalogue, “Becoming Visible: The Legacy of Stonewall” (1998) by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman. Now, there were many exhibitions to visit and books to read on the subject. You saw rainbows everyone you looked: flags at gay and straight cafés, bars and restaurants, on houses, at companies, on the metro, people waved them, and buildings were illuminated in rainbow colors. There was speculation about how many million people had come to New York. Two, three, four or more?
The parade through the major avenues lasted at least ten hours. The Gay Krant estimates that there were 150,000 participants and millions of spectators. There were more parades by the way: in Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, on Staten Island; earlier, there were parades of radical dikes and transvestites, with women for abortion, gays against guns, others for more culture and better sex and gender education, and people who protested against separating parents and children at immigration. Loud music, advertising and large companies were not allowed by left and queer activists.
The books and exhibitions in the New York museums were a pleasant and educational experience. They were about the Stonewall Inn as a revolution and a fight for sexual liberation from the coercion that cops, doctors, pastors, and parents imposed on what you were or were not allowed to be or do. They were norms that gays imposed on themselves when they were not yet “gay” and self-conscious.
This revolution, from what others enforce to what you yourself make of it, is a profound one that is still not complete. Stonewall was a renewal of ideas and words: homosexuals (too medical) became gays, dykes, faggots, and sissies. It was comparable with the nineteenth century, when sodomites, pederasts and sapphists switched to new terms, such as homosexual, uranian or sexually inverted. They were no longer defined by the love of boys or anal preferences, no longer by Greek and Christian models.
This became even more explicit in the attention given to Walt Whitman (born two hundred years ago) who used words such as “male adhesiveness” or “boy lover”. At an exhibition they showed his correspondence with John Addington Symonds, who in 1890 asked him cautiously about the homoerotic content of his poems, which Whitman sharply denied: he sharply rejected such a morbid explanation and said he had six children (but that was not proof, as Symonds could say the same as he had four ...). Of those six, no trace has ever been found.
Although it was called a World Pride and everyone pretty much believed in the example that the Stonewall Riots set for the gay rights movement elsewhere, there was virtually no attention given in New York to other movements: not to those in Germany, which had a gay movement well before the United States, nor the Netherlands, which was a dozen years ahead of the USA with same-sex marriage, or other countries that meant more to trans people.
There was a small exposition at the Bowery near China Town about Taiwan, where they have successfully campaigned for gay rights and introduced same-sex marriage, unlike China. There was even a ridiculous book, “The Book of Pride: LGBTQ Heroes Who Changed the World” by Mason Funk (HaperOne), with only Americans in it – mostly people I had never heard of: no Socrates or Plato, no Sade, Wilde, Cavafy, Gide or Proust, no Ulrichs or Hirschfeld, no Simone de Beauvoir or Foucault.
It was not just the United States against the world, it was also the West (California) against New York in the East. There had previously been riots and trouble on the other side of the country at queer pubs. The very first gay movement, the Mattachine Society (founded by Harry Hay, Los Angeles 1950) and the lesbian Daughters of Billitis (DOB, San Francisco 1955) were founded in California. The Society for Human Rights (Chicago, 1923) was founded by Henry Gerber, a German immigrant who was inspired by Magnus Hirschfeld (a fellow German).
They all published gay magazines, Gerber “Friendship and Freedom,” the Mattachine a review with the same name, and later, at Jim Kepner’s suggestion, “One Magazine” (1953), and the founders of DOB, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, “The Ladder.” The question remains why Stonewall became so important even though it was later and little attention was paid to what happened elsewhere in the country. The answer: because the news media were in New York! That is why they had little regard for what was happening elsewhere in the USA or the world.
Another question was how to describe the events: were they riots, or was it an uprising or a revolution? The word “riots” suggests an ugly side of events, by using “revolution” one soon thinks of civil rights, the French revolution and the storming of the Bastille in 1789, although the role of convicted sodomite D.A.F. de Sade, who defended the citizens from the Bastille and wrote about gay rights, was completely forgotten. The comparison with the unrest among African-Americans (Black Power), among women, among students (SDS, Students for a Democratic Society) and with actions against the war in Vietnam was more appropriate: all violent and harsh police brutality, with fatalities at times.
As far as gay riots are concerned, fewer people were killed as far as I know, but it was certainly a sexual revolution because of the changes that took place in the context of sex and gender. Is it not true that GLBTI people nowadays are still murdered in cruising areas, in families, in prisons and elsewhere, like Harvey Milk in politics, or commit suicide? Interesting is a comparison in terms of the leaders of the gay, student, women’s and black movements.
We know the leaders of the black and women’s movements (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis; Shulamith Firestone, Susan Sontag, Jill Johnston, and in the Netherlands Joke Smit, Hedy d’Ancona and Anja Meulenbelt; Rudi Dutschke and Daniël Cohn-Bendit, as well as Ton Regtien or “provo” Roel van Duijn).
The gay activists are not such known political animals, perhaps Harvey Milk, Harry Hay or Larry Kramer are an exception, but rather artists and writers, such as Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Wojnarowicz, Edmund White or Andrew Holleran. In the Netherlands, were perhaps the ambivalent authors Gerard Reve and Frans Kellendonk or the “proper gentleman” Nico Engelschman / Bob Angelo and Benno Premsela the stars of the golden 1960s? Or the “in your face” dikes, such as Blaman, Burnier or Grewel?
1969 was an important year, certainly in the United States and it is right that it is well celebrated, but it is a single step in American history where there had been gay movements for a long time and their national poet had already sung the praise of male love a century earlier. And it does too little justice to what happened in Europe earlier, such as the abolition of laws against sodomy, which happened with a delay of two hundred years in the USA (not in 1791, as in France, but in 2003).
It is a great success that this anti-gay law was abolished, from France and the Netherlands to the entire EU, the USA, and India, and that it came up for discussion elsewhere. Unfortunately, they are still in place in many countries. Some countries even want to reintroduce such legislation, for instance the Russian Federation, Turkey and Brazil. There and in other countries there are other laws that stand in the way of sexual freedom, such as bans on public sex, on sex work or around age limits, or there are restrictions in place, such as on sex and gender education.
There are many prejudices that not only citizens but also the police and legislators suffer from, making it difficult to show sexual behavior that people do not consider “normal,” for instance sex with animals (which are massively murdered for the meat industry but sex, no way), with multiple people, around scat and kinky sex and so on. In the Netherlands, education about paedophilia, sadomasochism and bestiality is explicitly forbidden, no matter how interesting it would be to teach about children and sex, or that love and eroticism are not only pleasure but also pain. The word perverse is out of fashion, but the prejudices that exist about it unfortunately are still present. GLBT rights are being fought for, but how many other people deserve a better and freer sex life? How inclusive are the men and women with whom it all began at the time?
Read “The Stonewall Reader” from the New York Public Library (edited by Jason Baumann, preface Edmund White; Penguin Books) or “In Search of Stonewall: Best Essays” from “The Gay & Lesbian Review,” edited by Richard Scheider (G&LR Books), both 2019.
And about the piers, the sex and art in abandoned sheds and offices along the Hudson: “Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront” by Jonathan Weinberg (Penn State University Press) with interesting photos by Alvin Baltrop, Leonard Fink, David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Tress, Peter Hujar, Andreas Sterzing, and others.
photos Mattias Duyves